http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/w ... 686784.eceFrom The Sunday TimesApril 22, 2007
When Cho killed 32 people at Virginia Tech, the horrific slaughter revealed not only the poisons lurking in popular culture but the crisis of young males in a feminised society, says Sarah Baxter
Just before 5am on Monday, April 16, Cho Seung-hui got out of bed and walked to his computer. Perhaps he fiddled with his rambling 1,800-word self-portrait of a killer as the insults and grievances that he had been nursing for years coursed through his head.
High on his list were his classmates from Westfield high school, who jeered at him to â€œgo back to Chinaâ€ without bothering to check his nationality. Two of them â€" who happened to attend Virginia Tech â€" were going to pay later that day. Then there were the college girls who reported him to the police for stalking and got him carted off to mental hospital after he sent them shy love messages full of yearning.
â€œBy a name, I know not how to tell who I am,â€ he had written to one of them. He understood literature, he could have thought, while they didnâ€™t have the brains to recognise that he was quoting Shakespeareâ€™s Romeo and Juliet. Spurned by them, he had to make do with a fantasy girlfriend, a supermodel who called him â€œSpankyâ€.
On the way to the bathroom Cho bumped into his roommate Karan Grewal. As usual, Cho didnâ€™t try to speak to him or even nod hello. He swallowed his antidepressants, put on his contact lenses and applied his spot cream. As he picked up his weapons, a Glock 9mm pistol and Walther P22 handgun, and twisted back his black baseball cap, he clearly did not want to be remembered as the kid with acne.
At 7.15am, campus police were alerted to a shooting at West Ambler Johnston residential hall, a two-minute walk from Choâ€™s own hall. Witnesses heard screams and the eerie â€œpop popâ€ of a semi-automatic weapon before finding the bodies of a young man and a young woman sprawled on the floor in the hallway between the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s dorms.
The dead girl was Emily Hilscher, 19. Perhaps there was something about her that reminded Cho of another girl he had fancied â€" the one he had sneaked into the womenâ€™s dorm to see but, as a roommate recalled, â€œWhen he looked into her eyes, he saw promiscuityâ€.
Was Ryan Clark, 22, her boyfriend? Cho didnâ€™t know but he shot him anyway. Deprived of sex himself, he regarded those who were getting it with malevolence. â€œAll your debaucheries werenâ€™t enough . . . to fulfil your hedonistic needs,â€ he had ranted on his pre- prepared â€œmartyrdomâ€ video.
He went back to his room and recorded one last QuickTime video clip. It was 7.24am, according to his computer log. â€œThis is it. This is where it ends. End of the road. What a life it was. Some life,â€ he said agitatedly.
But Cho wasnâ€™t finished yet. He still had more scores to settle and fame to seek. He downloaded 28 video clips onto a DVD, which showed him posing with his weapons like the star of a Quentin Tarantino film or Lara Croft, and set out for the post office, past the police cars that had arrived outside the dorm. By the time he arrived it was 8.45am.
It was tax-filing day in America, but as a student he didnâ€™t pay any. The queue in the post office surprised him, though he waited his turn patiently as he rehearsed his next acts of violence in his mind. He posted his multimedia manifesto to NBC News, went back to his room, grabbed his weapons and set out for more killing.
This time he would target professors as well as students. He walked across the campus to the teaching block at Norris Hall, where he chained the front doors so nobody could escape. He may have remembered some lines from Mr Brownstone, a play he had written: â€œHe gave me a D, when I only forgot to turn in two homeworks.â€
As he gunned down Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, a French lecturer, science professor Kevin Granata and Holocaust survivor Liviu Librescu, he may have thought again of the professor in his play who â€œass-raped us all â€" isnâ€™t that what teachers do?
â€œI wanna watch him bleed, the way he watched us bleedâ€. Now he was fulfilling his own prophecy.
As for the students, they could forget his sympathy. He fired at them again and again, scattering their flesh across the floor. Most of his victims, girls and boys, were shot three times. Sometimes he would return to check whom he had killed and who was merely playing dead. His face was blank, but his emotions were seething.
As he said in his video, â€œYou had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasnâ€™t enough, you brats, Your gold necklaces werenâ€™t enough, you snobs . . . You thought it was one pathetic boyâ€™s life you were extinguishing.â€
The baby-faced Cho was 23, an adult by most peopleâ€™s reckoning. In any other era it is doubtful he would have thought of himself as a boy or described his fellow students at Virginia Tech as â€œbratsâ€. Trapped in the perpetual adolescence of the student, he has become a new monstrous poster child for boys who would rather kill themselves and others than grow up.
Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of Sexual Personae, believes Cho is emblematic of the crisis of masculinity in America. â€œWomen have difficulty understanding the mix of male sexual aggression with egotism and the ecstasy of self-immolation,â€ she says. Or to quote Martin Amis on that other killer, Fred West: he became â€œaddicted to the moment where impotence becomes prepotenceâ€.
Cho swallowed his medicine, but it failed to stop him carrying out the biggest mass murder by a lone gunman in American history. By the time he turned his gun on himself, 32 students and teachers were dead â€" more than twice the number killed by the Columbine high school students in 1999.
Colin Goddard, 21, whose father is British, was one of the last students to be shot before Cho killed himself. He remembers the horror he felt as Cho entered his lecture room at Virginia Tech and began firing calmly and methodically at the class. â€œHe had on boots, dark pants and a white shirt. He just started walking down the rows of desks, shooting people multiple times. He didnâ€™t say anything. He didnâ€™t demand anything. He was just shooting.â€
The scene at Virginia Tech was hellish. Some students managed to save themselves by jumping from the windows, but those left behind died without knowing what Choâ€™s grievance was or why they were being punished for his rage.
Yet in death and murder, the silent Cho found his voice, railing at the perceived ills of society and slights to his deranged ego. From the blunt message he posted on a college web forum warning, â€œIâ€™m going to kill people at Va Techâ€, to the mountainous last testament of writings, photographs and video clips sent to NBC, rarely has a killer been as loquacious or left so much evidence of his twisted mind.
â€œThatâ€™s got to be more than heâ€™s spoken, ever,â€ one surprised graduate student said. â€œI thought, â€˜Well, he does talkâ€™.â€
Choâ€™s parents were hospitalised by shock when they heard of the killings, but some relatives have begun to speak out. Choâ€™s sister Sun Kyong-Cho said: â€œThis is someone I grew up with and loved. Now I feel like I didnâ€™t know this person.â€ But in Seoul some family members described Cho as alienated even as a child. After watching the videos of him posing with his weapons, his furious 82-year-old grandfather said, â€œSon of a bitch. It served him right he died with his victims.â€
Kim Hyang-Im, Choâ€™s mother, was the second of five children, who was obliged to look after the younger members of her family. At 29 she was still unmarried. Fearful that she would become an old maid, her parents fixed her up on a blind date with Cho Sun Tae, 10 years her senior. â€œHer husband was very serious and quiet and careful with money. He was not very friendly to his mother-in-law and father-in-law,â€ Choâ€™s 85-year-old aunt recalled.
Choâ€™s father scraped together enough money to buy a second-hand bookstore in South Korea, where they lived in a cheap, rented apartment. When relatives invited them to America, they were thrilled at the chance to â€œprovide a better educationâ€, the grandfather said.
The family was already worried about Cho, then eight years old. Soon after arriving in America he was diagnosed with autism. â€œHe was very quiet and only followed his mother and father around but never showed any feelings or emotions,â€ his great-aunt said. His parents were too poor and busy trying to scrape a new life together to get specialist help for Cho.
They opened a dry-cleaning business, like many Korean immigrants, and moved to a two-storey cream town house in Centerville, Virginia, just outside Washington. In fulfilment of her parentsâ€™ dream, Choâ€™s sister went to Princeton University and now works as a contractor for the US State Department on the reconstruction of Iraq.
Cho chose to study English in at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a sprawling residential college in the distant Blue Ridge Mountains. It is hard to fathom his rage at the â€œtrust fundâ€ brats with golden necklaces, vodka and cognac and â€œeverything you wantedâ€, when among his victims were many immigrants like himself, who were proud of making their way in America.
But this carefully manicured campus â€" home to 26,000 students who called themselves Hokies â€" was no place for a social misfit. Even Cho used to wear the uniform of the mini-city: an orange or maroon T-shirt or sweatshirt with a baseball cap. Paglia, who has taught in American universities for 35 years, describes Americaâ€™s residential campuses as vast â€œislands of green and slack conformity where a strange benevolent and tyrannical paternalism has taken over. Itâ€™s like a resort atmosphereâ€.
Paglia believes the school Cho attended would have been no better equipped to deal with frustrated young males. â€œThere is nothing happening educationally in these boring prisons that are fondly called suburban high schools. They are saturated with a false humanitarianism, which is especially damaging for boys.
â€œYoung men have enormous energy. There was a time when they could run away, hop on a freighter, go to a factory and earn money, do something with their hands. Now there is this snobbery of the upper-middle-class professional. Everyone has to be a lawyer or paper pusher.â€
Cho is a classic example of â€œsomeone who felt he was a loser in the cruel social rat raceâ€, Paglia says. The pervasive hook-up culture at college, where girls are prepared to sleep with boys they barely know or fancy, can be a source of seething resentment and alienation for those who are left out.
â€œYoung women now seem to want to behave like men and have sex without commitment. The signals they are giving are very confusing, and rage and humiliation build up in boys who are spurned again and again.â€
The sex, Paglia argues, â€œis everywhere but it is not eroticâ€, as can be seen by the sad spectacle of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears flashing their lack of underwear during a night on the town. â€œItâ€™s not even titillating. Itâ€™s banal and debasing.â€
The former Virginia Tech student who posted two of Choâ€™s hate-filled plays on the internet recalls that Cho fitted the â€œexact stereotype of what one would typically think of as a â€˜school shooterâ€™ â€" a loner, obsessed with violence and with serious personal problemsâ€. But the plays show he was preoccupied not just with girls but with paedophilia and sodomy.
In Richard McBeef, a drama about child abuse, a stepson rants, â€œI will not be molested by an aging, balding, overweight pedophile [sic]stepdad named Dickâ€, before threatening to shove the television remote control â€œup his assâ€. It concludes: â€œI hate him. Must kill Dick. Must kill Dick. Dick must die. Kill Dick.â€
Dr James Gilligan, a former prison psychiatrist who teaches at New York University, believes that misogyny and homophobia are a central component of the make-up of violent criminals, who often fear they have homosexual tendencies.
â€œAn underlying factor that is virtually always present is a feeling that one has to prove oneâ€™s manhood and the way to do that, to gain respect, is to commit a violent act,â€ he says. â€œIt is tremendously tempting to use violence as a means of trying to shore up oneâ€™s sense of masculine self-esteem.â€
It is not simply an American phenomenon. In Choâ€™s video manifesto, there are unmistakable echoes of the home-made martyrdom videos of the young male jihadists circulating on the internet.
Cho began working out in the gym weeks before the killings, and the video pictures sent to NBC reveal a bolder, more muscled character than the images of the shy young student released when his name was first identified.
Dressed to kill in black and tan, Cho borrowed the vocabulary as well as the iconography of Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers by hailing Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold â€" the two teen killers at Columbine â€" as â€œmartyrsâ€ of the same vengeful cult of death.
On his arm Cho had etched in red ink the nom de guerre Ismail Ax, a possible reference to the son whom Ibrahim (or Abraham) prepared to sacrifice in the Koran, sparking a torrent of speculation on the internet about his religious motives.
Others suggested that the student of literature was merely thinking about an American novel called Ishmael about a young boy growing up outside Washington, just as he did. But Cho was also explicitly drawn to Christian symbolism and its own veneration of martyrdom.
â€œDo you know what it feels to be torched alive? Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon a cross and left to bleed to death for your amusement?â€ he railed on video. â€œYou have never felt a single ounce of pain in your whole lives. You have vandalised my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience.â€
Political scientist Francis Fukuyama believes the common denominator between the terrorist suicide bomber and the suicidal mass murderer is their sexual frustration and gender. â€œIt really is young men between 15 and 30 who are responsible the vast majority of crimes, although it is politically incorrect to say this too loudly,â€ he says.
Suicide bombers and the Virginia Tech killer, Fukuyama suggests, â€œfall into the same demographic of young males, a lot of whom are unemployed, without a clear place in the social hierarchy. These guys have the most to gain and the least to lose by martyrdomâ€. And often, he adds, they are upset about girls â€œwhose attention they canâ€™t getâ€.
Fukuyama believes that Choâ€™s case is â€œfairly uniqueâ€ but â€œthe maleness is importantâ€. In his essay Identity and Migration, published by Prospect last February, he writes that radical Islamism should be understood in the context of identity politics.
â€œWe have seen this problem before in the extremist politics of the 20th century, among the young people who became anarchists, Bolsheviks, fascists or members of the Baader-Meinhof gang.â€ It is not specifically tied to radical Islam, he insists.
Yet Choâ€™s ethnicity may have prevented the university authorities from intervening in his life, Paglia suggests. Voicing a theme that conservative talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh have taken up with gusto, she wonders whether political correctness about his background and culture may have led them to make excuses for him.
â€œHe was Korean and so people were hesitant to declare he was abnormal in American terms,â€ she says. It is no accident, she believes, that the two female lecturers who were most suspicious of his behaviour were themselves not white.
One professor, Nikki Giovanni, known as the â€œprincess of black poetryâ€, was the first to raise the alarm about Choâ€™s writing. It did not feature hardcore violence; but it was weird. â€œIt wasnâ€™t like, â€˜Iâ€™m going to rip your heart outâ€™,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s that, â€˜Your bra is torn and Iâ€™m looking at your fleshâ€™.â€ When female students said they were scared of him, she wanted him out of her class.
Giovanni reported her concerns to Lucinda Roy, a British professor of literature who was then head of the department. She was so disturbed by Cho that she contacted the university police and went on to give him individual lessons â€" after devising a code word which, if ever used, would be a signal to her assistant to call security.
â€œYou seem so lonely,â€ she told him. â€œDo you have any friends?â€
â€œI am lonely,â€ Cho replied. â€œI donâ€™t have any friends.â€
The lone gunman is a familiar figure in American mythology. â€œIn American culture you always have the rough-edged loner, the anti- establishment figure which goes all the way back to the silent films and westerns and continues through Humphrey Bogart, James Dean and Marlon Brando,â€ says Paglia.
In Choâ€™s case, there were echoes of Taxi Driver, the story of a stalker. The promiscuity that Cho saw in women was â€œa huge warning signâ€, Paglia believes. â€œYou want them, you want the status of being seen with them, youâ€™re driven towards them and at the same time they are contaminated, they are dirty. Thatâ€™s exactly the mentality of the stalker and assassin played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. There is an apocalyptic impulse to destroy everything and to purify the world.â€
In a twist to the debate on masculinity, some commentators have complained that the terrified Virginia Tech students were no Rambos when it came to defending themselves. John Derbyshire, a right-wing British writer based in America, wondered, â€œWhy didnâ€™t anyone rush the guy? Yes, I know it is easy to say these things, but didnâ€™t the heroes of Flight 93 teach us anything?â€ â€" a reference to the passengers fighting back in the 9/11 hijacked plane.
The columnist Mark Steyn took up the theme with an essay on the â€œculture of passivityâ€ that is overtaking America. In his view, students are becoming so infantilised that they have lost their capacity to take responsibility.
â€œIn a horrible world, there may come moments when you have to choose between protecting yourself and others,â€ he believes. â€œIt is a poor reflection on us that in those critical first seconds where one has to make a decision, only an elderly Holocaust survivor understood instinctively the obligation to act.â€
Librescu, 75, forced his body against the door to prevent Cho storming his classroom, gaining time for some of his students to escape. He was shot dead. But there were younger heroes, too, such as Derek Oâ€™Dell, who was shot in the arm but managed to wedge his foot in the door and prevent Cho from re-entering the classroom.
Another student, realising that a friend was playing dead, was said to have deliberately drawn Choâ€™s attention to himself as the gunman searched the room for survivors â€" and sacrificed his own life.
â€œWhen someone opens the door of a classroom and begins firing with a semi-automatic weapon, there is no fighting back possible,â€ says Paglia. â€œAll of this happened too fast for the young men or young women to rush the shooter and bring him down.â€
Paglia is a defender of the constitutional right to bear arms in America. She is troubled, however, by the ease with which Cho bought his weapons. â€œThe problem is not hunting guns but these semi-automatic weapons. He could not have cut down that many people so quickly or with such brutal efficiency without them. They have no use except for commandos, swat teams and paramilitary organisations.
â€œThis is part of the plague that has come with the drug culture in thner cities,â€ she says. â€œChoâ€™s use of semi-automatic weapons can ultimately be traced back to gangsta rap. It is a fabrication of urban life which is sold to teenagers trapped in the utterly sterile shopping-mall culture of the American suburbs.â€
â€œThroughout most of human history men have been armed, but with swords not guns,â€ Paglia observes. As the weapons grow more deadly, even a solitary â€œboyâ€ can commit the worst massacre in American history. This is the 19th such scenario in the past decade. Unfortunately it is unlikely to be the last.