On the Virginia Tech slayings


This post is not about physics; the post on orbifolding in extra dimensions has been delayed. This is also a post on a current event and possibly a sensitive/political subject. My intent is to discuss, hopefully without causing any offense. Topics in this post came from a conversation with a colleague in Los Angeles.

The tragic news of the Virgina Tech slaying of over 30 university members by a disgruntled student made headlines across the Atlantic. (See link for a comprehensive list of citations.) My condolences and empathy to the families of those involved and to extended campus community.

Not being tuned into American television, I’ve been reading updates through online news. For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts from the perspective of a student expat:

Columbine goes to university

The story of disgruntled, marginalized students taking out their frustration in the form of gun violence has unfortunately become part of the recent American zeitgeist. Unlike Columbine, however, this was the first such attack at a university. This might be of note since students not only choose to attend college, but must pay to do so. While social friction can occur anywhere, college is generally regarded as a place where `high school drama’ is left behind.

There’s something to be said that “the deadlist mass shooting by a single gunman in US history” took place within the ivory tower. As students and academics, it is very easy to feel like our open campuses are insulated from serious crimes. While universities in urban areas do usually `lock down’ in the evenings, nearly all campuses are wide open during the day.

This is a bit of a moot point since the killer in this case was a student at the university. What then of this? In my experience universities have ample resources for stress/depression/etc, though they are based on the individual addressing the problem. In fact, Cho Seung-hui was referred to such resources in Virginia Tech. How, then, can these resources be tailored to accomodate similar cases?


Race continues to be the defining background against which people and events are interpreted. I was a bit surprised that today’s breaking news was that the killer is Korean. Certainly any news on the killer’s identity will be headline-worthy, but it was odd how the media chose to interpret this news. What does it mean against the charged racial background that surrounds us when the only piece of news is that a killer is of ‘asian descent’?

There were reports that Korean students in Virgina Tech have started to navigate campus in groups because they feared `lynchings.’ An article in the LA Times focused on the effect on the Los Angeles Korean community. But is why should this event reflect at all on the Korean community? Race is one of many categories that characterize people. While there is certainly a sense of culture that connects groups of people, usually of the same ethnicity, the mapping is not one-to-one. It is a common storty in the US that first generation immigrants stick close to cultural networks. However, the promise of “America as a mixing pot” is that these identifications needn’t bind you. People are free to identify themselves how they want.

As a child I believed that it was implicit in “The American Dream” that people could grow up to become whatever they wanted independent of their backgrounds. Cho was also an English major. Why doesn’t this act reflect upon all English majors?

People know English majors. Your roommate may have been an English major. Your cousin. Your buddy in the glee club. Whatever. So when `an English major’ commits a terrible crime, the media doesn’t make big deal out of his identity as `an English major’ because we know other English majors who are perfectly reasonable people. Why should being a racial minority be any different? It is possible that this is because being a minority means that there are areas of the US where people don’t know many other members of that minority. And hence we the actions of one speak for a group at large.

Do people still remember the accented xenophobia and hate crimes directed to the Arabic community after 9/11? In that case, general ignorance caused those things to bubble over anyone who looked vaguely Middle Eastern. In the weeks immediately after 9/11, the casualties of this inane `backlash’ included an innocent Sikh cab driver who was beaten up because he was mistaken as Arab. Is it really any different for members of a particular ethnic group to feel like they should be `embarassed’ because of the ethnicity of the killer?

When one talks about race in the US it’s impossible to avoid `getting personal.’ You can note from my photo that I’m a male with brown skin and somewhat `slanty’ eyes. What does it mean for me to write about race and to interpret these events that have now become `racialized’? I was the only person of color in my graduating class of physics undergrads. But at the same time, I was the only physicist in our university’s steel pan band (among other things). I’m also a someone who likes kiwi fruit, enjoys Dr. Who, and plays basketball. Do my actions (my blog posts, the papers I’ll write, etc.) speak on behalf of any of those groups of people?

I don’t mean to take an aside from the events at Virginia Tech, but race and our perception of race is something that Americans are swimming in every day of their lives. (In fact, I’ve noticed that there is a very different sense of race in England.) People should be aware of the racial background that colors our media.


Naively something that would be associated more with England than America (a good reference), apparently class has become an issue in this case as well. There was a report that Cho Seung-hui expressed his hate for the “rich kids” at his university.

Again, class is a delicate subject in America. Perhaps because it can often correlate with race. The “middle class” has expanded partially because people don’t want to be identified as “upper” or “lower” class, but rather as “upper-middle” or lower-middle” class. Despite being more than happy to roast celebrities in tabloids, class is awkward in the US.

A friend of mine claims that this is accented in university. This may be the one time in a person’s life where he/she is in such close contact with people from many different class backgrounds. At my own undergraduate institution, where students from a whole spectrum of backgrounds mingled in the same dormitories, I often felt that class was something that was almost consciously underplayed. Perhaps this was partially because nobody wanted to be “the privileged rich kid” who went to “the rich kid’s school,” especially when one’s roomate might be the “first-in-the-family-to-go-to-college” and is supported by need-based scholarships. My friend tells me that this is not the case in most universities where class differences can be accented by overt (if unintentional) displays of wealth: what car you drive, where you can afford to live, etc. These things don’t appear when everyone lives in university accomodations and `drives’ a bike.

What is notable then, is the claim that class-friction may have partially led to Cho’s extreme discontent. In a country that used to claim that anybody could cross class boundaries grow up to be president, or an astronaut, or otherwise successful, class still rubs people the wrong way. Suppose contempt for “rich kids” was, indeed, part of the motive for this action. Is this unsurprising, given that university is one of the few places in one’s life where one is confronted with people from classes much different from one’s own?

Guns. Guns. Guns.

It’s a running gag with some of my friends here that Americans are too attached to their guns. (“Do they give you a gun when you sign up to vote?”) As one would expect, the events at Virgina Tech have launched a new debate on gun control. I wasn’t sure if I was surprised when one of the first bits of news coming from congress was that “there’s no rush” to impose stricter restrictions on fire arms.

There are some aspects of American culture, namely guns and the death penalty, that seem to forever enshrine us as a ‘wild wild west state’ to our European colleagues. Cho purchased his weapons a month before the murder spree. He apparently even had the receipts with him. As a permanent legal resident that had not been convicted of any felonies, he was legally entitled to purchase fire arms.

Now, gun control is apparently a complicated issue. It’s especially thorny politically. But if this isn’t clear-as-day evidence that maybe, just maybe, the country would be safer if people didn’t have guns… then I don’t know what is.

I’m not trying to be political. I don’t understand all of the issues (because if I did, then I am there isn’t even a debate to be had). But statements like “the previous such attempted crime was thwarted by a citizen carrying a legal firearm” don’t really make sense to me, because the point is that the crazy guy has a gun. Not that ‘the sane guy does also.’

Some are worried that if `good’ citizens didn’t have guns, then they’re just easy prey for `bad people’ who still would have guns. This is like saying that the current gun control laws are a metastable vacuum in safety. There is a ‘true vacuum’ in the state where nobody but law enforcement has guns. But in order to get there, one has to transition through a state that is apparently very unsafe because `bad guys’ have guns while ‘good guys’ don’t. But if this is such an issue, then make it a smooth transition by bolstering law enforcement. Or, one could turn to the other American fetish that boggles Europeans: you make it a felony punishable by death to carry an illegal fiream. That way you still get to do something not that isn’t done in other civilized Western countries.

The point is: there is a gun problem in America. Sure, there are other problems: violence in general, racism, the kinds of post-Enlightment “modern discontent” that has pervaded our society since the industrial revolution, whatever. Having guns, however, makes all the other problems worse. Bloody hell can we do something about this, already?

The Aftermath

It’s hard to look for something positive to glean out of such a tragedy. The Virgina Tech memorial for the vicitms has shown the considerable support from the community and the nation as a whole. It’s a depressingly high cost, but let us hope that something positive can be built out of this healing process. Whether it is action on a political stage, a sense of togetherness that allows us to set ourselves aside, or being able to reach out to other troubled individuals, I hope that we can move forward and that some good can come of how we choose to do so.

My thoughts and and condolences to all who were touched by the tragedy.

7 Responses to “On the Virginia Tech slayings”

  1. A thoughtful piece on a difficult issue. I’m not convinced that simply strongly policing or firmer punishment will reduce gun crime, but it’s clearly a mighty hard question to tackle.

  2. 2 evankeane

    Hmmm, in a way i don’t see what the problem is. It’s perfectly simple – Nobody should have guns, except perhaps some law enforcement as you say. The regular citizen has no need for guns.
    The “self defence” argument is absolutely ridiculous. Also I note that many gun owners in the states have guns because “it is my right to have a gun”. Just because you have the right to own a gun does not mean you ought to have one. In any event i believe that this “right” should be removed. It is stupid. Events such as this, Columbine, etc. would be far less likely to have ever happened.
    What do you actually need to do to get a firearms licence in the states? It seems like all you have to do is ask for one. I believe that in applying for such a licence one should certainly have to justify WHY THEY NEED the gun. I think that most gun owners in the states would not satisfy this basic requirement.
    There is another question here – and that is the question of fear. From on outside onlooker it seems as if society is scared that “bad people” with guns will attack/rob/kill them and that a gun helps them feel safe. Why are people so scared? Is it to do with a lack of confidence in the police? Answering this question might remove guns from the hands of regular people.
    Also, you said that congress is not “rushing into” any rash decisions on gun control after these killings. Why is this? I don’t really get why/how the government are so pro-weapons.
    My deepest sympathies to all the victims of this crime and my condolences to their families and friends.

  3. 3 serenevalley

    Good piece. No good answers on the gun thing. A quick glance around the world will prove this. Personally I don’t own any guns and feel no need to own one. I don’t hunt but would rather shoot with a camera. But I’m not sure that tight gun control laws will stop much of anything.

    As far as Cho being Korean…this is not a consideration. My wife happens to be Korean-American and she voiced so much sorrow and shame on behalf of Mr. Cho simply because he is Korean. But there is no need. Yes, it is sorrowful. Yes, it is tragic. But the fact he is a Korean immigrant has absolutely nothing to do with anything. He is simply a guy who went over the edge. My view is that the media is making the issue of his ethnicity/nationality. I haven’t heard anything negative towards Koreans in general. My feeling with the exception of a few loons, most people understand this.

    What we need to look at is why he went over the edge. Was he marginalized growing up either by his peers, neighbors, or even parents? Society in general? I suspect his parents were probably somewhat demanding, as many Koreans are, of academic excellence. His sister attended Princeton and he, well, didn’t. But this is pure speculation on my part.

  4. 4 Ali

    John, I enjoyed your article, however this is not the first university US shooting in US History. The deadliest shooting before the tragedy occurred at Virginia Tech happened at the University of Texas. Charles Whitman took a rifle to the observation deck of Austin’s Tower and killed 16 students, wounding 31. There have been other shootings, lower in scale, however tragic.

    I also agree with serenevalley. The gun issue clearly has to be addressed, but I find it is of equal importance that we trace the development of his marginalization and find out how to cope with a pain so huge that it would drive someone to do such a machiavellian, horrific thing.

    My complete sympathy goes out to all who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech.

  5. 5 Bee

    such a tragedy. the gun problem is imho caused by too much influence of the rifle lobby. i guess if this really was a democracy (meaning: voices and opinions were not weighted by money standing behind them) then there would be much stricter laws. this is the thing i really absolutely can’t understand about the Americans: how much needs to happen for them to realize that their country is not the best of all places, in all possible ways?

  6. Question Marks

    “This didn’t have to happen”, Cho Seung-Hui said, after murdering thirty-two people at Virginia Tech University.

    And this terrible tragedy of sons, daughters, mothers and fathers didn’t have to happen, if we’d only listened.

    But we never listen.

    We never listen to those that are different from us- the outcasts, the lonely, the homeless, the ones that are unspoken for. We don’t try to understand. We shun them and put them out of our minds because of our fear that we will become like them.

    And these people become more and more lonely and alienated in their isolation.

    Words like “creep”, “deranged misfit” and “psycho” devalue this killer’s humanity so we don’t have to face how similar he is to us. Cries of “how could he have been stopped” are uttered by media quick to sensationalize and gain market share, when the words “how could he have been listened to” are never considered.

    Because we don’t want to listen.

    We don’t want to hear about loneliness and alienation when we’re all so busy with our lives, making money and making friends. And the unpopular, the ones that don’t fit in, the lonely ones are ignored or made fun of because we don’t care to understand anything about them.

    This man who clearly needed help, Cho Seung-Hui, devalued himself so much that he called himself “Question Mark”.

    There are more “Question Marks” out there. There are millions of them. And if we don’t listen to them, they will follow the same path again and again, because people are not connecting. We are becoming more and more disconnected from each other, creating more and more “Question Marks” every day.

    Most “Question Marks” don’t become murderers. Some just kill themselves. Most harm no one and live just as we do, needing antidepressants to appear what we call “normal”. They may be someone you know, someone you love.

    This “Question Mark” was once a little boy, who cried, and smiled and loved, He wanted to fit in just like you and I. But that desire to fit in transformed itself into anger towards a society that shunned and ignored him.

    How many more times will we shun and ignore the one that doesn’t fit in, the one in the corner, the one that’s different? When all we have to do is listen, before it’s too late.

    But we won’t.

    Thirty-two human beings who did not know Cho Seung-Hui were murdered.
    They were sons, daughters, fathers and mothers, with dreams of futures that will never come and children that will never be born. The thirty-two leave behind people that love them. People that are now scarred for life by this horrible day of death.

    To most of us that have not been directly involved, this tragedy will become a memory and fade like all the others that came before.

    And the “Question Marks” will appear with more frequency, again and again, because we don’t listen.

    We never do.



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