This column discusses an idea that I’ve been thinking about ever since the tragedy occurred at Virginia Tech. I may be perpetuating the cycle here, but Cho Seung-Hui, the monster responsible for the killings, is getting exactly what he wanted – attention and notoriety. If you can’t be loved, you might as well be hated.
Focus on the victims, not their disturbed killer
By Carl Hiaasen
Somewhere in the bowels of hell, Cho Seung-Hui must be smiling. He’s getting what he wanted: global infamy.
Now everybody with a TV set knows his name and his face. That sick little ditty bag that he sent to NBC did the trick.Look at me, world! I’m the Virginia Tech killer!In the news business, it’s unusual to receive a publicity packet from a dead person, much less a dead mass murderer. To help craft his legacy, Cho put together an ambitious multimedia presentation: photos, videos and writings compiled in the six days before he murdered 32 students and faculty members and then shot himself.
NBC quickly turned over the material to investigators, but not before copying it. The contents are pretty much what you’d expect from a paranoid, homicidal, narcissistic nut job.There’s the tediously hateful, vague and meandering scribblings; the predictably rambling video loops in which the killer portrays himself as a long-suffering victim of unspecified injustices; and, finally, the personal photo gallery complete with vainglorious self-portraits and the obligatory macho gun poses.
Certainly it’s shocking stuff, but it’s also a premeditated performance. Cho was still sane enough to know that, because most of us could not fathom such a monstrous crime, we’d be frantic to learn every possible detail about him.He was also sane enough to know that the media would go wild over his posthumously delivered press kit, which was mailed during a break in the shooting spree. Cho is not the first mass killer to have craved recognition, but he’s the first to successfully exploit DVD technology.Back in the summer of 1966, Charlie Whitman had only a typewriter with which to attempt to explain what he was about to do. ”I don’t really understand myself these days,” he wrote. “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”Hours later, Whitman murdered his mother and then his wife. The next morning, the Florida-born former Marine took a high-powered arsenal to the top of the University of Texas Tower and shot 45 innocent people, killing 16.
Those of us old enough to remember that terrible day also remember the stunned bafflement pervading the nation. ”Why?” was the question everybody was asking. Why in the world did Whitman do it?
In the typed suicide note, he complained of severe headaches and even requested that an autopsy be performed on his body to see if something was wrong. Medical examiners did find a brain tumor, although experts disagreed about whether that could have caused him to snap so violently.
Unlike Cho’s suicide messages, Whitman’s final notes were neither seething with anger nor laced with fantasies of persecution. He hinted at a difficult relationship with his father, yet he wrote adoringly of both his mother and his wife.In the end, the reason for Whitman’s sniping rampage remained a mystery. This is what was known beyond any doubt: He was a seriously screwed-up guy.
Which is ultimately all that will ever be known — and all that really matters — about Cho Seung-Hui. He was demented, he was deluded, he was dangerous. End of story.I don’t care if he had a brain tumor or an impacted wisdom tooth. I don’t care if he had an adverse reaction to his medicines. I don’t particularly care about his childhood, his dorm life or what songs he played on his iPod. After all is said and done — and that day cannot come soon enough — Cho will go into the history books as another troubled loner with documented mental problems who walked into a gun shop and bought himself a headline.
As in the Whitman case, the incalculable misery inflicted by Cho has generated an almost desperate hunger for answers. NBC had no choice but to broadcast his disturbing photos and video rants; sketchy insight into the murderous mind is better than none at all. Cho surely was aware that once his self-promotional package hit the airwaves, his face would be everywhere, indelible and inescapable. As crazy as he was, he knew exactly what to feed the media beast.
So we sit through replay after replay of his toxic tirades on television. We pick up a newspaper or a magazine, and there’s the ubiquitous faux Rambo picture, a glowering Cho with his arms extended, a gun in each black-gloved hand.We get it, already. He was an angry and unwell young man who cracked up. He was also an evil publicity freak.Now that we know what we do about Cho, the choice falls to us. Mine is to change the channel whenever his face appears. Let him be infamous on someone else’s time.Among the many who deserve more attention in death are those he executed for no reason:Ross Alameddine, Christopher Bishop, Brian Bluhm, Ryan Clark, Austin Cloyd, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, Daniel Perez Cueva, Kevin Granata, Mathew Gwaltney, Caitlin Hammaren, Jeremy Herbstritt, Rachel Hill, Emily Hilscher, Jarrett Lane, Matt La Porte, Henry J. Lee, Liviu Librescu, G.V. Loganathan, Partahi Lumbantoruan, Lauren McCain, Daniel O’Neill, Juan Ortiz, Minal Panchal, Erin Peterson, Michael Pohle, Julia Pryde, Mary Karen Read, Reema Samaha, Waleed Mohammed Shaalan, Leslie Sherman, Maxine Turner and Nicole White.These are names worth remembering, lives worth examining.
That other guy? Just another sicko in a long, bloody line.
This appeared in the Miami Herald on Sunday, April 22, 2007.