Thursday, April 19, 2007

Collective Responsibility?

I wonder how many of us saw the first images of Cho Seung Hui after the Virginia Tech shootings and felt a twinge of racist anger. I remember wondering, when they first released descriptions of him, "Why did they even mention that he was Asian? Did that have something to do with what he did?" I couldn't imagine that it did, but the media reported it, for whatever reason. And that reason was, probably, that his race was the most visible fact available about him at that time.

It's easy, when something like this happens, to start choosing up sides, to close ranks and establishing a sense of "otherness:" "Well, it was the other people who did this, not us." But in the grand history of our country, we are all immigrants, all descended from a group who are not indigenous to America (unless we're Native American), and from that standpoint, each of our cultures has been equally represented in some act of violence sometime during this ongoing story. Also, this gunman did not discriminate: his victims ran the gamut and he clearly selected them according to location, not race. There were several other Asians among his victims--people whose parents and families will weep over the loss of their beloved, whose families, like Cho's, probably braved incredible odds and suffered many tribulations to make it to America. Their gun-crazy promised land. Ironic, isn't it?

My cousin Jim is a Methodist minister in St. Louis, at a church with a large Korean-American community. Last night, they held a memorial service for all of the victims. Their minister said that the Korean-American community feels a deep sense of shame over the killings, that it was one of theirs who did the killing. My cousin asked if he and his co-pastor could attend, and she said they were most welcome. She asked my cousin to say a few words of prayer at the beginning of the service. Here are his observations, from an e-mail I received this morning:

"I don't claim to be an expert on Korean culture, but it seems to me that Koreans feel a much closer interconnection with one another than does the general American population as a whole. Those Koreans present tonight, and many I have observed in the media these past couple of days, do seem to feel a deep sense of guilt and shame as well as loss that this shooter was one of "theirs." I shared with the group that while it is good for us to gather together and pray, and very appropriate to remember each of those who lost their lives, even the shooter, who was a child of God and beloved of God as are we all, I also stressed that no one else was any more responsible than any of the rest of us for the actions of this one person. We all bear a certain amount of responsibility for living in a violent society and permitting a culture of violence to exist in our country, but just as we did not hold all Scotsmen liable for the actions of Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, we also cannot hold the Korean community responsible for the action of this one, obviously deeply disturbed young man."

I thought it was beautifully said.

And to their credit, none of the people I've heard talk about this have mentioned Cho's ethnicity as a factor. That could be because it doesn't really matter, or, more soberingly, that this has happened so often now that the perpetrators have been represented by almost every race, and no one culture is more guilty than any other in producing them.

And who knows what's deep inside a person, really deep down? Can a person so deeply disturbed be healed? I honestly think it's something that starts on the surface. The choice to take back our society is ours. Every day, we have a choice in how we treat people. The face that we show people is what they take away, what they learn about us. When people are shown more compassion, maybe they realize that they're not "in it alone," and maybe this will start to absorb. Whatever they're suffering may not seem so black and insurmountable if they sense that others are on their side.

And if it's help they need, maybe they'll get it.


Anonymous Ed said...

It is not his ethnicity that bothers me but his "Religion" He had the words Ishmeal Ax written in red on his arm and included in much of his literature. I think he had joined the terrorists led by Ben Laden.
The Koreans have nothing to worry about.

3:54 PM  
Anonymous Dave A. said...

Beautifully said, Aaron.

In reply to Ed (hi, Ed!) -- latest reports are that this guy was raving about wanting to be like Jesus. So the particular religion he was twisting and distorting into hatred appears to have been Christianity, not Islam. Although I personally think that it doesn't matter what religion a psychotic person seizes on -- neither Jesus' nor Mohammed's teachings sanction random violence. Unfortunately terrorists and psycho killers don't hear the true message, they only hear the rantings of their own disturbed minds. If they didn't have Jesus or Mohammed nearby to hijack, they'd figure out a way to claim inspiration from the Buddha or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

6:34 PM  

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