The casual mention by some campus officials, students, and in some press reports, that in early reports identified the Virginia Tech shooter as an unnamed, "Asian man" could've easily planted the dangerous public seed that there was an Asian menace to the shootings. Virtually the instant Cho Seung-Hui's murderous rampage at Virginia Tech ended, Republic of Korea President Roh Moo-hyun dashed off an impassioned statement condemning the killings and offering condolences and support to the families. The speed that Moo-hyun issued his sympathy statement, or that he even issued it at all, might have seemed peculiar. Asian, African and Latin American heads of state seldom say much about tragedies, even monstrous tragedies such as the Virginia Tech massacre, that involve private citizens in the U.S. or for that matter other countries.
But there was that dangling reference to Cho as "an Asian man." While the Korean president's response was a genuine and heartfelt expression of human sympathy for the dead, the same day a Korean Consular official at a meeting with this writer and other civil rights leaders in Los Angeles pointed to another worry the government had about Cho's killing spree. Korean officials feared that many Americans might see the murderous assault as something more than the act of a lone deranged, individual. This was not a totally false fear. Cho was South Korean, and though he lived in the U.S. since he was a boy, he was called "a resident alien." That could easily stir anti-Asian and anti-immigrant hatreds among some.
At the press conference that followed the meeting with the civil rights leaders, a Korean reporter said that there had been some scattered reports that Korean school children had been taunted and verbally harassed. This was mostly anecdotal, and there was no real hint of a public finger point at Koreans for Cho's lone act. Yet, that possibility is always there. There are two reasons that some Koreans worried about that possibility. One is the faint memory of what happened moments after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995.
A terrorism expert on CBS claimed that there was a Middle Eastern trait to the bombing. Whatever in heaven's name that meant, the stampede was still on. The rest of the TV networks blared reports that two men of Middle Eastern appearance were being sought. As the death toll climbed, the network talking heads relentlessly slammed home the message that Middle Eastern crazies had finally struck terror in America's heartland. The predictable happened. By week's end, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, there were reports of physical and verbal attacks against American Muslims, which included the burning of a few mosques and community centers.
A full-blown domestic anti-Muslim witch-hunt was brewing. Fortunately then President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno did not rush to judgment and scapegoat Arabs. The swift arrest of Timothy McVeigh squelched the building mob hysteria against them. The same group finger point fast gathered steam in the rage and revulsion millions of Americans felt following the September 11 terror attack. Though President Bush sternly lectured that the government would crack down hard on any blanket reprisal attacks on Muslims, the reports still flooded in of taunts, harassment, physical assaults and even a couple of murders of Muslims and others that looked foreign.
Another reason Korean officials worried is the prolonged history of vicious baiting and stereotyping of Asians. This type of casual typecasting is especially sensitive issue among Korean Americans. Memories are still fresh of the 1992 L.A. riots. Koreans were the easy and visible target of rioters who blamed them for gouging and rude behavior toward inner city residents. Hundreds of their businesses were torched, and looted during the nightmarish violence. Fifteen years later, the scars of the attacks have still not totally healed.
Then there is the sheer monstrous magnitude of the Virginia Tech rampage. It was by far the worst mass attack by one individual in American history, and nearly every single news report and broadcast has prefaced the story on the killings with that tagline. This insures that Cho's name, and though seldom stated publicly, whispered by many privately, that he was a Korean non-citizen, and an immigrant. This fact will be indelibly imprinted in the public record and perhaps the public mind for years to come.
The maniacal act of one man is a terrible, and unfair burden to dump on any group. And Korean officials repeatedly made the point that it was the monstrous act of one man. There is and should not be collective responsibility or collective guilt for that. Koreans will grieve for the dead and the injured at Virginia Tech and continue to offer their condolences and prayers to their families, just as other Americans have done in the hours and days after the killings.
In the end Cho Seung Hui was not "an Asian man." He was a man who committed a grotesque act. And in the long and bloody annals of American mass killings, the perpetrators of those acts have come in all colors and genders.