For those who personally experienced the horrors at Virginia Tech, it will be the nightmare that never ends. Not this week, or the next, or in years to come. For the rest of us, who watched from afar in jaw-dropping disbelief as the media pumped out details about the killings and then the killer, we've invariably wrestled with raw, simple truths about the nature of evil that defies our humble understanding.
Before the identity of Cho Sueng-Hui or his demented rantings and videos were aired shamelessly and repeatedly by NBC and elsewhere, I called a friend who teaches drama and playwriting in a private middle school on the East Coast. I had earlier emailed her a link to Cho's expletive-laden one-act play, Richard McBeef, which is about a 13-year-old who threatens to kill his stepfather. I wanted her quick take. She responded, "It reads like something written by an eighth grade student who is quite troubled." Cho was twenty-three when he gunned down 32 students.
His writing instructors at Virginia Tech, as has already been widely reported, were indeed alarmed by Cho's bizarre classroom behavior and his hostile writings. They recognized the warning signs of severe mental illness and took appropriate measures. They should be praised for their concern -- both for the welfare of Cho and his fellow students. Tragically, Cho seemed resistant to reform or help; his anger and isolation only intensified. He was Travis Bickle behind a desk.
For the past week, however, a film loop has played endlessly in my head. I attempted to imagine what it must have been like to been helplessly trapped inside a classroom with an armed psychopath coldly emptying over a hundred rounds into his victims. Would I have played 'possum or acted bravely like several Virginia Tech students and faculty members did? Honestly, I don't know what my response would have been. I also reflected on what it would be like to be a teacher with a student like Cho in one's class. Needing guidance and answers here, I approached another friend, Scott Tinley, who taught writing at Grossmont College in San Diego and currently teaches sport humanities in the California State University system. A former world-champion Hawaii Ironman triathlete, he is the author of six books, including the recently published collection of fiction, Things to Be Survived: Tales of Resolution and Resurrection. I wanted his personal and pedagogical take on this monstrous spree killer.
Scott emailed me the following response:
His writing is not good, the play is as bad as anything I've seen in five years of teaching writing. But in defense of bad writing, kids need to know that their voices, "however measured or far away" are being heard. Sometimes the role of writing instructor turns psychoanalytical and knowing when and how to intervene is a difficult and fluid series of processes. What is crucial, though, is that students -- engaged or removed, disturbed or sane -- know that someone will listen.
With that said, as both a writer and college writing teacher, I took interest in Virginia Tech student Cho Sueng-Hui's creative work published online. At first I had to deal with the guilt of "Oh, this is the exact thing that the mass killer would have wanted." But placed in the context of trying to decide for myself if the violent content would have warranted enough notice that had one of my students penned it and I'd be compelled to pass it on to others in the department, I looked at his work, and him in a new light.
Sueng-Hui's work became something beyond a textual analysis. I began to wonder about the larger issues of creative expression on campuses. I wondered if a Cho might have sat in one of my classes. In hindsight, he just might have.
The fact that his writing is poor is not the point nor is it always the case with themes that expose the obscene underside of life. On occasion, "edgy" or "guerilla writing" can be quite good, especially when set up against some of the typically banal themes of sex, drugs and unrequited love so pervasive in college creative writing. But Sueng-Hui's work could not be considered as provocative or avant-garde; it appears as extremely malcontented and undirected anger in crude and vulgar form. It would be important to look not only at his body of work while enrolled on the campus but his actions as well before making decisions about any intervention. From all reports, the signs were there in several forms for many months. And some, more than others, tried to intervene.
Some of the Virginia Tech English professors who had Cho in their classes claim to have tried to speak to him and reported the dark and malicious content to others in the department as well as counseling services and campus police. According to a piece in the April 20th New York Times, several of his professors formed "what one called a 'task force' to discuss how to handle him, gathering twice on the subject and frequently communicating among themselves." I have no doubt that Cho's professors did an admirable job of trying to convey the seriousness found naked and barren in his text to the appropriate entities. Still, it would not be a grotesque afterthought to continually look for signposts in Cho's writing that might have forced further pre-emptive intervention.
Still, the continuous search for either reason in this horror or ways that it might have been avoided has heads reeling and hearts heavy. We do it because that is our nature -- to know why, to learn something, to make it better for next time and to affix blame. It's hard for us accept that some things are so senseless that they may never be quantified to a degree that would offer us some comfort where none is to be found.
As Dr. Michael Welner, a practicing forensic psychologist who has profiled mass murderers in the past, told the Washington Post, Cho "is not a person who fell through the cracks. He's a person who crawled into the cracks." Who is going to climb in after him and pull him out? Sometimes people are just blown into holes of their own making. Other times they are sucked in by a world that is itself increasingly unstable. Most times you can barely tell the difference.
What interests me right now are the potential ramifications. Will English departments need "word cops" like stealth TSA security agents that travel on airlines?
Will students have to submit their work through a filtering software program such as the anti-plagiarism Turn-It-In.com -- protocol programs that would spit out a psychological profiles and rank them on a numerical scale for "danger to self and society?"
The pervasive culture of fear as fueled by the Bush administration has already had an effect of the production of art in our country. How much good poetry came out of 9/11? When tragedy is commodified as it was, anything else seems trite and opportunistic.
College campuses are one of the last bastions of free and open discourse where people can talk and act across their differences without fear of reprisal. And a creative writing class must reflect that in its purest form. You cannot simultaneously create and destroy art.
I've seen some very disturbing stories and essays come across my desk. And though I have yet to report any of them to department or university authorities, I have always taken the time to ask the student about the motive.
What we also know is that university budgets are cut, class sizes are increased and retiring tenured professors are being replaced by less-trained part timers. It takes years of experience to know the difference between homicidal tendencies and a student trying to play a bad joke of shock-them-with this.
At a minimum, the student writing beyond the edge of anger, macabre and gratuitous violence might first be approached in context of a writer, not as a potential threat. I believe that intent is better exposed for further analysis when a student feels that someone cares about the Big Why of their writing, not just the little what. If you back someone into a corner too quickly, they'll come out swinging. The assessment label of "a cry for help," though seemingly sophomoric and overused, turns out to be a good starting point. And the simple definition of insanity is the inability to be heard, to speak and know that the words go away like unread smoke signals.
The Columbine tragedy brought with it great debate on gun control, teenage anti-depressant medications and Goth culture. But the only legacy of that tragedy is stepped-up campus security as if the answer to violence is to create higher fences and hire additional rent-a cops. It waits to be seen what the fallout of Virginia Tech will be. With any luck the discourse will center on students and faculty.
Ursula LeGuin once said that "only pain is intellectual, evil is interesting. This is the treason of the artist." While writers may be subject to this treason as part of some innate purging inherent to the creative process, we may also have been externally conditioned to think this way, to feel that only real art can shock. Either way, on campuses or on the streets, we should listen to each other's art. And to the artist behind it.
This essay is cross-linked with www.politixxx.com with an accompanying graphic. Scott Tinley can be reached at www.scottTinley.com.