The Virginia Tech Massacre in Global Context

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Last January 16th, a car bomb blew up near an entrance to Mustansiriya University in Baghdad — and then, as rescuers approached, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the crowd. In all, at least 60 Iraqis, mostly female students leaving campus for home, were killed and more than 100 wounded. Founded in 1232 by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir, it was, Juan Cole informs us, “one of the world’s early universities.” And this wasn’t the first time it had seen trouble. “It was disrupted by the Mongol invasion of 1258.”

Just six weeks later, on February 25, again according to Cole, “A suicide bomber with a bomb belt got into the lobby of the School of Administration and Economy of Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and managed to set it off despite being spotted at the last minute by university security guards. The blast killed 41 and wounded a similar number according to late reports, with body parts everywhere and big pools of blood in the foyer as students were shredded by the high explosives.” The bomber in this case was a woman.

In terms of body count, those two mass slaughters added up to more than three Virginia Techs; and, on each of those days, countless other Iraqis died including, on the January date, at least thirteen in a blast involving a motorcycle-bomb and then a suicide car-bomber at a used motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital. Needless to say, these stories passed in a flash on our TV news and, in our newspapers, were generally simply incorporated into run-of-bad-news-and-destruction summary pieces from Iraq the following day. No rites, no ceremonies, no special presidential statements, no Mustansiriya T-shirts. No attempt to psychoanalyze the probably young Sunni jihadis who carried out these mad acts, mainly against young Shiite students. No healing ceremonies, no offers to fly in psychological counselors for the traumatized students of Mustansiriya University or the daily traumatized inhabitants of Baghdad — those who haven’t died or fled.

We are only now emerging from more than a week in the nearly 24/7 bubble world the American media creates for all-American versions of such moments of horror, elevating them to heights of visibility that no one on Earth can avoid contemplating. Really, we have no sense of how strange these media moments of collective, penny-ante therapy are, moments when, as Todd Gitlin wrote recently, killers turn “into broadcasters.” Like Cho Seung-Hui, they go into “the communication business,” making the media effectively (and usually willingly enough) “accessories after the fact” in what are little short of pornographic displays of American victimization.

Finally, articles are beginning to appear that place the horrific, strangely meaningless, bizarrely mesmerizing slaughter/suicide at Blacksburg — the killing field of a terrorist without even a terror program — in some larger context. Washington Post on-line columnist Dan Froomkin caught something of our moment in his mordant observation that, at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner the other evening, with the massed media and the President (as well as Karl Rove) well gathered, “the tragic Virginia Tech massacre required solemn observation and expressions of great respect, while the seemingly endless war that often claims as many victims in a day deserved virtually no mention at all.” Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks took a hard-eyed look at the urge of all Americans to become “victims” and of a President who won’t attend the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq to make hay off the moment. (“It’s a good strategy. People busy holding candlelight vigils for the deaths in Blacksburg don’t have much time left over to protest the war in Iraq.”); and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll offered his normal incisive comments, this time on “expressive” and “instrumental” violence in Iraq and the U.S. in his latest column. He concluded: “Iraqi violence of various stripes still aims for power, control, or, at minimum, revenge. Iraqi violence is purposeful. Last week puts its hard question to Americans: What is the purpose of ours?”

Sometimes, in moments like this, it’s actually useful to take a step or two out of the American biosphere and try to imagine these all-day-across-every-channel obsessional events of ours as others might see them; to consider how we, who are so used to being the eyes of the world, might actually look to others. In this case, John Brown, a former U.S. diplomat, one of three State Department employees to resign in protest against the onrushing war in Iraq in 2003, considers some of the eerie parallels between Cho’s world and George’s. ~ Tom

The Cho in the White House:
An Ex-Diplomat Considers the World and Virginia Tech

By John Brown

Americans rushed to unite in horror and mourning in response to the mass killings in Blacksburg in a way we haven’t seen since, perhaps, the attacks of 9/11. Where I live, in Washington, D.C., residents are already sporting their Virginia Tech ribbons and sweatshirts, the way so many Americans once donned those “I [heart] New York” caps and T-shirts. While media coverage has been 24/7 and fast-paced, if not downright hysterical — as is now the norm on all such American-gothic occasions from OJ’s car chase on — the framing and contextualizing of the massacre/suicide at Virginia Tech has been narrow indeed.

As a former diplomat, educated to see the world through others’ eyes, I couldn’t help thinking about how the rest of our small planet might be taking in the Blacksburg tragedy. Despite the negligible coverage of overseas opinion about this event in the mainstream media, there did appear one comprehensive overview of how foreigners reacted to the killings — a Molly Moore piece in the Washington Post.

“Nowhere, perhaps,” Moore wrote, “were foreign reactions to the Virginia shooting more impassioned than in Iraq, where many residents blame the United States for the daily killings in their schools, streets and markets. ‘It is a little incident if we compare it with the disasters that have happened in Iraq,’ said Ranya Riyad, 19, a college student in Baghdad. u2018We are dying every day.'”

Given my own twenty-plus years in the Foreign Service, on occasions like this I find myself looking at my own country from a non-American perspective. I must confess that, when I first saw psychopathic mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui’s photographs of himself savagely pointing a gun at the camera, I was reminded not only of the violent images in our popular culture, but also of George W. Bush and his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to speak of the thrust of his whole foreign policy.

Indeed, for others on our globe, mass murder in Iraq, scenes of degradation from Abu Ghraib, CIA extraordinary rendition expeditions, and our prison at Guantanamo have already become synonymous with the U.S. government and the President; so, it would not be surprising if Cho’s actions and Bush’s foreign policy were linked in the minds of people outside the United States. I see several reasons why, for non-Americans, a mad student and our commander- in-chief could appear to be two sides of the same all-American coin.

First, as his own writings and evidence from his Virginia Tech classmates attest, Cho felt unloved. A thread running through his psychological profile is that he believed the world was after him. Many abroad will remember how, in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy, the Bush administration immediately began obsessing about “why they hate us” (whoever “they” might specifically be). Despite the sympathy the President, as the representative of the American people, received from every corner of the Earth — similar in some ways to the fruitless support efforts teachers and doctors gave Cho for his mental problems — Bush, responding only to the hate he saw under every nook and cranny, chose to react with what many overseas considered disproportionate violence.

To begin with, there was the invasion of Afghanistan. Foreigners (and perhaps some Americans) might think of it as comparable, though on a far larger scale, to Cho’s first foray into killing, his early morning murder of two people, a girl he apparently felt had slighted him and a young man who evidently happened on the scene. In each case, there was then a pause while elaborate propaganda was mustered, organized, and sent off to the public to justify the acts to come. In Cho’s case, what followed was his final rampage when the deranged English major killed 30 people in cold blood; in the President’s, what followed, of course, was the invasion of Iraq where the casualty figures, high as they are, are not yet fully in.

The Bush propaganda campaign of 2002—2003 to convince the American people that the Butcher of Baghdad was a WMD demon reached its apotheosis in a made-for FOX News “shock and awe” spectacular over Baghdad (which was, to say the least, not well received abroad). This brutal sound-and-light show — meant to give Americans the sense of getting back at those who “hated” the U.S. by hitting them hard and mercilessly — seems, when I put on my overseas eyeglasses, eerily reminiscent of Cho’s videos of himself as a mean twenty-first century gunslinger, ready to shoot all those whom he dreamt did him wrong.

As someone who lived and served outside my own beloved country for so many years, a second link between Cho’s actions and George W. Bush’s policies appeared quite evident to me. The Blacksburg murders caused enormous grief and sadness throughout a community Cho felt had never accepted him. Distraught students have been offered counseling by the university, so shaken are some by what they experienced. The results of Bush’s preemptive military strikes have been no less disruptive and unnerving, but of course on a regional, if not global stage. Tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives due to his rash wars — and his administration has shown little pity for refugees from this destruction seeking shelter as best they could elsewhere. (Iraqi refugees have essentially been all but barred from the United States.)

As Cho disrupted a small, defenseless college town in Virginia that welcomed him, Bush has dislocated a whole society that was not threatening the United States. Seen from an overseas perspective, there is, as with Cho and his “enemy,” something megalomaniacal as well as delusional about the President’s identification of a vast Soviet-style Islamofascist foe that the U.S. Armed Forces are supposed to face down in the Global War on Terror.

Consider as well a third disturbing analogy that may not come immediately to most American minds. Like Virginia Tech, Iraq could be considered a repository of culture and knowledge. Indeed, Saddam Hussein may have been a cruel despot, but Mesopotamia, as every American high school student should know, is widely considered by historians “the cradle of civilization,” the first “university” of humankind, if you will.

George W. Bush, reflecting an attitude not unlike Cho’s toward a center of learning, showed not the slightest concern or respect for the traditions of a country whose achievements have so enriched the history of humankind. Indeed, when the Baghdad National Museum was pillaged (along with the National Library and the Library of Korans) soon after the American troops took the capital, the American “liberators” simply stood by; while the Secretary of Defense, reflecting on the catastrophe, offered the now-infamous comment, “Stuff happens.”

Finally, Cho’s suicidal assault on a college community might bring to mind the thought that Bush’s assault on Iraq has been no less suicidal — not for himself personally but for the United States as a whole. Bush’s militarism and “bring ‘em on” mentality helped create an atmosphere conducive to violence that Americans inflict not only on others, but also upon themselves, leading to what might be seen abroad as a kind of perpetual national suicidal condition, examples of which appear all too frequently, including in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Bluntly put, overseas the U.S. government (and, by association, the country as well) — thanks in large part to Bush and his foreign policy — is now widely considered the Cho of our world, despite the often risible efforts of Karen Hughes, the administration’s Image Czarina, to improve America’s international standing through what she calls the diplomacy of deeds. The fact of the matter is that the President’s deeds have led other countries to see our government, in its aggressive unilateralism, as unreliable, if not deranged; obsessed beyond all reason with putative enemies and globe-spanning organizations of terrorists that despise us; ready to respond with unjustified violence to any perceived slight; unwilling to listen to, or accept, advice; and unconcerned with the consequences of what it does, even when this results in widespread death and destruction in one of the birthplaces of civilization, where Bush and his top officials now pride themselves on their latest accomplishment, a military “surge” that only seems to further encourage mass murder.

Regrettably, I fear that, after more than six years of George W. Bush, Baghdad and Blacksburg are, to many on our planet, not that far apart. Woe to the diplomat who has to explain us to the world today.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion. John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, served in London, Prague, Krakow, Kiev, Belgrade and Moscow. He left the Foreign Service in March 2003 to express his opposition to President Bush’s war plans for Iraq. He now compiles the “Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review,” available free by requesting it at johnhbrown30@ hotmail.com.

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