When Stereotypes Stalk Tragedy

Posted: Apr 23, 2007 12:10 AM
When Stereotypes Stalk Tragedy

Please don't let him be Jewish.

Please don't let him be black.

Please don't let him be Chinese, Japanese or Korean. (Or even Pacific Islander.)

Such were the prayers of men and women across the nation who feared a backlash from stereotypes of a killer, especially a mass murderer of such evil as the shooter at Virginia Tech. When portraits of a villain fill the television screens, it's easy for good people to look to their comfortable prejudices for explanations. Blaming race, religion, ethnicity and culture seems more reasonable than accepting the randomness of one madman.

The Asian American Journalists' Association urged editors and reporters to "avoid using racial identifiers unless there is a compelling or germane reason" (and by urging restraint in the name of Asian journalists neatly identified the killer's ethnicity). The public naturally wants to learn everything it can about someone who commits such a heinous act. Reporters look for every angle to explain motive, raising questions about race along with questions of sociology and psychology. Cho Seung-Hui, age 23, had lived in the United States since he was 8, and had spent those first eight years in his native Seoul. That's simply a fact, and Koreans here and there are particularly sensitive about it.

An editorial in the Korea Herald, a Seoul newspaper, expressed shock and sadness over the murder of 32 students and called the young man "one rotten apple," but certainly not acting on behalf of Koreans or the Korean government. No one had suggested that he did, but the newspaper, perhaps typical, worries that "the shocking incident will taint the good image that the Korean community and the Korean nation have strived to build among Americans."

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun expressed shock and sent two messages of condolence and consolation to Virginia Tech. Official representatives of the South Korean government said they would work to prevent a backlash and " minimize the impact on the South Korea-U.S. alliance further strengthened by the conclusion of a bilateral free trade deal."

Shallow generalizations always do harm, and there was nervous anticipation in Korean neighborhoods where families expected bigotry to surface. Asian bloggers feared sociologists would use the profile of the killer to describe the "fragile egos" of Asian men. Others fretted that glib comparisons would dredge up the image of Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II, who used themselves as flying bombs targeted at American warships. Still others were concerned about a proliferation of condescending and patronizing stories about "good" Koreans.

The "multimedia package" Cho left behind played into the stereotype. He had watched the South Korean movie "Oldboy," with violent themes of obsession and revenge. Its protagonist was shown pointing a gun to his head, as Cho did in the video he made before his rampage. But Korean moviemakers have nothing to teach American moviemakers about sordid and gratuitous violence.

Nevertheless, the Rev. Peter Chin, the pastor of Open Door Presbyterian Church in Herndon, Va., five miles from the suburban town where Cho grew up, noted that hateful comments aimed at Koreans were posted on Facebook.com, a site popular with young people. Such websites also carried warnings against prejudice and sought communal solace.

The Europeans, addicted to anti-American venom, served up most of the early stereotypes, citing Western and gangster movies as if Cho were a runaway "ride 'em, shoot 'em" cowboy, or a remorseless Clyde without Bonnie. Some of the editorialists called Charlton Heston our national hero, and naturally linked him with George Bush and John Wayne, eager for a shootout.

Germany's Stuttgarter Zeitung described the killer as living in "a society in which weapons are idolized as emblems of freedom and manliness . . . a country where the masses cheer when aging actor Charlton Heston raises a musket in his shaky hand and bellows that nobody will ever be able to take his weapon from him unless they 'pry it from my dead, cold hands.'"

The European moralizers mostly exposed their ignorance of the real, as opposed to the celluloid, America. Virginia Tech is a gun-free campus, mandated by law. Since they brought it up, the Germans should be reminded that Hitler first deprived Germans of their arms and then of personal and civil liberties. Only later, the good ol' boys from Virginia and the West and a lot of points between, having been brought up to use and respect guns, had to ride to the rescue of Europe. Speaking of stereotypes.