- Communities of RemembranceReflections on the Virginia Tech Shootings and Race
On Monday, April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho committed what the news would immediately call the "deadliest shooting rampage in American history."1 Two hours after murdering Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark in a dormitory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Cho chained the main doors of a campus building shut and began firing into classrooms. By the time he turned one of his two handguns on himself, thirty-three had died, including himself, and many more were injured. Understandably, a lot of attention focused on the shooter in the immediate days after the incident. Who was he? Why did he do it? How was he able to do it? It was difficult not to notice that he was presented immediately as a foreigner and a loner. For a moment, reporters seemed lost as to what else to say about him beyond these characterizations, but by Wednesday, April 18 (two days after the incident) a New York Times article had the fundamentals of the basic story down:
Cho Seung-Hui rarely spoke to his own dormitory roommate. His teachers were so disturbed by some of his writing that they referred him to counseling. And when Mr. Cho finally and horrifyingly came to the world's attention on Monday, he did so after writing a note that bitterly lashed out at his fellow students for what he deemed their moral decay.2
By the end of the same day, officials at NBC announced that Cho had mailed a multimedia package of writings, videos, and photographs to its [End Page 1] headquarters during the two-hour lull in the shootings. One image, of Cho holding a hammer poised over his head as if to strike out against someone in front of him, was compared by various sources to the scene from the Korean film, Oldboy, which depicts the main character as similarly holding a hammer over his head.3 In addition, the day's news was filled with articles and op-eds about Korean American responses to the shootings, and the Korean government itself sent condolences to the victims. The Korean ambassador to the U.S., Lee Tae-shik, said, "With this shocking incident, the Korean-American community should take the chance to reflect and try to meld once again into the mainstream of American society."4
While this coverage was still developing, I found the act of writing about it to be both calming and instructive. By intentionally pulling back from what I was watching and reading, treating the coverage more as a research topic than as a news story that was very much on my mind, I discovered myself looking at the event as if from the near future (now recent past), wondering at how unevenly the shootings have been remembered. At the same time, I felt the need to capture some of the urgency of that moment, when the story of this tragic event spilled into our collective attention before one news cycle gave way to another so that we were all, ultimately, required to focus on something else. How do we maintain this event in memory against the onrush of other equally newsworthy, if not more newsworthy, events? What can be gained by not giving-in to the demands of the news cycle? What conversations are enabled by repositioning discussion of this event from a scholarly, rather than simply a reportorial, perspective? Does this tragic event occasion a change in scholarly conversations about the topic of race and violence because it forces us to think of Asian Americans as the perpetrators of violence, as well as its objects?
These questions were what motivated me to approach Tony Peffer, the editor of JAAS, about my guest editing a special issue on the topic of "Asian Americans and Violence." As the contributors to this special issue address, in one form or another, the immediate responses to the shootings (or any similarly sensational event) provide precious little space for extended reflection. This is an obvious formal limitation, as news coverage and op-eds and blogs are necessarily swift responses to an event in the midst...