Originally published April 2007
Terrible experiences pose the riddle whether the person who has them is not terrible.
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
As a student who graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in English in 2005, I had an experience in the English department that paralleled almost exactly that of Cho Seung-Hui. I consider myself uniquely positioned to comment on those events. I witnessed first-hand the enactment of Virginia Tech administration policy regarding threatening and offensive material. I came to know the personalities involved, including the head of the department, as well as the professors under whom Cho Seung-Hui reportedly studied. My own treatment at the hands of the University was worse than that of Cho Seung-Hui, and indeed, it could be argued that the misapplication of campus policy in my own case and the backlash of sorts that followed resulted in a weariness on the part of those in the English department to pursue the genuine threat that later emerged.
I entered Simon’s Rock College of Bard in 1997 at the age of seventeen. It is an ‘early college’ intended as an early exit from high school for those wealthy enough to afford it. The school was made famous as the site of the first college shooting in decades when Wayne Lo, a shooter of Taiwanese descent, unleashed an automatic rifle loaded with ammunition delivered by mail-order to his dormitory room in 1992. Wayne Lo managed to kill a teacher and paralyze a security guard before helplessly giving himself up to police. His gun had jammed. Like the recent Virginia Tech shooting, there was a certain amount of prevarication by campus officials. For at least forty-five minutes, campus administration officials knew Lo had a gun and approached the matter initially by scheduling a series of meetings.
I spent my third year of undergraduate work in Germany. Disgusted by the state of my cherished subject—philosophy—and tired of the play-acting that sustains university life, I returned to the United States midway through the year. I entered the working world, and ended up in Virginia where I married and had a daughter. Having been fired from a customer service job for writing amusing and fictitious e-mails, I decided to go back to school and get a degree in the easiest subject I could think of: English.
Along the way, I had written a number of short pieces for my own entertainment. These were pieces that featured comic violence, absurd plots, and themes that were over-the-top. One short story involved a fictional detective on the JonBenet Ramsey case who traveled through time and who also happened to be the murderer. He abducted random kids from the playground and brought them before his own independent tribunal, half-aware that he himself was the killer and—you guessed it—ritualistically force-fed the kids pieces of his own buttocks. For some over the age of thirty, it is hard to imagine the capacity the younger generation has for entertaining these kinds of violent images and terrible ideas. But the fact is that the basic conditions are the same today as in generations past: those in authority, including the government, the media, the legal system, the corporate world, are utterly corrupt and without morals. The hypocrisy and denial at all levels is at such a fevered pitch now that those in control are nearly pathological, totally unaware of the basic fraudulence of their situations. While in decades past the milieu of protest was sex, drugs, and rock and roll, after decades of the culture announcing as much to itself, today it leans heavily in the direction of anonymity — the Internet, video games, and technology. As a result the younger generation has a deeply cultivated, if quiet, notion of absurdity that grows in proportion to the inability of society to act in a balanced way, leaving decent young people alone and isolated, treasuring images of incredible and brutal violence as reflections of their own helpless situations.
When I entered Virginia Tech and attended classes, I was immediately struck by the total lack of grounding students had in history, even basic knowledge about the world. It was not a question of lapses or holes in their knowledge. These kids really knew nothing. But Virginia Tech is essentially two schools. There is a math and science school, sustained by government research grants, and populated largely by students who have immigrated and were unable to get into a better school. The other school is a backwater. Peopled mainly by white kids brought in by a clean sweep of an area with a three-hundred mile radius, these kids ended up at Virginia Tech because their grades in high school were nominally better than those of their peers. They are at Virginia Tech to get a degree in an empty subject — like English — and enjoy four years of partying hard. The first school of the hard sciences constitutes a kind of dispirited elite nursing a hidden secret. The second school is what Virginia Tech has traditionally been: a farm school. Until recently, a photo could be seen on the university website of a smiling girl kneeling next to a cow.
When my classes began, it was clear I was in for an uncertain time. Asking a question in class or having to get feedback on my own work was like peering into a deep and bottomless well. For most of the students, the light was on and no one was home. Unfortunately, it quickly became clear to me that at Virginia Tech, professors were not a higher form of human being. Instead they were very nearly worse. From having bizarre insecurities and complexes that showed themselves in class, to being simply petty and even deceitful, some professors in the English department were simply not educators. They were scarcely even scholars. One ‘instructor’ convinced she was in a pre-Raphaelite painting seemed to consider literature an aberrant form of journalistic prose. She gave literate, well-reasoned essays by students lower marks than she did rambling and clouded essays by those only functionally literate but who ‘tried hard’. Another instructor was a tiny, bumbling man with a sneer who claimed to be an ordained pastor, and who opened his creative writing class with the question of ‘what is evil’ and what cannot be allowed in literature. He wrote canned crime novels. Shows like ‘Hart to Hart’ and crime dramas from the seventies had him trumped for imagination every time, and as far as being cutting edge goes, he was located on the handle of a dull spoon. This fellow, Carl Bean, will figure later in the story.
Though these characterizations may sound trite, they have a direct bearing on the shootings: professors in charge of the education of kids, scarcely eighteen years old, who were themselves out of touch and to a degree unbalanced, unable to correctly identify a threat (my case) or unable to connect to a troubled kid and prevent a shooting (Cho's case).
At the start of my third and final semester, I encountered more than resistance, and what seemed to be real persecution. At the start of my required poetry class, a fellow by the name of Bob Hicok took me aside and gave me a talking to that I will never forget, though I try from time to time to black it out. The first assignment had been to write a one-page description of our influences and what they meant to us. I submitted a tongue-in-cheek, but graphic and flamboyantly described list: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, a woman I’d slept with who had a giant mole on her rear end. —I include the piece with this article for the sake of objectivity. What separates the piece from genuinely unbalanced writing is first of all the quality of the prose, and secondly the juxtaposition of the absurd elements — serial killers and women with giant moles on their rear ends. I had a natural expectation that this would be recognized, and in no case anticipated a violent reaction.
Bob Hicok, who continues to enjoy a certain local respect for being a younger poet (early forties) who had ‘worked for a living’ and for a while been a non-academic, gave me the most stereotypical authoritarian performance I had ever witnessed. It was transparent enough that I half-wondered whether it was a parody—when I wasn’t busy being totally taken aback. ‘Who do you think you are?’ he asked at one point. Then for emphasis: ‘You’re no better than anybody else here.’ Stunned, I spent long minutes looking at the floor. Here I was, a father and a husband, roles that society pays a lot of lip service to, someone who had gone to college early and had in the past been called brilliant, getting lambasted in a completely ludicrous way by a guy who didn’t know who I was on the basis of a single piece of writing. When he demanded, ‘Look at me,’ at one point, I almost laughed out loud. But the indignity of it had dampened my spirits.
There is a long tradition in literature, for those who are not familiar, of crazy writing. Edgar Allen Poe wrote in an almost excessively reasoned fashion about hypersensitivity to light and sound, and even to feelings, in probably half of his stories. Baudelaire wrote a collection of poems published under the title ‘Flowers of Evil’ which celebrated — evil. Lautréamont topped him by writing ‘Maldoror’ featuring an anti-hero who carved his face with a straight razor so he could feel what a smile was like. Artaud dedicated a set of poems to Hitler and drew on a reservoir of images that ranged from bodily functions to the sexual organs of his parents. William S. Burroughs, a hero to many college students, wrote about not only drugs but wild homosexual sex, and did so in such a way as to surpass the craziest writing out there at the time. Amateur surgery, wild torture, ludicrous and farcical violence — these all form the backdrop of the most vivid and powerful writing done in the last hundred—now two hundred years.
While never able to expect a warm reaction from the general public for this kind of writing, I expected nonetheless at least a recognition from learned college professors that such writing had been done. Burroughs’ book ‘Naked Lunch’ was after all a book taught in a required course in their department. I submitted a set of samples of my own work to Carl Bean, instructor for a class on short story writing, privately and via e-mail. Strangely I received no reply. A few professors became fans of mine, one calling what I had written over the past few years ‘the best writing he had seen in twenty-five years’. In fact, far from being a troubled loner who hovered in darkness outside the department, I was on friendly terms with a number of professors. Now, at the risk of digression, I will mention those with whom I enjoyed a genuine rapport — decent human beings, somehow unable to fall prey to the baser instincts of fear and hysteria, and who deserve praise for that reason.
The Reverend Bob Siegle, a cross between a hypnotist and a mercenary, managed to entrance ball-cap and sweatshirt-wearing students with talk from the outer fringes of theory, weaving a straitjacket of bewilderment around them under the pale artificial light of the classroom, until they emerged blinking with a vague feeling of having been used, as if a girl felt up at a crowded dance party. JoAnn Harvill had the heart of a lion, and somehow communicated at once an irreverent disregard for the college setting and a deep care for the subject matter, projecting out on to her students a motherly aura within which students of all types found a uniform sense of protection and safety. Fritz Oehlschlaeger, with a twinkle in his eye, presented undergraduates with an irascible, crackling personality that by equal turns was solemn and searching, somehow managing to convince them that they and he were on the same path to finding answers. Tom Gardner, whose original background was outside of literature, came at the subject with a clarity and earnestness that was unsurpassed, and did more to genuinely teach students than any I had seen. Ernie Sullivan, a universally beloved figure, conveyed a self-deprecating affability that only poorly disguised the fact he was an intellectual giant, one who gave undergraduates their first exposure to true erudition and what it was to be in the presence of a scholar.
With these members of the department I enjoyed engaging and memorable moments outside of class. In the best tradition of higher education they labor in quiet, gently touching the lives of students, intangibly making a difference after even the knowledge fades, which can happen slowly or quickly, all the while the quality of their character, their stature as better human beings providing the ultimate basis for their credibility, their authority to pass that knowledge along. But it must still be said: even these beneficent people were not enough to alter the basic character of the place. It remained what it was — the Good as ever is a numbers game. The inevitable movement of events would go against me.
The department head, Lucinda Roy, who has earned for herself a brief moment of fame by coming forward and saying that she tried to approach the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, on a one-on-one basis, made herself my own academic advisor midway through the semester. It was unusual, since I already had an advisor, but I flattered myself that she was interested in me because of the quality of the writing I’d done, some of which at that point I submitted to her myself.
In a pattern which would duplicate exactly that of Cho Seung-Hui, I was brought to her office weekly for a discussion. At the time I looked forward to these meetings. Dr. Roy was warm and pleasant, a very intelligent woman. Having been thwarted in my attempts to get intellectual stimulation at Virginia Tech and in the English department in particular, and now having an uneasy relationship with certain faculty members, I approached my meetings with her with a positive outlook. I reflected somewhat bitterly on the fact that I was being summoned more or less because of the controversy that had been created, but even so, it was nice to meet with the department head and to be accorded a kind of special status.
With a month left in the semester, what would be my last, I was summoned to Dr. Roy’s office by an answering machine message. Her secretary instructed me to appear in Dr. Roy’s office first thing Monday morning. I had recently dropped another bomb in the poetry class — a set of love poems to Terri Schiavo — and figured I was in trouble again. Not my best writing to be sure, but by now I was giving up the struggle. What I encountered when I arrived I could not possibly have expected.
In Dr. Roy’s office sat two VT Police detectives. Initially, I did not know they were police officers. I assumed she was in another meeting and poked my head in the door to let her know I was there. She beckoned me in and identified the two seated as police detectives. It was an ambush. At that moment, I knew I had been had. As they rose, I didn’t look at her, but caught a glimpse of her face out of the corner of my eye. There was no guilt there, or regret. There was only uncertainty at how I would react. —The most unkindest cut of all. On my face, I am quite sure, there was a look of utter dread.
I was patted down and asked to go with the detectives. I was not allowed to walk behind them. Downstairs I was ushered into a police vehicle — after I was patted down again. One of the detectives sat next to me in the backseat, apparently to keep me from floating out the window. I was driven off-campus to an undisclosed location, which laughably turned out to be a building sitting right next to an Italian restaurant where I had eaten three or four times.
Once inside, after being told to sign in, I was escorted, flanked on both sides by the two officers — a man and a woman — into a small room. I was asked to sit down in chair on the far side, back to the wall, facing three other chairs. A camera was mounted on the wall in the opposite corner. I have no idea whether it worked. The woman took the chair to my left, the man sat to my right. The middle chair was vacant.
I remember the ‘detectives’ talking to themselves as I sat there in the special way that cops can talk about a person who is right there in the room as if he isn’t. Bear in mind, up to this point I knew nothing about why I had been taken to a room off-campus by police investigators. I had vivid suspicions. But at no point had I been clearly told what was going on, or told that I had a right to decline this trip, which may or may not have been the case. The detectives said blandly ‘we have to wait for someone else to arrive’. And she sure did.
After ten minutes of waiting, there walked into the room a woman around five feet in height with stringy gray hair and a tiny gimp arm that looked like a broken baby bird’s wing. In that crippled arm she had decided to carry her clipboard. She hobbled into the room. It was clear even at that early stage she had no warm feelings for me.
When she took her seat, the three official people — two cops, and the third who had by now been identified as a ‘therapist’ — commenced with a totally empty and meaningless theatrical ploy. They sat, and for another ten minutes, reviewed separate manila folders, each an inch-and-a-half thick, within which I was told was my ‘file’. In it was every assignment I had submitted for creative writing classes, every set of samples I had privately submitted to professors, every crank letter I had written to the campus newspaper. I was amazed that they had amassed all of this writing, and appalled that I had to now sit and watch them read what they must have already read, since otherwise I would not even have been there.
What followed was an hour-and-fifteen minute interrogation during which I was asked to defend my writing to people who for all I knew were only functionally literate and who in any event had no training in literature. The gimp woman, who had the gleam in the eye of every zealot, asked a number of questions that were unspeakably stupid. ‘Would you want your three-year-old child reading this?’ I was asked. ‘No,’ I answered. I declined to mention she didn’t know how to read. ‘Aren’t you afraid that by writing this, someone is going to go out and do this?’ My answer: ‘No’.
They were not getting very far. By mid-point in the interview, I had brought the female cop over to my side. In actual fact, she was a seven-month pregnant woman. Endowed with the kind of special common sense every pregnant mother needs for survival, she had guessed early on that I was no threat. The other cop didn’t have enough imagination to be convinced that a human being could be behind writing that was outrageous by all the accepted standards. But he was tiring from his effort and the questions from him were becoming fewer and farther between.
There is something to be said about crazy people going into psychology, as a phenomenon, and if it has not already been said, it is still a truism for being unarticulated. The gimp woman was worked up into a lather, and rather than easing up as the interview went interminably on, she had the bit between her teeth. She was convinced that I was not only a sociopath, but a child molester, a serial killer, and evil in the strict theological sense. At the interview’s end, she excused herself from the room, purportedly to bring back some paperwork.
When she returned, she made an announcement, and it took on the form of a vow. ‘I believe you are a threat to yourself and to the people around you. If the University is not going to do anything about it, I will.’ She then announced that she was contacting Social Services to have my daughter taken away.
At this point, the situation turned from inconvenience to outrage. I had been separated from my wife for some time, a marriage that was failing because I was young, reckless, and took her love for granted, and now had my own apartment across town. But I made no effort to communicate this. I was convinced that her plan would fail when it was realized I was not even sharing the same house as my daughter. Nonetheless, the full arc of my experience which I had traveled from submitting tasteless homework assignments for English classes to the threat of my daughter getting taken away and forced into foster care was by now unbelievable.
I made efforts during the week to contact First Amendment lawyers. The fees were astronomical. I attempted to contact the ACLU, but since my case did not match their celebrated causes — the right for Klansmen to have their sheets dry-cleaned at the same price as other consumers, for example — my calls went unanswered. I became desperate, demoralized, and exasperated.
I avoided my classes that week. I met with professors whom I had discovered, based on a university policy, had been secretly forwarding every bit of writing I submitted to the department head, who then forwarded it on to the Virginia Tech Police. Bob Hicok lied to my face and denied that he would do any such unthinkable thing, only to be contradicted by higher authorities who presented me with copies of material submitted to him alone. I asked him whether some of the clear and cogently written articles of literary criticism I had submitted — one of which he even hypocritically asked to be allowed to put up on the website — did not prove that I was clear-headed and not insane. He didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.
Carl Bean, whom I did not approach at all, had, I later learned, within hours of my submitting my set of writing samples via e-mail forwarded it all on to the administration. The next several classes he had spent in a fairly pathetically obvious way dwelling on the subjects of evil and mental illness. Here and there, I countered, equally obliquely with possible objections, taking an intellectual interest in the fairly phony reasoning and trying to overlook the offensive fact it was all more or less directed at me.
I met with some of the professors who had been fans of mine. To their credit, they had met with Lucinda Roy and spoken in my defense. But they seemed weary and in fear for their own jobs ultimately. While I could get a sympathetic ear when I entered their offices, I saw nothing to suggest heroic measures on my behalf. The best advice I could get was: ‘Get away from Virginia Tech.’ I was on my own.
I decided to draft a letter to the department head, whom I had not spoken to since the ambush and to whom I would never speak again. I half-suspected that above all things they wanted to get me out of the classroom. So I took a gamble, and in a forcefully written letter I demanded that I be given a grade for the work I had done to date in all my creative writing classes, and be excused from attending those classes for the remainder of the semester. I stated the obvious: that creative writing classes were a privileged domain in which the benefit of the doubt should be given to students regarding their work, and that they should be allowed to work free of fear of police interrogation.
I also mentioned that by that time Social Services had gone to my daughter’s home demanding a meeting with her. My mother-in-law, a stern Iranian woman, who was visiting at the time, would have no part of it, not allowing them inside and even faking less English than she had. My wife took my daughter to Social Services later that week where, by the barest chance, the woman handing the case that day was a well-grounded black woman with a sense of humor and a healthy dose of common sense. She did not believe the child was in any danger, and even commented on how healthy she looked. However, her underling, who was also working the case, and who was a nervous white girl, the type who would use social concern as a way to exert power over the lives of others, expressed her opinion that my daughter should be taken out of the home. Again, I was not a part of the household at this time, but nevertheless, it was a close thing that my daughter was not taken out of her happy home and placed among strangers.
Acting as I hoped and expected, the head of the English department consented to my request. I heard second-hand that she had been ‘concerned’ about the Social Services intervention. In my letter, I had threatened legal action against the University as result of that intervention. It seems she noticed that events had spiraled out of her control. In other words, a shit-storm had developed with unpredictable variables. The matter was hushed up, and I was given my degree.
The idiocy of my ordeal — the fact that my outward demeanor was sociable and far from threatening, that my writing never threatened anyone personally and was mainly guilty of being politically incorrect, and the fact that I was only a month away from graduating — all point to the semi-hysterical environment of the college setting and of the Virginia Tech English department in particular. I was put through the wringer for what amounted to unconventional writing. In a department which encouraged this by at least paying lip service to that very ideal, my treatment was unnecessary, unfair, and for that reason immoral. Yet it can be argued that in their handling of me, the English department at Virginia Tech blew their load and as a result later allowed someone who visibly demonstrated troubling behavior to slip through the cracks. Why was Cho Seung-Hui never taken off-campus and questioned in the same manner? According to news reports it was merely recommended to him that he seek counseling, which he refused. Why the discrepancy in treatment? Was my own writing that much worse (better) than his? At the very least, the fact that no one managed to connect with the shooter on a human level can be fairly well explained by the fact they were too busy employing the shotgun approach, chasing after the ghosts of political incorrectness in the manner of all universities across the country, and therefore could not deal with a genuine threat in a direct and focused way.
I must say this as a point of clarity: At no college that I ever attended had I encountered the kind of basic mistrust, fear, and visceral resistance to myself personally that I encountered at Virginia Tech. In schools in the Northeast I received praise and encouragement. In Germany I had the respect of older, more serious students and professors. At Virginia Tech I ran into a single-minded brick wall that equated any unconventional writing or behavior with direct personal threat. So far from being a totally unexpected event, the question can be asked: Did Virginia Tech somehow work to invisibly bring about its own prophecy? After all I was surely not the only one singled out in this way. Did Virginia Tech’s persistent expectation of some tragedy itself lay the conditions for an unbalanced person like Cho to assume the role?
On Thursday, April 19th at around 9:30 a.m., on the third day after the shooting, I received an e-mail from my wife. Two state police officers had showed up at the door asking after my whereabouts.
You can imagine my reaction. Here I am someone two years out of Virginia Tech, someone who lives an hour away and never visits the place, being roped in for a police interview regarding a shooting that I obviously had nothing to do with.
There are those who can easily accede to the fantasy of being a helpful, innocent citizen with nothing to hide, thanks to a simple faith that because innocent, no harm can come to them. Regrettably I am no longer able to play that part. I have seen the system up close and I have no faith in any reasonable outcome at any time. If at a given moment I am not in jail, it is by the purest accident. Not from some steadying bulwark of reason or self-restraint on the part of the system.
The e-mail contained a name and contact number for a ‘Dr.’ So-and-So with the Virginia State Police. I will call him ‘Dr. Van Etten’ for the purposes of this writing. For some time I wrestled with what I should do. For one, I was at work when I received this e-mail. Whatever the banalities of the job, having the state police appear would surely jeopardize it. I have bills to pay, including school tuition for my daughter—the only reason I stay with the job in the first place. On the other hand, voluntarily contacting them would almost certainly involve my giving up my contact information and a near guarantee of harassment in the future.
The matter settled itself when a half-hour later my phone rang. Here was our Dr. Van Etten. Three cheers for your detective work, I thought. Only a half-hour in getting my number.
I was asked to agree to a meeting. No, no, a telephone conversation would not do. It would have to be in person. They wanted to ‘reassure’ themselves of some things.
Dr. Van Etten seemed mild enough. But he detected from my tone that I was not someone who would or could play the part of a happy citizen willing to shake my head in unison and on cue at the calamity and provide exactly what he wanted to hear: a ‘Terrible shame, officer,’ and with a happy-go-lucky laugh, ‘No, couldn’t have been me.’ Therefore I was a question mark — which to a police officer has a very black meaning. My tone no doubt reflected my genuine agitation at having been dragged into another mess with an unpredictable outcome. Not to mention being grouped in again with nutcases and shooters by a school I had only ever sought to get an easy degree from.
Naturally I consented to the meeting. It took place during my lunch break. They showed up in an unmarked car in plain clothes, a fact for which I was grateful. I met them in the parking lot and was asked to get into the passenger seat while one of them swooped around and climbed into the back.
Dr. Van Etten began the questioning from the driver’s seat. He informed me that someone had sent an anonymous e-mail to Dr. Lucinda Roy the previous morning. The e-mail was non-threatening and, he said, not illegal. He asked me whether I had written the e-mail.
As I said ‘no’, he continued on with a ‘before you answer’ full of ominous portent, doom and gloom about the consequences of not telling the truth. I reiterated my denial. I waved my arms and looked out the passenger window.
‘You are lying. You just proved it to me Mr. Newbury and maybe someday I will tell you how,’ said the learned investigator. It was clear to me in an instant what had happened, and was happening. The learned doctor, who probably had his degree in criminal psychology, had just satisfied himself with a little bit of his own knowledge regarding body language and concluded that I was guilty.
Well, my body language is that of a guilty person. What Van Etten did not realize is that someone who has been treated as a criminal — put into that position by society — can act as a criminal would whether guilty or not. You are guilty by definition and act the part. I will give an anecdote to illustrate.
One or two months ago I had occasion to be in Roanoke City Court, a downtown court some forty-five minutes away from Virginia Tech. As I sat there listening to the stream of mostly poor people appearing before the judge for traffic violations, minor drug charges, driving under the influence — people in broken-down sneakers, shirts untucked, miniskirts and hot pants, pants around their ankles — I noticed a remarkable thing: even in those cases where the person involved was entirely innocent, a fact backed up by police testimony, express statements by the court, and the obvious circumstances of the case, the person lied to the judge. It was laid on thick. Not only were facts embellished, but extraneous facts were introduced. More facts were invented. The person before the judge, eyes wandering around the ceiling, with a strain in their voice, lied even while telling what was factually true. This was because even while innocent of the particular offense in question they were guilty in the broadest sense. They were guilty because of past offenses, and of being poor and outsiders. They had been put in the position of the ‘guilty’ party, and now played the part with no expectation of being believed.
I guess I belong more with criminals at this point. My body language did indicate guilt and evasion. That is because, rightly or wrongly, I have no expectation of being believed.
The story gets worse. Van Etten handed me a printout of the e-mail sent to Lucinda Roy. He told me boastfully how the FBI writing analysis computer at Quantico, Virginia determined the writing was mine. And Lucinda Roy, helpfully, had supplied my name as a likely suspect.
I could tell at a glance the writing was not mine. Half the sentences began uncapitalized. There was inconsistent spacing after the periods. I didn’t take the time to read it. It appeared to be a fairly juvenile set of accusations against the wonderfully heroic Dr. Roy to the effect that she was to blame because she had ‘singled out’ Cho. I handed the paper back to him.
The fact that their ‘experts’ had determined the writing was mine naturally confirmed all my fears about the system. Here I was, someone two years out of Virginia Tech, having been wrongly thought of and even slandered as a nutcase during my time there, now getting it all over again. This time with ‘evidence’. I didn’t write the e-mail I was presented with — which in any event I was told was not illegal — and had I wanted to contact the former department head, a person with whom as far as I am concerned no meaningful communication is possible, I would have put my name at the top writ large and at least spelled the words right.
I told Van Etten that I hoped he was bluffing about the Quantico analysis. He responded with bluster that he ‘never bluffs’. I stopped short of continuing with the point I wanted to make: no wonder you guys haven’t caught any terrorists. I also stopped short of asking what Windows 95 computer they were putting the writing into at Quantico.
I iterated several times that I had nothing to do with the e-mail. It is true that underneath I was half-panic stricken, and for that all I can do now is berate myself, but as I have said, I have no faith in the system whatsoever. Van Etten told me that when they tracked down the IP address that the e-mail message came from and if it was ‘any site I frequent’ then next time the interview would not be ‘so friendly’.
What would that mean? That if at any time in the past I have been at a computer that accessed a hotmail account I am de facto guilty? If their IP-tracking computer hacking experts are as good as their writing analysis people, I would be pretty much ruined. For all I know there’s a law on the books somewhere about ‘lying to investigators’ and ‘impeding an official investigation’ which if they are disagreeable enough to use, they will use. Combined with the erroneous writing analysis and the specious IP analysis bound to follow, well, you can imagine years of legal costs, possible imprisonment, and tarnished reputation to have come from submitting a few creative writing assignments years before that were perhaps too creative.
I gave them three names of current English professors at VT who were fans of mine and who, I hoped, could also say at a simple glance that the writing was not mine. The third name ‘Oehlschlaeger’ belongs to an excellent professor still in the department. As Van Etten started spelling it out, I decided not to correct his spelling and pleaded confusion as to the spelling myself, seeking to avoid a mean-spirited reaction and come off sounding like a smartass. Now I wish I had corrected it as the spelling errors in the Lucinda Roy e-mail could less plausibly be said to be mine.
Van Etten and his colleague collected my personal information — phone number, address, date of birth — as predicted and asked where my car was located. I didn’t have my license plate number committed to memory or written down — they said they would find my car. Van Etten closed the interview by advising me to ‘lay low’ and not post anything to any ‘bulletin boards’ or on the internet in any fashion. Presumably, that meant anonymous postings. But after they left and walked back inside, I wondered: Am I as a citizen now as a practical matter to find it necessary to avoid speaking on a topic of which I have first-hand experience and in which I am now peripherally involved to avoid police questioning?
Well, this constitutes my posting on the whole execrable affair. Never having wanted to be a writer—an occupation which to me has always seemed to look as lukewarm on a business card as ‘masturbator’ or ‘indigent’—I wrote in my spare time, for entertainment, things that were fully in keeping with the established edge of the culture. At their best, the writings took a place alongside some of the best in literature for their recklessness, their ability to follow a lunatic line of thought to its conclusion, their humor, and indeed their clarity. But because of Virginia Tech, I have not written since then. And I will not write. All the fun has been taken out of it, the joy dissolved from it, and the pedestrian and ‘blog’-like specimen that you have before you is all that I can manage. In having written this, I have taken a number of risks. At present there is a near guarantee that I will encounter further police questioning as a result of this posting. Also, because of the complexity of our culture and way of life, I have no way of knowing whether I will be unexpectedly savaged for what is a simple statement.
So, having established by way of anecdote the unfortunate circumstances of my own involvement in recent events at Virginia Tech, and having established myself as a peripheral player in the affair and therewith the suggestion that some insight might be gained on this basis, I will now harness what little is left of my will and diminishing cognitive faculties and conclude with a statement of the obvious concerning the case.
Telling the truth in this world, in this place and time, requires more than courage. —It requires megalomania.
But I have been accused of such before. The words that constitute the writing above are themselves a reflection our present affliction: in other words, they are intended for an audience.
To intend in this instance is to become, to insist upon an assured meaning. The meaning is mutual, the assurance is a mutual assurance that this, here, what we intend is the same. For both of us, for all of us.
For the purposes of the communication, and to derive clarity from the fact of its intention — for ourselves — we bring ourselves about, standing in the light of our words. But it is the insistence that guarantees their meaning, the fact that you and I both insist. The insistence is contractual and is also contracted, as if a disease.
Our disease, our current affliction is that we unconsciously blind ourselves to the truth, we restrict our own vision, by this insistence.
But why this insistence? From where comes the need to insist, the need to display, singly and collectively, that we insist?
Society, culture, our way of life — empty, meaningless terms for what is close at hand and thus confounds us by its immediacy — ‘our world’ is complex in a way never experienced before. Nearly seven billion people now live on this globe. As the number increases, the need to control these people greatens as the ability to control them lessens and becomes strained. Systems are developed to help reinforce and offset the control, and this results in a proliferation of systems. Bureaucracy enters every level of day-to-day life, assisted by the intervention and needs of capital — and traditional social forms, the common laws, fall into dust, no longer considered reliable enough to govern the new reality. The individual becomes a threat. This idea of a threat is reinforced by what the individual indeed can do: the terrorist, the shooter. Every display by an individual that does not correspond to the subset of behaviors prescribed in advance as ‘individual’ is regarded as a dangerous noise outside the camp. Passions are considered pathological. Psychology steps forward to help people manage their maladjustment and to assist the prevailing power structure. Everyday emotions are given a new name: sadness becomes depression. Long-term sadness and inner torment which sometimes leads to elation when there is a break in the clouds: bipolar disorder née manic depression. Problems that become lost to the inside when the world has failed a person, and the problem’s origin becomes lost even to the person himself: a chemical imbalance. By the thousands, simply unhappy people in the middle flock to a new clinical description of their unhappiness — their new Zodiac — and equip themselves with an unshakable belief in this otherworldly cause. History books are scoured for signs in support of the new reality — witness poor Abraham Lincoln, what has happened to him: depressive, manic-depressive, homosexual, autist. A remarkable country, indeed, in which a man who is all these things can become President.
In this environment, which is both sterile and hysterical, human freedom becomes a metaphysical concept. Laws are written, and old laws re-interpreted, against the backdrop of the need to control the whole, viewing the movement of the body as statistical mass more important than the freedom and experience of the human subject. Sentences are passed down with an eye toward ‘making an example’ rather than from within the staging ground of the choice of the human being. In the universities, because the grounds for the need for human freedom have become obscured, transparently flawed efforts are made to re-ground the lingering institutions of human freedom in a consensual model, or the question is sidestepped altogether, particularly in those who strain like amnesiacs under the weight of the missing experience and the ongoing erasure of the memory that it is they who sacrifice human freedom, putting it under the knife every day on the altar of their being.
Without the extra-deictic act of imagination that establishes the subjectivity of one inside another, and finally of all across all, the human being’s subjectivity comes to be regarded as a private objectivity. We all ‘recognize’ that behind our public exteriors is an interior that likes to eat, shit, and screw — and is prone to private enjoyments, certain kinds of images, certain kinds of media enjoyment, all species of the same thing. This is re-inforced by the therapy culture, which has only ever been an institutional effort to cope with the problem of human subjectivity — which produces a public evacuation of interiority into the language and categories of consensually agreed upon, and agreed upon, and finally insisted upon shorthand notions of interiority, with the result that any human individuality which falls outside the new ‘inclusive’ code-language is not only a threat for coming from outside, it is a threat as an explicit refutation of the content of this social contract. Human freedom becomes understood in light of this consensually-derived language and practice of ‘individuality’, so that it is believed we are free to the extent that we find each other, fingers trembling, in this dark night of the herd. We are led to believe we find ourselves only to the extent that we participate in the mystery of how we ourselves appear to others. And thus does a mirror reflect another mirror — poorly.
But human freedom is not this. Human freedom is not that experience in a moment of privacy that one has not been trodden under by more powerful forces, nor the name one gives to the remaining domain out of reach of those more powerful forces, nor to the personalized insanity that one has under one’s private most thoughts, the deeply located and roughly unique configuration of enjoyments and delights that one calls one’s own. Human freedom is the natural expression of humankind that spreads outwards, when one is not suborned, debased, or degraded. Human freedom is the most natural expression of a human being, when he or she is not harried, hampered, or hindered by power, or enacting a script of old sins, scars from the use of power. Human freedom, as an example of a libertarian ideal, is also the most progressive political principle: only more freedom will make human beings continue to evolve, draw them out of savagery.
And for proof that human freedom is natural one need look no further than that — it does not exist.
The intervention of power, of the lie, against the seamless fabric of human existence, an existence which is both savage and innocent, represents a first value and a creation of a double, the original mark of Cain. ‘An eye for an eye and whole world is blind’, as the saying goes, and the whole system of human life represents a perfection of this: the management of the abuse of power. A balancing and a proportionalizing and a meting out of power, sin against sin, and abuse against abuse, down to the smallest sin and the most reasonable abuse. And this is why the system will not last. Yet we proceed, and the parallel to addiction is obvious: we grow more and more dependent on our compromises, and as we do so, more and more compromised.
And as the chaos and contradictions of daily life mount, the insistence on a certain meaning, on meaning a certain way, and on exhibiting signs of this shared insistence — becomes stronger. And underneath all the concerned intrusions of bureaucracy is the same message: ‘Don’t rock the boat’. And inwardly, reasonable people remark that it is a sinking ship — and brace themselves. And yet, for the most part, in their simple-minded hopefulness, they, too, toe the line and assert their faith in ‘positive thinking’, saying as they shake their heads that it has always been this way, in their ignorance — and their arrogance — thinking that somehow they participate in ancient wisdom thereby. Meanwhile all around, the situation descends into total confusion: a new Babel of speaking in tongues, basic communication between people becoming impossible, miscommunication the rule, and all decisions regarding the treatment of fellow men made, strictly speaking, at random, by institutions provoked by the most transparent of causes.
And with no discernible human bonds to sustain them, the need for more control becomes intuitively more obvious to all.
Who has ever questioned to what end a forgettable factory school like Virginia Tech proliferates and grows? To what end the constant acquisition of acreage, the expansion of departments, the ever higher and higher enrollment of students, the construction of more dorms and buildings? Greater prestige? An increase in revenue? As such an institution grows, at the mercy of its own proliferating systems and schemata for growth, the contradictions and inconsistencies increase — and the need to overlook, to rationalize, and to make-believe as well. Humanity is debased. And the bureaucracy, which must control more and more students, becomes more abstract and transubstantial. The model is a good one provided one restricts oneself to consideration of magnitude. More classes, more students, more compromises. Until eventually, the compromise becomes thorough enough that the experience of true learning, of learning at a vivid intensity, is forgotten altogether. Rather than simply lingering, outnumbered, participants in that age-old experience disappear. No more functionaries are produced to fulfill the tribal function of ‘the learned’. The system as a whole comes to be governed by the unchecked reality of college as performance ritual, an exercise without foundation, for students, professors, and the bureaucrats above who manage them, and the faceless character of the experience adjusts to reflect the underlying reality.
This is all perfectly acceptable so long as all the participants involved are able to straddle the cognitive line between a persistent and obvious reality on one hand and the play-acting required for the system to smoothly function on the other. The participants even adapt to their circumstances: students develop enough interiority to entertain certain ideas so long as they have witnessed this interiority in others, seen it played out on the faces of others. It is done slowly, clumsily, by degrees — and only so far as their notion of the ‘college student’ requires it.
Now enter into the picture a single unbalanced person.
It is remarkable to read news reports of the police and its search for a motive. The shooter left a singularly well-documented trail: a suicide note/video eagerly seized upon by news outlets. And yet somehow the shooter is not taken at his word. He now fills the role of a ‘nutcase’, and the problem of his humanity disregarded. He is understood to be ‘evil’ or schizophrenic, another way of drawing a curtain of mystery before the same thing. Fragments of the shooter’s life — the purchase of rubber ducks on eBay, for example — are seized upon as proof that he was a nutcase even though a thousand similar details might be found in the lives of a thousand college students. These details merely confirm that his life could have gone a thousand different ways. Within the theater of possibility of an Asian-American youth, burdened by the pressures of his immigrant family, surrounded by wealth and false happiness in direct refutation to his upbringing, possibly on anti-depressants known to cause violence and suicide in young people — anything might have happened, good or bad. Yet it went the way it did.
Who crossed to meet the humanity of the shooter Cho before his violent outburst? Our news reports would have us believe that Lucinda Roy, head of the English department, struggling to go beyond the restrictiveness of university policy, reached out to the shooter on a ‘one-on-one’ basis. Roy has certainly fostered the impression that she was uniquely placed, and endowed by her humanity, to observe the tragedy in embryonic form. Yet my experience suggests that this was a pre-established procedure of observation, not an unique effort at rapprochement. And certainly, if she could fail to recognize the absence of a shooter in my case, she could fail to recognize and connect to the humanity of the would-be shooter, whose insides were suffocated into silence. But our bureaucrats are not chosen for their greater humanity, their ability to contain their fellow man within them: they are chosen for the degree they can entertain in themselves the belief they are doing so, while explicitly and precisely carrying out the will of the institution. In other words, the same wishful thinking and self-denial that sustains our society as a whole.
What of Cho’s treatment in his classes? Our faithful news reports tell of Cho being ejected from class by resident poet Nikki Giovanni, purportedly for taking cell phone photos under the table. This fairly juvenile offense could have been done by anyone, and would not have resulted in removal from class. Cho was removed because of his demeanor, pure and simple, and this removal was unique. Another faculty member would not have been able to pull it off. But Ms. Giovanni was well-known in the English department for throwing her weight around. There is a certain kind of black woman from the previous generation, obsessed with presenting the appearance of dignity, who confuses stubbornness and heavy-handedness with that same dignity. The idea that Cho could have been removed from class primarily on the basis of being sullen and unlikeable, and for having an unnerving manner, is repugnant. Was Nikki Giovanni unable to cross the ethnic distance that separated her from this solitary, stone-faced Asian youth? Her down-to-earth comment that there was something ‘mean’ about Cho should be taken in the same regard and given the same value as someone instinctively regarding a black person with suspicion because of his or her darker complexion. Was humanity well-served in the case of the handling of Cho? Did this sagacious professor manage to do what was hard, demonstrating real wisdom to avert human tragedy? Or, satisfied with the appearance of wisdom, did she do what was easy, and when a problem stuck out, she got rid of it? The fact is that the shooter Cho, ever looking for confirmation of his persecution, received ample evidence of it in this heavy-handed instance.
Who for that matter has felt the humanity of the victims? The victims are dubbed ‘heroes’ and the question as to their humanity forgotten. Who has regarded the way they met their deaths from beyond the clichés, each as something noble, very human, and unique? Who has in silent contemplation considered how many felt the searing pain of the bullets; how many felt nothing; how many noticed a stray image, the color of a chair, the way the light hit the ceiling; how many remembered, how many forgot the spouses of decades? Who has shared in an act of imagination the end of any of these irreplaceable human beings instead of simply mouthing the same oaths as part of an ongoing oral tradition for the living?
In all cases, those involved are considered unknowable versions of ourselves — ‘others’ — who, as if by hypothesis, we reason are the same as ourselves, the same as we who are unknown and unknowable to ourselves. But this situation is untenable. Human civilization to this point has been untenable — an impossible situation out of which we must evolve.
A skeptical person might ask: what has fundamentally changed since the shooting at Virginia Tech? What has resulted other than the false catharsis of a few cheering rallies? A few synchronized weeping events at which girls eye each other and time the waterworks, while young men wonder what strange providence allowed them to hug cute weeping girls they never would have otherwise? What about rubber-faced bureaucrats burying their desire to get on television so deep that they are able to give a nuanced, meaningful performances all the while from their basically flawed positions? Nothing has changed. It will now be even harder for someone to submit creative work without being thought a threat. Young people left to live lives superficial to the point of inhumanity, professors never held up against their ideal, bureaucrats never confronted with the lie that sustains their daily existence. The basic conditions of human tragedy continue.
Humanity is everywhere debased. Emotions do not play naturally across faces anymore, everyone everywhere is neurotic, corrupted, their natural feelings thwarted. Even childhood is not exempt: children are entering puberty at younger and younger ages, their minds inundated with sexual images, their bodies permeated with hormones from milks, meats, and beauty products. Twenty percent of elementary school children are on psychotropic drugs, according to one statistic. The disappearance of human freedom is co-extensive with all this. Without any reflection of what is good, just, or true in the culture which is the expression of their spirit, human beings who are not strong enough to do otherwise sign on to the mission of the institution — whether it is industry, corporation, or university — and that mission is to paralyze and parasitize. And the sinned against becomes sinner, and all institutions feeling the weight and pressure of other institutions move to keep up. But institution should be understood in both senses of the term.
The word ‘institution’ represents both a body of practices, symbolized and rooted in a place, and madhouse. One inherits an institution; its practices do not spring spontaneously from the desires of an individual. The less one’s desires coincide with the practices of the institution, the more cognitive dissonance and falsehood is required to support it. And the more one unconsciously subverts it. A school like Virginia Tech is no exception. As an institution, its flaws require so much in the way of overlooking, and looking away, and pretending and make-believe, that it can not only be counted on not to prevent a tragedy on the order of a mass shooting — it can be counted on to make exactly the wrong choice in every instance. The kernel of insanity is intrinsic to the place. And it is intrinsic to every corporation, to every government, to every organization in our current climate. Nowhere does reason prevail.
This is the lesson of our time. But simply put, the institution does not exist. Only people exist. Happier with the camaraderie of the graveyard than being alive and standing alone, everyone everywhere signs on to the mission of the institution in order to abuse his fellow man. Human freedom, which has only ever been another name for abeyance from sin, vanishes from memory. And yet, this way of life is not sustainable. As if drawn along a path, we are slowly being taught that our institutions are worthless, cannot be relied upon, are the site of a sickened, fantastic lie. They cannot protect us from hurricanes, they cannot guarantee us basic fairness. They are unable to ascertain basic guilt or innocence, save by accident, at random. Slowly, by degrees, the ‘meek’, who are those who do not participate in all this, the powerless or the poor, who alone can be trusted — slowly, the bulk of humanity learns that if anything needs to be done, they will have to do it themselves.
In light of the imperceptible movement toward this new truth, this new remembering, ‘something of the institution’ becomes as tenable as ‘something of the madhouse’. For it only to the extent that human beings have the capacity to contain their fellow man within themselves that institutions ever succeed, in any instance, and avoid becoming automata, self-perpetuating vehicles for sin.
It is a simple fact that the school ‘Virginia Tech’ offers up a faceless, characterless experience, and that so much of everyday life does now, too, relying on false, made up emotions and thinking, so much so that real feeling never seems to take hold. When you have a person in trouble whose inner make-up prevents him from being able to participate in that make-believe, who needs real, substantial human contact and not just sentiments or specious offers of ‘help’, and that person does not get it, what you have often is suicide or murder. And our lives today, as we offer them up to the institutions — as our lives at each moment become more weighable and calculable by institutions — these lives lose their humanity and irreducible responsibility for being alive. And increasingly, acts of violence, mass violence, and even innovative and incredible cruelties become the norm.
As the character of everyday life becomes more impossible, and it is becoming so right now, it will become viscerally and practicably clear that all human beings are responsible for all. It will no longer be permissible that some might slip through the cracks because we do not have the time, or because our attention stays fixed on what the institutions says is real, the reality of the institution. All will be responsible for all, finally because our survival will be at stake. This is the lesson of the shooter. And whether Seung-Hui Cho, Lucinda Cho, or Cho Newbury — it will no longer be possible to misuse other people as resentful children do. Human beings will come to give what other people need, and not just lash out afterwards when things go wrong. This must occur. God put us here, not to do what is reasonably difficult — but to do the impossible.
1. Writing becomes literature at the same moment art stops being caricature. But making the "mad", racist, or an impossible blending of the two human in the same way literature makes other sidelined perspectives human was not to be done at Virginia Tech. Foregoing the crude, broadly recognizable strokes that would have identified my writing as "student" writing or as self-consciously attempting such-and-such banal literary experiment meant that I ended up getting thought of myself as mad, racist, etc. All this just underlines the duplicitousness of the department and countless others like it: using literature as their raison d'etre, they nevertheless manage to react with horror when something like it appears. And this isn't accidental: it's built into the nature of each place.
2. The offending document. After discussing literature and literary intent, it can only weaken my case in the eyes of many who know no better to include the final straw here -- the "assignment" that earned me a trip off of campus in the back of a police car. The writing here does not rise to the level of literature. But what should be obvious is that it also does not cry out for police intervention -- unless you are living in a world where anything can lead to police intervention. My intention here was to be horrible. Accordingly, Scribd has put an age restriction on the file:
3. Some will notice the change from ‘Cho Seung-Hui’ to ‘Seung-Hui Cho’ at the end of the article. The change is validated by the Commutative Property of South Korean Names (‘Seung-Hui + Cho = Cho + Seung-Hui’). See K. Sperling, Formal Algebraic Properties of Southeast Asian Names, 2nd Edition, 2003.
Two nomenclatural elements x and y of a set SK are said to be commutative under a binary operation if they satisfy
x*y==y*x. Chi * Hua-Chi == Hua-Chi * Chi
Family names are commutative under addition
x+y==y+x Hung-So + Lo == Lo + Hung-So
x.y==y.x Poo-Poo . No == No . Poo-Poo
Set SK is said to be orthographically limited if, as in the case of Vietnamese names, no vowels occur.
Jerry Ng =/= Ng Ng (*)
Orthographically limited sets operate without an identity element, resulting in nomenclature with non-Abelian characteristics:
Ng + Dng-Ng =/= Ng (Dng-Ng)*
This last point was made by Prof. Hg Nn Mnh, University of Ho Chi Minh, in his book, Lgbrc Lttcs nd Rtfcl Ntwrks n Vtnms Fmly Gnlgy, 1997.