Reflections On An "event Out Of Nowhere"

by The New Republic Staff | April 23, 2007

by Richard Stern

A week ago today, an anguished, humiliated, infuriated paranoid named Seung-Hui Cho burst from his self-made cocoon of silence to wreak vengeance on the world of those who he believed had insulted, injured, abused, and ignored him. Following in the wake of the two Columbine high school students whose resentments and hunger for recognition had led to slaughtering their fellow students, Cho armed himself to the teeth--how amazingly easy to do this in our manly country--and slaughtered more people than had ever before been slaughtered on an American college campus. Hours before his end, he mailed to NBC his crude version of Mein Kampf, pictures of himself in fighting form--with two guns à la Billy the Kid and Rambo, with hammers and knives like God knows what--an 1800 word testament which has not yet been released by the police, and rather powerfully phrased and uttered words about his hatred for those who strutted in wealth and inflicted on him more or less impossible injuries. This was one of these "events out of nowhere" which suddenly become the center of national and even international discussion and debate, occasions to discuss many matters of importance to a country and the world: the predictability and possible prevention of such occurrences, the nature of a society where such gun-inflicted private slaughter is greater than the total of all war-related deaths, the hunger of the media and its audience for such murderous attractions--"everything in modern life comes down to entertainment," our modern equivalent of Mallarme's "everything ends up in a book"--and wondering if media display gratifies the ambition of the killer and leads to the creation of more killers. That President and Mrs. Bush came quickly to condole with the students and faculty of Virginia Tech when they had been rather conspicuously absent from the funerals of soldiers for whose deaths he, at least, had been indirectly responsible led such commentators as Frank Rich to point out the ugly political calculus behind every presidential move and word. There are a million handles to this hot pan, from, say, the Yiddish proverb about a fool throwing a stone in the water and 12 wise men analyzing the rings it makes to a belief that events of this sort reveal the warp and woof of the society in which they occur. As for me, among the many reactions was a confirmation of my long-held belief that people reveal their true selves less in vino than in what they write, and that such alert writing instructors as Nikki Giovanni and Lucinda Roy spotted the danger in the poems Cho submitted to them, and that their warnings to people supposedly responsible in the administration should have been taken much more seriously than they apparently were. It may be that from now on such signs of dangerous disturbance will be reported and even acted upon. Another reflection came as I listened to some of Franz Schubert's wonderful songs in the Schwanengesang. Written a year before his death at 31 to lyrics by such equally young men as Heinrich Heine and Ludwig Rellstab, some of these songs promulgate the desperate romantic behavior which 177 years later broke out in the distorted viciousness of the young Korean-American. Here, for instance, is the English of some lines of the Schubert-Rellstab "Lebsensmut" ("Life Courage"):

     The bold leap--dare to take it.
He who holds back will never win
Luck changes very fast.
Yours is the moment.
He who never tries the leap
Never enjoys the sweet fruit...
Bravely embrace death
When it comes to summon you...
Death's brotherhood
Opens life's prison.
I doubt that the little song had ever entered the cauldron of Seung-Hui Cho's mind either to tamp its heat or translate its boldness into mass murder, but that it is one of a billion components of the world in which he acted is not without interest.

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