Virginia Tech Killing: Who in the World Is Ismail Ax?

More ethnological and onomatological ruminations from the ever colorful right, cited in Media Matters:

“Responding to the April 16 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel “speculat[ed]” in an April 16 weblog post that the shooter, who had been identified at that point only as a man of Asian descent, might be a “Paki” Muslim and part of “a coordinated terrorist attack.”

“Paki” is a disparaging term for a person of Pakistani descent…” (That’s a comment from Media Matters)
(AN ASIDE: As someone originally from India, I just want to remark that the subcontinent (of India) alone contains as many different distinct languages and cultures as Europe. The equivalent of Europe is India, not Asia. There is really no equivalent to Asia. Europeans share more in common than Asians do. Just another way in which language confuses us with false equivalences).

Relatedly, Jerry Boyer (did I get this name right?) of National Review was just on Neil Cavuto on FOX, talking about the name, Ismail Ax. He was insisting on its jihadi overtones, claiming that Cho was a smart young man who made literary references in his writing. and therefore, the words he used need to be taken seriously.

Well, I think Cho was capable of literary references, too. ‘McBeef’, for example, is a subtle reference to Macbeth, as is the reference in the media package to people not being able to wash blood off their hands. But that’s precisely the reason I think Ismail is probably a general reference to Ishmael, as a symbol of the outcast and possibly a reference to Moby Dick and probably not a specific reference to a jihadi brotherhood.

It’s my belief that Cho’s fevered…and probably quite creative …imagination scrambled together a number of things he had read, like passages from Moby Dick (remember the reiteration of the name “Dick” in Richard McBeef…a name loaded with his obsession with sodomy).

The protagonist of Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab, has been wounded by the white whale — which becomes a symbol to him of the malice of the universe. To Ahab, the renegade Christian (which is how Cho also saw himself apparently), the whale is the “pasteboard mask” worn by the supreme inscrutable evil (ch. 36). Ahab proposes to strike back at all that is wrong everywhere by striking “through the mask.”

Moby Dick opens with the line, “Call me Ishmael,” one of the most famous in all literature.

Then here is another interesting chapter in the book, which even contains all of Cho’s references to idols, paganism, and axes:


The Ramadan

As Queequeg?s Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, was to continue all day, I did not choose to disturb him till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody?s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan;?but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all?Presbyterians and Pagans alike?for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

Towards evening, when I felt assured that all his performances and rituals must be over, I went to his room and knocked at the door; but no answer. I tried to open it, but it was fastened inside. “Queequeg,” said I softly through the key-hole:-all silent. “I say, Queequeg! why don?t you speak? It’s I-Ishmael.” But all remained still as before. I began to grow alarmed. I had allowed him such abundant time; I thought he might have had an apoplectic fit. I looked through the key-hole; but the door opening into an odd corner of the room, the key-hole prospect was but a crooked and sinister one. I could only see part of the foot-board of the bed and a line of the wall, but nothing more. I was surprised to behold resting against the wall the wooden shaft of Queequeg’s harpoon, which the landlady the evening previous had taken from him, before our mounting to the chamber. That?s strange, thought I; but at any rate, since the harpoon stands yonder, and he seldom or never goes abroad without it, therefore he must be inside here, and no possible mistake.

“Queequeg!-Queequeg!”-all still. Something must have happened. Apoplexy! I tried to burst open the door; but it stubbornly resisted. Running down stairs, I quickly stated my suspicions to the first person I met?the chamber-maid. “La! la!” she cried, “I thought something must the matter. I went to make the bed after breakfast, and the door was locked; and not a mouse to be heard; and it’s been just so silent ever since. But I thought, may be, you had both gone off and locked your baggage in for safe keeping. La! la, ma’am!-Mistress! murder! Mrs. Hussey! apoplexy!”and with these cries she ran towards the kitchen, I following.

Mrs. Hussey soon appeared, with a mustard-pot in one hand and a vinegar-cruet in the other, having just broken away from the occupation of attending to the castors, and scolding her little black boy meantime.

“Wood-house!” cried I, ?which way to it? Run for God’s sake, and fetch something to pry open the door-the axe!-the axe! he’s had a stroke; depend upon it!”and so saying I was unmethodically rushing up stairs again empty-handed, when Mrs. Hussey interposed the mustard-pot and vinegar-cruet, and the entire castor of her countenance.

“What’s the matter with you, young man?

“Get the axe! For God?s sake, run for the doctor, some one, while I pry it open!”


Here you find all the references to pagans, Christians, and axes – that were floating around in Cho’s deranged mind…he didn’t have to get any of this from jihadis.

But let’s say Cho saw himself as a kind of Captain Ahab, then what’s the physical injury or handicap he suffered? Ahab, remember, lost his leg to Moby Dick.

A poster at this blog has written in suggesting that Cho had a bad speech impediment, which might account for his introversion and silence.

Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho’s turn, he just looked down in silence“, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said.
As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China,“‘ Davids said.
{FOX News article}

We were concerned about him being too quiet and encouraged him to talk more.said an uncle (Cho’s mother’s younger brother), who requested to be identified only by his last name, Kim. Cho “troubled his parents a lot when he was young because he couldn’t speak well, but was well-behaved,” recalled his grandfather, who was also identified by only his last name Kim in an interview with the Dong-a Ilbo daily. In a separate interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper, Kim, 81, said the relatives were worried that (as a child) Cho might even be mute.

Stephanie Roberts, 22, graduated with Cho from Westfield High School.I just remember he was a shy kid who didn’t really want to talk to anybody,” she said. “I guess a lot of people felt like maybe there was a language barrier.” But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with Cho told her they recalled him getting picked on there. “There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him,” Roberts said Wednesday. “He didn’t speak English really well and they would really make fun of him. {FOX News}

And here is a report that he suffered from autism.

So, if you look at it objectively and without an agenda, there really are lots of possible explanations for Cho’s behavior and language. I am not willing to back any of them at this point, but I am pretty certain that what we know so far doesn’t support the jihadi theory.

Bo Dietl, from the (former) Don Imus show, who was also on the same FOX show today, made this point quite well. He pointed out that he too had been struck by the Muslim associations to the name until he saw the video. But the video itself was so deranged and all over the place – with its references to Christ, hedonists and rich people – that he too came to the conclusion that it did not refer specifically to jihadis.

Meanwhile, this is what is worrying the right: some of the file names in that multimedia package that Cho sent to NBC, from an NBC report:

“all of You”, “am al qaeda”, “anti terror”, “as time appr”, “blood of inno”, “congrad”, “could b victim.”

The NBC report goes on: “The rambling comments are those of an angry young man who felt persecuted, who felt that the world is against him, who felt he was a victim of personal terrorism.”

Of course, there are right-wing bloggers who think that NBC is the one rambling here:

“Felt he was a “victim of personal terrorism?” Are they fookin nuts? Who writes this psychobabble? Whoever it is must be sleeping with Geraldo Rivera,” writes one.

I will leave it there for now and just say that in my opinion, these bloggers aren’t too convincing.

What about the identification with Jesus Christ in Cho’s video? How does that square with the jihadi theory? And what about the reference to the Columbine school shooting? Or to hedonists and rich people? The reference to al quaed strikes me as something coming to him from the culture at large to be .taken for its oppositional stance in some general way but not indicating a definite allegiance.

People can legitimately pose theories about an event as sensational as this one – that’s natural. But at some point, they need to provide real evidence for their theories, or they begin to look like they are just making political hay from the moment.

Earlier on, I posted a report about a Korean killing spree (in the post about Cho) to remind us that mass shootings are not unique to the US (some of my foreign friends like to rib me about this….and the post is really for them). Killers can get their inspiration from any number of places, maybe even from several places. Now, it turns out that there’s a report that Cho might have been imitating an award winning South Korean movie he’d watched recently,  OldBoy,  which was ultra-violent and contained grotesque images of revenge and obssession.

We also have news of copy cat killings all over the country – like this one threatened by Jeffery(sic) Thomas Carney, who warns that he is going to go on a spree worse than Virginia Tech.

These copy-cat threats are making a lot of people – rightly – question NBC’s decision to go public with that video, which seems to be what is setting them off.

That tells you how diffiicult it is to lay the blame on any one thing – whether it’s videos… or rap music… or violent games – as an explanation of a particular act of violence. You can see that even news stories can set off deranged, attention- seeking sociopaths (I use the term as a layman).

My point is that deranged people will grasp at anything on which to model their behavior. We can’t really immediately infer that Cho was a jihadi just because some of his behavior resembled some things that jihadis might do.

The fact is the creative mind, even the deranged creative mind, travels very far afield for its imagery and then scrambles it in a way that defies daylight logic. If you’ve ever read about the creation of Coleridge’s “Xanadu,” a poem written in an “opium dream.” you’ll know what I mean. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson once wrote a very lengthy book ( I think it’s called In Search of Xanadu) tracking down Coleridge’s readings for many years before he wrote the poem. He showed how images from all sorts of unrelated reading turned up disguised in the famous poem.

Just something to think about: the immense power of the images around us to shape our thoughts……

Virginia Tech Shooting – Radio Interview

I will be addressing some of the questions involved in the case tomorrow on Radio CFRU 93.3 FM,, (a Canadian radio station) at 8.30 AM EST.The host is very interested in tackling the issues that ought to be at the center:

The treatment of psychiatric illness and the use of anti-depressants

The security failure and to what degree it was linked to legal problems surrounding psychiatric illness and its treatment.

Virginia Tech – More gun laws or fewer idiots?

Dan Brown at the Huffington Post writes that there are only two ways to go on the Virginia Tech killings. (“Virginia Tech: Two Potential Paths, April 16) – either citizens will be encouraged to spy on each other and report suspicious behavior – the paranoid response, he calls it, or we tighten up gun laws that allow people to get as many guns as they want whenever they want it.

Talk about false alternatives. Would you really have to have been paranoid to have stopped some one like Cho Seung-Hui?

Some left anarchists (as well as adherents of the old right, like Pat Buchanan) argue that you would just need to have been armed. In 2002 the Appalachian Law School shooting, also in Virginia, resulted in only three deaths because it was stopped by armed students.

Hmm. That’s where ideology minus common sense gets you. Two camps of firearm fundamentalists, who refuse to look reality in the face, but are ready to fire from the hip.
However much we may support the second amendment, do we really want students packing heat in their book bags, as filled with alcohol, drugs and partying as most campuses are today? Why does the-right- to bear-arms-in-classrooms have to be part of a pro-gun position on this? I don’t think it does.

Nor do we have to end up on the other side, tying ourselves up with even more regulation on something that is already as heavily regulated as guns are. If the campus faculty and staff had been doing their jobs, Cho would have in psychiatric care of some kind. And if the campus police had been doing theirs, the campus would been closed after the first shooting, without any further delay. This has nothing to do with gun control. It has to do with ignorance about mental illness and about university officials and security not doing their job.

Look at this young man’s history. The 23 year old English major had written two plays that disturbed his classmates and teachers so much that he had been referred to counseling. What he wrote was described as “morbid and grotesque.”

His plays, Richard McBeef (replete with references to pedophilia, incest and chain saw murder) and Mr. Brownstone (scatological violence, and threats against teachers) – seem to reveal a disturbed sexual identity. Read them. I was a college English teacher once. I have read some pretty lurid stories from my students. But nothing that carried so much obvious personal freight. This is some one I would have definitely put on a watch list.

Poet Nikki Giovanni, one of his professors, had been worried enough to take him out of her class. Students had stopped coming to class because Cho was taking pictures of them on his cell phone camera; some students even speculated that he might commit a campus shooting.
By the way, the name Ismail Ax found marked on Cho’s arm, is probably not a reference to any jihadi association as people might assume – it is very likely a reference to Ishmael, the son of Abraham by his servant woman, Hagar (I used the term bastard erroneously). Ishmael is considered to be the progenitor of the Arabs (I originally wrote Muslims) and is a name often used as a symbol for the orphans, exiles and outcasts of a society (think, “Call me Ishmael” – the opening line of Moby Dick). In the Jewish and Christian tradition, the son whom Jahweh demands that Abraham sacrifice is Isaac; in the Muslim tradition, it is said to be Ishmael. I wonder – and here I am speculating – whether Cho’s references to Ismail and the plot line of Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone, indicate some very troubled feelings about his own father or some other authority figure in his life – whether grounded in reality or in his own disturbed imagination, remains to be seen. Not to color this with any homophobic sentiment – it is the case that Moby Dick also has distinctly homoerotic elements.

Although campus police do not confirm it (and, remember they have every incentive at this point to downplay any prior record of suspicious behavior to minimize their responsibility), student and police sources say that Cho had stalked female students and set fire to a dorm room. These incidents – if they occurred – should have led to a police record. If Cho had had a police record, he never would have been able to purchase a gun, even under current laws. He even had time to post a warning on an online forum: “I’m going to kill people at vtech today”.

But campus police at universities are notorious for covering up or minimizing these sorts of incidents. Why? Because campus crime statistics are bad for enrollment and they reflect poorly on campus police.

Notice, however, that campus security did manage to give Cho 2 tickets for speeding. Doesn’t that figure! Ticketing students for minor traffic offenses, as anyone who’s been on a campus knows, is the favorite pastime of campus police. It makes them money. And keeps them so busy, they don’t have time to bother with the trivial matter of preventing deranged young men from arming themselves to the teeth and taking out the student body.

Now we learn that Cho also left a “disturbing” note in his dorm room which vented his rage at “rich kids,” “deceitful charlatans” and “debauchery,” adding “You caused me to do this.” He is also said to have made a suicide threat and school counselors, reportedly, treated him. Then how did they not know what he was thinking? He was in a creative writing class, churning out pages and pages of this sort of thing – the faculty should have been keeping tabs on him and following up on his counseling. Now the university excuses itself by saying that they could not follow up, because they were afraid of litigation. Oh, that makes sense – the laws prevented them from doing what they ought to have done – and now they want more laws?

As everyone knows, university administrations are big, hamstrung departments that spend most of their energy on bureaucratic nonsense and covering their behinds. And that’s all these excuses are. I will bet you, that right now university lawyers know that Virginia Tech is in big, big trouble and they are getting ready for the mother of all law suits, as Tech parents finally realize that the high price-tag of schooling today doesn’t come with any minimal safety guarantees of their kids’ lives.

A bomb threat note was reportedly found next to Cho’s body and the bodies of some victims, “directed at engineering school department buildings.” That ties Cho directly to the bomb threats that the school received in the three weeks preceding the massacre. With Cho’s history of stalking, arson and violent talk, why had there been no earlier investigation of whether he was connected to the bomb threats? Who did the university think was behind them – the IRA?

We also know that Cho was being treated for depression. Was he taking medication? How come he was still able to buy a gun?

The chairman of the English department who referred him to counseling, did not follow up and find out the result of the session. Why not? What was the sense of referring him to counseling and then not finding out what the counselor had to say about his mental condition?
The university said it misjudged the 7.15 killings, believing that one of the victims was the killer; that’s why they didn’t bother to warn students to keep off the campus. What business had the university to indulge in dangerous and unwarranted speculation about where or who the killer was? Common sense should have told them to quit playing Sherlock Holmes and just warn everyone off campus. What was the downside? Losing one day of classes? Look at what was in balance on the other side – dozens of lives. Shame on anyone who even suggests this was a valid excuse.

Yet, this is how Virginia Tech president Stegerd excuses himself: he says that he believed the shooting at the dorm was a “domestic dispute” and “mistakenly thought the gunman had fled the campus.

Now, which is it? Did the university think the killer died …or that he fled? Why two contradictory explanations?

Did they first think one thing and then change their minds? Or haven’t they got their excuses straight in time for public consumption?

Steger told Fox’s Geraldo Rivera that “we closed that building immediately, surrounded it with security guards, cordoned off the street, notified all the students in the building.”
He added that police expressed the opinion that the incident was confined to that one building. “

Now, why in the world would the police leap to that conclusion, when they’d had two bomb threats a few weeks earlier, specifically targeting the engineering buildingsnot the residence hall, where the 7.15 killings took place. Wouldn’t the normal reaction be to assume that more was to follow at the threatened sites? Shouldn’t they at least have warned students off the engineering buildings?

Though no weapons were found in the dormitory, the police seems to have taken some time to figure out what that meant — that the killer had fled.

Steger claims he spent part of Monday morning trying to figure out what was going on.” and only learned from radio reports that “there were multiple fatalities, another shooting incident was underway.”

So there you have it – the university only got alarmed after dozens of people were massacred – a paltry two deaths weren’t enough to do it for them! Are these idiotic statements symptoms of complete confusion or are officials covering up here?

We had no reason to suspect any other incident was going to occur,” said Steger. Oh yeah? Why not?

Murderers at large (William Morva, earlier in the school year), arson, stalking, bomb threats, two killings…..that wouldn’t be a reason to suspect any other incident, oh nooooo……..

The first two killings took place at 7.15 in the morning at Ambler Johnston dormitory, but the school’s first email to students went out more than 2 hours later, after the massacre at Norris Hall had taken place. What was the need for this frightful delay that delivered a death sentence to dozens of people?

We don’t need any more gun-control laws. What we need are fewer idiots.

The Noticeable Absence of Hip-Hop at Virginia Tech

Now that we know that the massacre at Virginia Tech (33 dead and 22 injured) was perpetrated – apparently – by a South Korean male Cho-Seung Hui, rather than a black one, people might at last let up on the hip-hop industry – as the chief and only architect of the pervasive violence of American culture.

Oh, sorry, someone already has. Maybe in deference to the upcoming April 20 anniversary of the Columbine high school shootings – which the popular press inaccurately pinned on the video game, “Doom,” Marilyn Manson and Goth culture – Florida attorney Jack Thompson has already concluded that the electronic game industry is to be blamed.

Now, a good argument can be made that video games – and indeed every piece of electronic entertainment – have an impact on the human psyche qualitatively different from that of the print media – but there is no evidence yet that, whatever role they played at Columbine, they had any part to play here. But God forbid, that the words, “we don’t know” – should ever come out of the mouths of popular pundits.

At Virginia, the killer or one of the killers, seems to have been a young undergraduate. And the rumored motivation seems to have been a thwarted romance. But since there is no political constituency – at least, not yet – for outlawing youthful hormones, we can confidently expect that censors and gun-control advocates will be crawling out of the woodwork soon.

Of course, one wouldn’t object to a nuanced position on either issue. One could, for example, be in favor of gun ownership at large, while deploring the ease with which a student was apparently able to get two handguns and massive quantities of ammunition into a dorm room on a campus, especially, when bomb threats (April 3, and 13) had already been directed against some of the engineering buildings there. In hindsight, the threats might have been the gunman testing the campus security system.

But don’t hold your breath for nuance. Expect, instead, the usual thunderous denunciations on all sides and much righteous posturing from the pols and pundits.

Meanwhile, only half tongue in cheek, may I suggest that there is – so far – as little evidence that video culture caused this tragedy as there is that, say, academic culture did. Less, actually.

After all, with depressing regularity, university campuses do seem to throw up deranged, alienated specimens with mayhem on their minds.

There was Theodore Strelesky, who expressed his disgust with his advisor at Yale’s math department by taking a hammer to the man’s skull and then became an urban legend for his bald refusal to plead insanity in his defense or mouth the usual therapeutic platitudes to get paroled. He argued ,instead, that his advisor had it coming to him, a sentiment not unknown among some PhD candidates. It’s been suggested – again, not entirely facetiously – that a jury of his peers would never have convicted him.

Then there was the physics graduate student passed up for research funding at the University of Iowa who shot and killed three professors, his academic rival, and an administrator, before killing himself. And, most famously, there was the Unabomber, Ted Kasczyinski, a Harvard math PhD by the age of 25, who over 18 years mutilated and killed numbers of innocent people in a doomed protest against society. No hip-hop…or video games.. there – Ted once played the trombone and modeled his wilderness lifestyle on Thoreau. Maybe, we should ban Walden.

Still, although the perpetrator at Blacksburg seems to have been an English major, not an introverted science student, there truly are problems with the American university campus — and I don’t mean the alleged strangle-hold of the left, as cultural conservatives are prone to thinking (rather too facilely)….. only now is not the time for that discussion.

Especially, since we really don’t have enough information about this tragedy.

A more useful line of inquiry is the one probably uppermost in the minds of the families of the victims. Could this have been prevented?

I’ve already mentioned the bomb threats. Additionally, earlier this year, the Blacksburg campus was shut down when an eccentric survivalist, William Morva, wanted for alleged assault and murder, was rumored to have been sighted on the grounds. The rumor was false, but ought to have made university officials sensitive to the potential hazards contained on the 2,600 acre rural campus with more than 25,000 students.

One doesn’t want to rush to judgment about the university’s culpability, but the manner in which campus security responded does provoke thought. For some reason, I think gun control hard-liners are not going to want to pay attention to the surprisingly lackadaisical approach the university took to security.

Here are the emails as they were sent out:

‘A gunman is loose’: E-mails from Virginia Tech

The first 911 call on the Virginia Tech shooting came in at 7:15 a.m. The following are emails that Virginia Tech officials sent to students during the shooting rampage, which left 32 people plus the gunman dead. The misspellings are as they occurred in the messages:

Email sent at 9:26 a.m.:
Subject: Shooting on campus.
A shooting incident occurred at West Amber Johnston earlier this morning. Police are on the scene and are investigating.

The university community is urged to be cautious and are asked to contact Virginia Tech Police if you observe anything suspicious or with information on the case. Contact Virginia Tech Police at 231-6411

Stay attuned to the We will post as soon as we have more information.


9:15 a.m.: Approximate time of second shooting at Norris Hall, in which 30 people were killed. Second email sent at 9:50 a.m.:
Subject: Please stay put
A gunman is loose on campus. Stay in buildings until further notice. Stay away from all windows

Third email sent at 10:17 a.m.:
Subject: All Classes Canceled; Stay where you are
Virginia Tech has canceled all classes. Those on campus are asked to remain where there are, lock their doors and stay away from windows. Persons off campus are asked not to come to campus.

Fourth email sent at 10:53 a.m.:
Subject: Second Shooting Reported; Police have one gunman in custody
In addition to an earlier shooting today in West Ambler Johnston, there has been a multiple shooting with multiple victims in Norris Hall.

Police and EMS are on the scene.

Police have one shooter in custody and as part of routine police procedure, they continue to search for a second shooter.

All people in university buildings are required to stay inside until further notice.

All entrances to campus are closed.


More than two hours to send out an email after two people are killed in a dorm? And no immediate cancellation of classes? This, on a state university campus, where the campus police are closely tied to the state police?

Before we get new laws restricting the liberties of ordinary citizens in what is already an incipient police state, maybe we should first make sure that our security forces know how to do their jobs with the laws already on the books.