[Observer]The finger of shame doesn’t point at Korea

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[Observer]The finger of shame doesn’t point at Korea

American smart-alecks in Seoul already are making hay out of the mass murder at an American university by a Korean student.
“We won’t be satisfied until President Roh Moo-hyun apologizes on television, and the Korean government gives compensation!”
“Block entry of any Korean to the United States!” (This presumably refers to the years-long Korean refusal to admit American beef after a single case of mad-cow disease ― in a living cow, not in a human or in beef offered for sale.)
“Candlelight demonstrations in front of the Blue House!”
My, my, aren’t Americans touchy? I was here during the ugliness five years ago that followed the accidental deaths of two Korean teen-agers run over by an American military vehicle. It was not Korea’s finest hour. The tragedy was exploited, especially on the Internet, to feed Korean nationalism.
But the sarcastic quips by Americans in Seoul are out of place, because the two events are entirely different. The United States government was responsible for the deaths of the two girls. The Korean government has no responsibility for Cho Seung-hui’s rampage at Virginia Tech. Americans know this perfectly well ― some just like to be sarcastic. But many Koreans probably will feel a sense of collective guilt ― “It was one of us who did it.”
Like many foreigners, I can never decide whether Korea’s sense of the corporate unity of all Koreans is the country’s most attractive or its least attractive trait.
All of us have national pride. I am always happy when Americans win the most medals at some international competition ― and disappointed when they do not. So I understand and applaud Korean pride in the lovely teen-age skater Kim Yu-na ― or the national fury when the Korean soccer team underperforms, and the coach must pay the price of its failure.
But anything, however good and right, can become ridiculous, dangerous or foolhardy when overdone ― romantic passion, patriotism, even honesty. (“Yes, you do look fat in that dress.”) When I was the editor of this newspaper, even the most obscure honor to a Korean somewhere in the world ― being made dean of some department in some foreign university, for example ― was pushed on me as front-page news. (I usually got my staff to compromise by putting it on page 2.)
But if every achievement by a Korean anywhere in the world is felt as a triumph for all Koreans in the motherland, it is also true that every shame that falls upon any Korean anywhere in the world is felt as a shame on all Koreans. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement of condolence and hoped that this tragedy would not inflame prejudice against Koreans in America.
Well, I hope so, too. And I am pretty confident that most Americans ― apart from the cretins and lunkheads that exist in all countries ― will not think that these murders had anything to do with Korea. The troubled young man who was apparently responsible was a legal resident of the United States, even if his citizenship remained South Korean.
Most Americans understand that there is no such thing as a typical American. Some Americans look like Europeans, some like Africans, some like Asians. Some Americans speak foreign languages at home. Young Cho had lived in America since boyhood. His parents were immigrants with a dry-cleaning business in the Washington suburbs. His upbringing is an American story: Most Americans, a generation or three or five back, are descended from similarly industrious immigrants.
And so, too, is the tragedy an American story. Statistically, as a percentage of all deaths, being shot by a maniac at school or at work, is pretty rare, compared to, say, dying in an automobile crash. But that very aberrance is what makes these events so compelling. How can it be that, living and studying and working among us in daily life is a person we know, who turns out to be a homicidal monster?
Well, it’s not because he is a Korean. It’s because, whatever his citizenship, he is an American. These shootings don’t happen in Korea or other countries. (Well, I can think of one or two.) They happen in America. (I can think of a dozen or more.) Why is that?
The easy answer, and perhaps the correct one, is the availability of guns in the United States. Already people are asking: How did a disturbed young man come into possession of guns? The answer is simple: He had a clean record ― no felony convictions. He had as much right as you or me to buy a gun.
Cho’s creative-writing teacher says that she was concerned that he was depressed and angry. She arranged a counseling appointment for him, but he refused to go. In a free country, you can’t subject someone to involuntary therapy. You can’t ask a gun seller to get a certificate of mental stability from a potential customer. That would subject us to the dictatorship of social workers and the definitions of “normal” enunciated by Ph.D.’s. (As the comedian George Carlin said, most people seem normal until you get to know them.)
In America, there is an extra wrinkle ― the Constitution guarantees the right of Americans to “keep and bear arms.” The Constitution makers were thinking of resistance to tyranny. If the people can shoot back, a despotic government will think twice about oppressing them. Perhaps conditions have changed since 1787.
The Blacksburg tragedy already has turned into a political football. Smug European pundits find in the massacre exactly the American “culture of violence” that they have always deplored. It is a dog-eat-dog society, they say. No wonder capitalism’s losers lash out with guns, as crass Hollywood has taught them to do. (This argument would be more persuasive if young Cho were a loser in the jungle of capitalism. But he is a college student, and his parents live in an upper-middle-class suburb.)
Three months ago, I was astonished to read, the Virginia legislature considered and rejected a bill that would have permitted students to carry handguns on college campuses. “Good!” ― many of us might have said. But others say that armed students or professors ― responsible citizens ― might have intercepted the shooter and aborted the tragedy before 33 people died.
Koreans, this is not your shame. It is America’s.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily and a professor at Yonsei GSIS.

by Harold Piper
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