The colors of killers: More thoughts on the Virginia Tech crisis

Originally posted at the dead blog, Confessions of a Jersey Goddess, Wednesday, April 18, 2007. May contain non-zombified links.

rainbowI was exhausted when I returned from covering a local election last night, but still surfing the web I saw this excellent post by Professor Kim Pearson at on covering tragedies like the Virginia Tech shooting. Both professional journalists and citizen journalists aka some bloggers should read it. (Link to post.)

The post is entitled “Covering tragedy: Emerging lessons from the Virginia Tech Killings.” One aspect of covering tragedy that Professor Kim discusses is when it’s appropriate to mention an alleged perpetrator’s race/ethnic background. She gives the following advice:

Be thoughtful about stereotypes. When the initial reporting identified the suspect as an “Asian male,” the Asian American Journalists Association felt compelled to remind journalists of the rule that race should only be included in a news story when it is clearly relevant …

I mentioned the reported ethnicity of the Virginia Tech shooter now identified as Cho Seung-Hui on the first day of this crisis in my blog. I mentioned it once from the standpoint that MSNBC reported the shooter was Asian and “experts” were already as early as 2:20 the same day discussing Asian males in western culture and again when I heard news reports that the shooter didn’t have ID and the police were trying to figure out which body was his body.

Both mentions are in the same post but the post is a rolling report with time stamps. Both times I mentioned ethnicity I questioned myself: Why tell this detail? I knew people would start trying to make a deal of the race of the shooter, and I also thought, Please let this young man be here legally; otherwise, folks are going to start getting nasty about illegal immigrants in the country.

Cho Seung-Hui was in this country legally. Reports say he moved to the United States from South Korea in 1992. However, does his nationality, ethnic background, or how he got here have any baring on his crime?

I remembered Bill O’Reilly and his shouting match with Geraldo Rivera after a drunk driving tragedy. As Rachel Sklar said in The Huffington Post, “the driver happened to be an illegal alien.” Rivera points out before the two start screaming at each other that the drunk driving tragedy is not an illegal alien story; it’s a drunk driving story.

Race: The American Obsesion

Almost immediately I saw hits to my blog from both America and countries in Asia. The surfers searched the string “Asian Virginia Tech” or “Asian shooter.” I figured the people were probably divided into four groups: (1.) those who were shocked that the shooter may have been of Asian descent, (2.) those who were Asian and felt a sense of shame that someone Asian may be connected to such horror, (3.) those who were checking out rumors or trying to verify information, and (4.) those who wanted to find a reason to villanize people of Asian descent.

When people try to make sense of tragedies and find reasons for wrongdoing, it seems some folks inevitably go for the most simplistic reasons and the most divisive too. Ethnicity of the perpetrator is an easy target to some people as they look for ways to explain horror, especially if the person who is looking for targets already leans toward racist explanations.

I also heard early that it was a “Chinese graduate student.” However, I tossed that out thinking what’s the likelihood anyone knows this soon the nationality of the shooter? They’re probably hearing this stuff from traumatized witnesses who aren’t sure yet of exactly what they saw.

It’s possible that I was more sensitive to this type of reporting because I remember being a little girl in New Orleans and how I felt every time a news reporter mentioned a crime and seemed to make a point of sharing that the alleged perpetrator was a black man. At a young age I noticed they didn’t tell you race at all if an alleged perpetrator was white.

Yet, I think the reason we have to be careful about reporting race and avoid mentioning ethnicity in crimes is not because it’s bad to give detailed descriptions that include ethnic background. Good writing in the traditional sense would say tell details when you have facts. We have to be careful with details like race/ethnicity because America suffers a type of insanity when it comes to race. Many still try to make sense of the world based on skin color and ethnicity.

I say America because I know America, but I believe this is a global problem. Consider this post that involves assigning blame in Great Britain. It seems all over the world people are keeping score about which ethnic group does what, ignoring other factors for why humans do what they do.

Race: The Pink Elephant in the Room

The Virginia Tech story reminded me of the first time a black male was the perpetrator in a mass shooting. People reported it not the way they usually report crimes committed by black people, like “Well, it’s a black man again.” They reported it like, “Oh my God! It’s a black man. I didn’t know black men did these kinds of things. I thought only white guys did that.”

Reporters didn’t come out and say it that way on the news with an air of obvious shock. Instead they pummeled experts with questions asking them to explain what it meant that a black man had done the deed rather than a middle-class white male, which had been the profile of spree killers for a years.

This brings me to profiling. Profiles for types of criminals often include race. In the case of the Baton Rouge serial killer police were accused of wasting valuable time finding the possible real killer partially because they based their investigation on a serial killer profile that such killers are intelligent but psychotic white males. They ended up arresting a black man.

There’s probably nothing wrong with considering the race of potential perpetrators when it comes to law enforcement trying to track down a certain type of crime. But when law enforcement and everyday people leap beyond that to being suspicious of all people of a certain race absent of other indicators like anti-social behavior, we place society at greater danger.

When we look at race rather than behavior we endanger ourselves because we overlook other critical clues that suggest a threat. I worked for a while at Newark International Airport and noticed a tall, well-dressed, blond-haired, blue-eyed man shooting video of baggage handlers putting bags on planes. I stood at my kiosk and observed him for a while and the thought crossed my mind, They keep telling us to report suspicious behavior. I bet nobody’s questioning what he’s doing because he doesn’t look like he’s of Arab descent. He’s a white guy. So, I went up to him smiling and asked, “What are you doing?”

He told me he was shooting video for a television station in his country. I listened to his accent and said, “Cool. Your accent? Icelandic?” He said he was from Norway and started to look uncomfortable. I said, “Oh, don’t worry about me. I work over there. I’m not with security. I’m in sales.” We talked a few minutes more and then I left. I went back to my kiosk and started scanning the corridor for security.

When I told two police officers about the man they said, “It’s not illegal to shoot video.” I said I know but shooting video of how the baggage handlers put luggage on the plane seems like something someone should check out. Then one of the officers said, “I wonder if anyone’s checked his press credentials. Show us.” I turned around and looked toward my kiosk then spotted the man with his camera quickly hauling his butt down the corridor. The officers took off after him.

I don’t know what happened and it was probably nothing. He could have been running for his flight. Nevertheless, a few days later Newark Airport was shut down for a while. Agents busted people involved in a weapons deal. The arrested were not of Arab descent. They were Europeans.

Disturbing behavior

virginia tech professor lucinda royDisturbing behavior should be our focus when we’re on the look out for crime. Not skin color or ethnicity. When we hear of horrible crimes like the one at Virginia Tech, we never hear anyone say of the shooter, “Oh, but he was so happy, helpful, laughing all the time.” We hear words like angry, loner, or withdrawn.

In the VT shooters case we hear words like “stalked women.” I wonder how long some people like the Virginia Tech shooter go with no one reaching out to them. In the case of the VT shooter, a professor, Lucinda Roy, the woman pictured in this section, did reach out to the young man, but her hands were tied to help him beyond her capabilities. More unsettling is the recent revelation that a judge had ruled Cho Seung-Hui mentally ill in 2005.

Yet even with this bit of information about mental illness we must be careful. Everyone with a mental illness is not dangerous. A mental illness could be a tendency toward light depression. Despite being associated with suicide, not all depressed people are suicidal or homicidal. Not all women who suffer bipolar disorder are attracted to young boys as some media coverage/talk show discussions suggested when child molester Debra Lafave blamed her sexual relationship with a teenage boy on mental illness.

Not all those who suffer from schizophrenia are violent. I mention schizophrenia because an expert on Oprah today said based on Cho Seung-Hui’s writings he may have had the type of break with reality indicative of some forms of schizophrenia. Notice I said “may have had” and “some.” I’ve noticed that people tend to overlook qualifiers so they can paint those unlike themselves with the broad brush of being dangerous.

If we want to be vigilant, we should look for symptoms not our misunderstanding about mental health diagnoses, and before we point fingers we should talk to a professional who knows about mental illness. Morra Aarons gives a list of red flag symptoms in her post about VT shootings and a possible domestic violence connection.

Danger: Humans crossing

I think that when it comes to crime and heinous acts we will eventually accept that ethnicity has nothing to do with our madness, that when it comes to acts of violence it’s the ugly side of our humanity that joins us: The human capacity for inhumanity to humans is the tie that binds us to deadly deeds. The human capacity for violence is the demon we must face together.

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