A Disturbing Vision of Violence

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

All the cheap rage, all the macho posturing of a demented boy is condensed in that image. A young man holds out his arms at eye level, each hand covered in a dark glove, each holding a gun. He wears a vest that looks vaguely military, and his eyes are steely. A black cap, turned backward, covers a close-cropped head, as if he meant to doubly annihilate his personality. The young people fortunate enough to survive and tell the tale of Monday's horrific murders at Virginia Tech described that face -- expressionless, determined -- and those eyes -- devoid of feeling or mercy.

Now we can see them, which may satisfy an ugly curiosity on our part and a vicious exhibitionism on his. But the image feels contrived, a mask of anger covering, perhaps hiding forever, any real understanding of the psychology behind the man.

As the students, faculty and staff of the shattered university struggled on Tuesday to give public shape to grief in a convocation and evening vigil, they were essentially improvising. They grasped for things held collectively: the national anthem, a college fight song, the cadences of an inspiring sermon, the flickering of candles gathered in darkness and the strains of "Amazing Grace." Our benumbed spectacles of sadness reflect a melting pot of rhetoric and ceremony. They are like quilts, a bit homespun -- motley but effective.

What a marked contrast with the pictures Cho Seung Hui sent to NBC News, in that fateful interval between the first small burst of death and the carnage that would follow two hours later. These pictures are formulaic, mere iterations of an ugly gallery of familiar icons. There's a little bit of "Taxi Driver" in them, a lot of John Woo and, of course, flashbacks of Columbine. They could be movie posters for a sniper flick, or the self-aggrandizing home snaps of a harmless tough guy mugging for the cellphone camera.

It is chilling that we recognize this pose, that it is so deeply a part of our society, that a profoundly disaffected young man reached for its simple form -- a mixture of arms spread to menace and arms spread as if in expectation of crucifixion. The American Rage image so often brings with it that narcissism, that mix of grievance and anger.

From what we know of Cho's videotaped comments, that ambiguity was very much present in his mind. In a jumble of Old Testament vengeance and New Testament sacrifice, he was preparing to die for us. And take 32 people with him.

We are fascinated by our technologies of self-expression, our brave new world of Internet journals and virtual romance and digital communities. These images are a shocking new thing to process in a world that seems to be figuring out ways to communicate without actual presence, without intimacy or touch, faster than we can quite make sense of how they change our world.

But the strange thing, the thing that haunts, the thing that may yet be explained, is why did he mail it? Why, given that his posthumous message to the world was made of video, digital images and computer files, did he send by surface mail? Why not just post it on the Web? Or leave it on his computer? Or carry a disk with him?

To make it easier to authenticate? To draw out the drama of self-revelation a little longer? A cynical effort to game the news cycle he surely knew he would dominate this week?

Or was there some immeasurably sad need for a more direct, tangible kind of communication? Fantasies and hatreds nurtured in isolation, given form in private videos and photographs made in solitude, were sent through the old-fashioned mail. It is the way we send gifts, letters, invitations, a charmingly inefficient remnant of an old form that depends on a letter carrier. One of Cho's last acts was to have a very quotidian human encounter with someone behind the counter of a post office.

In some unknowable time, months or years from now, perhaps the effort to understand Cho will advance into the realm that some people call forgiveness, or sympathy, or at the least, a measured effort to simply try to imagine that he was human and suffering. And the fact that these images were sent by mail may be part of our sense that some vestige of connection to the real world, where he made so many people suffer, was still flickering in him.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company