The Search for Meaning in a Killer's Hieroglyphics

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Tragedy abhors a vacuum.

"Ismael Ax" said the words on Seung Hui Cho's arm. Or maybe "Ismale Ax" or "Ismail Ax," depending on the news report.

In the absence of much understanding, we study these words, like cryptographers trying to crack enemy code.

After he killed 32 people at Virginia Tech on Monday, Cho died with some variety of this phrase penned to his arm. (It wasn't a tattoo, it turns out, despite earlier reports.) Then Wednesday, NBC News received the package Cho mailed between murders, and here was another clue. The sender is listed on the envelope as "A. Ishmael."

What could these words mean? Are they invoking the biblical Ishmael, born to a lowly servant, cast out by his father, Abraham? Are they an English major's reference to James Fenimore Cooper's "The Prairie," in which the outlaw settler Ishmael Bush sets west across the country with his axe? What about the loner who narrates "Moby-Dick"?

"It begins with 'Call me Ishmael,' " the crime writer Patricia Cornwell says. "The whole story is about an obsession that eventually drags you into the vortex of the sea."

Cho's pseudonym is our "Rosebud," the mysterious word that begins the movie "Citizen Kane," when it is uttered by the dying publishing tycoon Charles Foster Kane. It is the phrase we hope to understand, to help a 23-year-old mass murderer make sense.

Everybody's got a theory. The suggestions come in by e-mail, they are posted to online comments boards, they are posed by colleagues and bloggers, with Talmudic attention to detail. One person ruminates that "Ismale Ax" might be derived from a song Bob Marley performed, "Small Axe." Another person says the phrase might come from computer coding language. Another person mentions an alien named "Ax" from the children's science fiction series, "Animorphs."

Someone else: Could "Ismale Ax" be an anagram for "Islam Axe," suggesting some sort of religious vengeance? Could another spelling, "Ismail Ax," be an anagram for "Salami XI," derived from the Italian word for -- oh, never mind.

A guy named Bill McClelland, who lives on the west side of Cleveland, calls The Washington Post to offer some tips. He directs a reporter to the Web site for a "Gothic Male Model" who goes by the name of "Ax." Could the Web site somehow be connected to Cho's murderous rampage? McClelland wants to know.

"I've followed this story for three days now and it's intriguing," McClelland says. "What drove him? I think everybody would like to know that."

We would, we would. In mystery novels, the plot often turns on a single clue. Find the gun, find the killer. Motives are one-dimensional. (The wife did it for the life insurance!) Here we don't have such luck. Instead, what we have is wild speculation, with occasional input from a wacko. (Wackos always rise from their slumbers to send the media e-mail at times like this. As in: "Why is the media helping Bush hide the fact that this wasn't 'senseless random violence' at all, and in fact was clearly a suicide attack staged in protest of US Support for Israel?")

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