Costumes Of Cho Victims Rile Va. Tech Community
Sunday, December 9, 2007
The Virginia Tech community has reacted by the thousands over the past few days to photographs posted on the Internet that show a couple of Pennsylvania State University students dressed up in Halloween costumes mocking the April massacre.
Comments about the photos, which show students wearing bloodied, bullet-riddled Virginia Tech clothing, intensified on Facebook as more people learned about them. What began as a volatile reaction, however, seemed to turn into a lesson of "rising above" the incident by yesterday.
"We rose above the very person who killed our friends and family. We showed our incredible power then to will over negativity, and can do it again," read the message from Virginia Tech PhD student Ken Stanton yesterday at the top of a Facebook site called "People against this costume." "While this incident involved students at Penn State, we recognize they represent the college no more than [killer Seung Hui] Cho represents Virginia Tech."
A man who identified himself as having worn one of the costumes sought to put the stunt in context in an interview with Roanoke's WSLS News (Channel 10). He said the idea came during a chance meeting at a store with a host of an upcoming Halloween party. The idea was to try to outdo the previous year's gruesome entry: the young victims slain at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Pennsylvania.
"We do it just for shock value. But it's not meant to be funny. It's not meant to really make a statement about anything, other than, 'Look how amazingly shocking we can be and not cry about it, not be upset about it,' " he said.
At Penn State, administrators sharply criticized the students' decision to mock the country's deadliest shooting by an individual. Cho killed 32 people on the Virginia Tech campus April 16 before killing himself.
"People all over Penn State -- students, faculty, alumni -- are appalled at what they've done," said Bill Mahon, Penn State vice president for university relations.
One of his school's student affairs administrators called a counterpart at Virginia Tech to reiterate that message. A young woman in one of the widely circulated photos was also called in for a discussion with Penn State's judicial affairs officials.
"Being higher ed, we try to find teachable moments wherever they might be," Mahon said. "There was just an attempt to help her understand that having something like that occur -- I don't know what was on their mind -- would be viewed as extremely offensive by just about anybody who saw it.
"Obviously, it's protected free speech," Mahon said, although he added: "We can condemn it, which we've done."
Stanton, administrator of the Facebook page, said he is taking the same attitude in deciding what content to allow. "One of the important things to do is to let people vent," he said. "You don't want to tell people you can't react to this. But say what you feel, say how it has affected you and don't step beyond that."
Another Web site reacting to the photos was taken down because of its volatile content, including threats against the costume wearers, Stanton said. On the new site, which had more than 3,400 users yesterday, he said he's had to remove only a handful of comments.
Yesterday, there were 13 discussion threads. One was titled "rising above" and another "forget about it!"
Under the latter, a student wrote: "I think this group is much more about uniting against this costume and sending the message that it is not OK than it is about retaliation or anything else. . . . The students who did this now have to live with themselves knowing they made a huge mistake and hurt thousands of people, and that's all the punishment I think they need."
Tracy Littlejohn, a graduate of Virginia Tech who lost her cousin Erin Peterson in the attack, said she hadn't seen the photos but said it was "disappointing" to hear of them. Still, Littlejohn added, it meant little in the realm of the pain her family has endured.
"The severity of our loss is so profound that you can't really hurt my feelings any more," she said. "The pain is just so palpable in other ways. Whatever you do, it just can't get much worse than the reality that Erin's not coming back."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.