Events and thoughts

My new camera has finally arrived, yay! –after the busiest day I’ve had since the quarter began. We only just got home an hour ago. I was on campus from 10 am until 4:30, then we Metro-ed downtown so I could listen to these people speak about food:

Evan Kleiman, Barry Glassner, and Laurie Winer


It’s a terrible photo, isn’t it, and I hope not representative of this Canon Powershot A630‘s abilities. I didn’t even have time to read the manual before dropping the new gizmo into my bag and heading off downtown.

After the talk, a very long wait at Daikokuya prompted us to seek immediate gratification in Suehiro instead — where we found Christen and Eurie, who graciously invited us to join them. These are two very funny ladies. We had a great time.

Today wasn’t all food talk, however. I spent my one break during the afternoon looking up the latest on the Virginia Tech shootings. On the bus on the way home, I wrote this:

When I first heard the news of the Columbine high school shootings I was seventeen, and just beginning to be aware of the complex world of lives and social relationships different from my own sheltered experience. In a much deeper way than in my previous childhood realizations, I was learning that just because I thought something, didn’t mean it was true for everyone; just because I felt one way, didn’t mean others shared my leanings; just because something was incomprehensible to me, didn’t mean it couldn’t happen to or be executed by individuals who were, in other ways, just like me.

When I first heard about what had happened at Columbine, I was shocked, horrified, saddened — all the things one must be, if one has any empathy at all. In the days and weeks to follow, I put the question (as did so many) to my friends and acquaintances, stopping them in the halls of our high school to ask: “Could it happen here?”

My fear was that it could. The people I knew responded, for the most part, that it could not and would not. I couldn’t decide whether they were being hopelessly naïve, or whether perhaps they knew something I did not. Either way, their stance did nothing to allay my fears. If such an incident could happen at our school, as I thought it could, I wanted to be surrounded by others who shared in my paranoia — in other words, an alert student body who would at least be mentally ready to meet the incident if and when it came. It never occurred to me to find out what the teachers or administrators thought.

In the years after, Columbine never left me. In the same way that I never sit down to a movie or concert without checking the nearest exits, not a month, maybe not even a week, has gone by that I haven’t looked around the classroom and grounds of my various schools, and wondered whether it was only a matter of time before a gunman burst in. It just seemed all too possible.

Now that some thirty-two students and faculty have been killed in Blacksburg, Virginia, I don’t know whether this nightmare that has long haunted my thoughts has finally come to pass, or whether it has only gotten worse. When I was a teenager, it was grisly enough just to realize that ours was a world in which students could kill one another and schools might not be safe. In the years since Columbine, these facts have become familiar bogeys, always moving alongside me like clouds on a sunny day.

But I live with that knowledge differently now, because now I have held positions of responsibility within a university. I have taught classes, I have supervised TAs, I have been a figure of authority within a classroom of more than a hundred students. Were shooters to strike in my classroom, I would now have to be that person holding down the door with my body so that my students might escape. I would have to be that person who confronts the doer of violence, even at the cost of my life. To be straight: I would be a line of defense. For this reason, I carry with me at all times the emergency-contact card UCLA issues its employees, just in case I’m ever in a situation where I am that person everyone is looking to to save them all. Would it help me in an emergency, to know that I should tune in to AM 1630? I don’t know.

Impossible to not be terrified.

All this would be scary enough, but what chills me most is that this isn’t all. I know as I move through this world that it is not just schools where I should be afraid. There is also the bus, the subway, the airport. Any public place. Any private place. –why pretend my home is any safer? We live in a world where, at any given moment, our safety depends almost solely on our fellow human beings’ desire not to kill us. When someone does, it’s easy.

Today, eight years after Columbine, I don’t need to ask, “Could it happen here?” Sometime in those eight years, maybe even in the few weeks after the shootings, I already decided for myself that the answer was yes and that I would acknowledge that even if those around me did not. I am disturbed still at how vulnerable we remain, even after Columbine and September 11 and now Virginia Tech. If it is impossible to not be afraid, it is even less possible to really acknowledge that fear, because then we would have to articulate to ourselves how insecure our entire world really is and how easily breached are our flimsy protections.

Now, having been both student and teacher, I am even more overwhelmed by our insecurity. What were the shootings at Virginia Tech, but the self-expressions of one deranged individual? –deadly, consequential, but nevertheless self-expressions. An individual does not just emerge; he is formed, shaped, by many other forces and individuals. And at any moment, in any action even highly indirect, each of us is being one of those forces to someone else. But should this have any impact on how we live our lives?

It has just been released that the Virginia Tech shooter was a young South Korean man, Seung Cho (as he signed his own writings). I have never come into contact with Cho, and yet I have surely met him.

Seung Cho was an unresponsive, maladjusted young Asian American student.

Seung Cho wrote violent stories that shocked his fellow students and professors in his creative writing workshops.

Seung Cho was a withdrawn dormitory resident whose suitemates had given up on trying to communicate with him.

Seung Cho was the child of immigrant parents. A brother. A neighbor. A quiet boy.

I have met all these Seung Chos. Chances are, so have you. And so had people known all these versions of this particular Seung Cho, and reacted just the way we’ve all reacted to the versions we’ve met: ignoring him, reaching out, urging counseling, neglecting him. Were there moments that made Seung Cho who he was? Were there moments that could have unmade him?

Or is the answer to both questions negative? Could anyone have done anything?

I recently read a book in which a state of alienation from society was described as “feeling like a square peg in a world of round holes.” But even a square peg is at least a peg. Maybe Seung Cho was not even a peg in this world of round holes; maybe he was a peg without the base, a broken nub, that none of the other pegs or holes could ever figure out what to do with. In that case, there are two questions we need to ask:

(1) Can a nub of a peg function, or exist at all, in a system designed only for pegs?
(2) How can we tell who’s a nub, without sliding down the slippery slope of just shunning people we don’t like?

As Erik has pointed out to me, the only thing mass murderers seem to have in common with one another is just that they are mass murderers — they don’t always fit any kind of mold, and so it’s dangerous to assume of anyone that they are crazy and potentially deadly. However… I also learned recently that 1% of any population (across all socioeconomic classes, backgrounds, etc) at any time is dangerously pathologically disturbed. So there’s still that.

But this is the really disturbing thing about Seung Cho, and about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the others like them. It’s that as human beings, as members of communities and societies, we are uneasy thinking that these incidents are just unpreventable, unforeseeable by-products of some individuals’ warped brain chemistry. We can’t help but feel that there must have been a way, there has to have been someone — if he’d been my boyfriend or my son or my student, I would have noticed! But maybe what is so deeply and inescapably troubling about all this is that deep down we fear that there really is no easy answer, that no matter how prepared we are, or how hard we try to see the signs, this could still be us. That this is us.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at]