On Cultural Explanations for Lightning Strikes

I think what depresses me most about the state of the world is not so much what happens—so much of which is out of any free society’s control—as what the Politically Voiced make of what happens after the fact: the international news media, political leaders, and the blogosphere. Lightning cannot strike in the forest without someone being vilified for letting it happen—or conspiring to make it happen. What a world of Tuesday-morning totalitarians the Voiced have become.

Of course I’ve been following the unfolding of events at Virginia Tech, as have people in India, Kenya, Moldova, Peru, Romania, the UAE, and elsewhere around the world. This hits close to home for me for several reasons. My maternal roots go back to Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley. My maternal grandmother died at Lewis-Gale Hospital in Salem, and my mother died at Roanoke Memorial Hospital—neither of them from gunshot wounds. My mother is buried on a hillside south of Roanoke overlooking her beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. After resigning from the mission field, my father served as chaplain of Virginia Baptist Children’s Home in Salem, and later as pastor or interim/supply pastor for just about every other little Baptist church between Lynchburg and South Boston, Va. And some old family friends from Honolulu (orginally from Sri Lanka) sent both their daughters to Virginia Tech after they moved to Fairfax, Va.

My heart goes out to all the victims of the shooting and their families and friends, including to the parents and elder sister of the shooter. Cho Seung-hui graduated from high school the same year as my own daughter.

The South Korean government, for what I hope to be invalid reasons, seems to expect the U.S. government to exploit the shooting for xenophobic purposes, just as the ROK government, media, and Netizens exploit every crime committed by foreigners in Korea. I don’t understand why this should have any effect on Korean–American relations, or why the shooter should be considered representative of Koreans in general—or Americans in general, or immigrants in general, for that matter. Should the ROK foreign minister resign? The ROK interior minister did so in the wake of the worst spree killing on record, that of Woo Bum-Kon, a deranged policeman who killed 58 people and wounded 35 in South Korea in 1982?

Nevertheless, two Korea blogs, the Marmot’s Hole and the Metropolitician have compiled lengthy examples of critical Koreanalysis, with long comment threads full of arguments and counterarguments about cultural factors. I don’t think cultural explanations make much sense when one is attempting to explain individual pathologies that constitute statistical blips within huge sample populations.

Last September, a Canadian journalist of Chinese ancestry, Jan Wong (Huáng Míngzhēn), caused a huge popular outcry by suggesting cultural explanations for three notable killing sprees in Quebec: at Dawson College in September 2006, at Concordia University in August 1992, and at the École Polytechnique in December 1989. Of course, Wong is (or was) a Maoist, so perhaps she tends to see cultural traditions as the root cause of most of the world’s problems—and great proletarian cultural revolutions as their solution.

A large number of spree killings around the world have occurred on school campuses, from kindergartens to universities. What is it about academic culture around the world that encourages such reactions? Or are schools just prime locations for finding large herds of sheep for the slaughter? What is it about the culture of post offices in the U.S.?

Would someone please attempt a cultural explanation for the Bath School killings in Michigan in 1927, in which anal-retentive school superintendent and tax protestor Andrew Kehoe killed 45 people and injured 58—all without the use of guns or the lure of television cameras. The Ku Klux Klan managed to blame it on Kehoe’s Roman Catholicism. Those nowadays who cannot let any tragedy pass without using it to advance their political agendas are in good company.

The Wikipedia entry on school massacres also notes:

In contrast to Columbine, the 1927 Bath School disaster, in which 45 people died, engendered no copycat attempts. Following the forty-five deaths that resulted from the Bath School disaster in Bath, Michigan, there was much less media reporting on the event and no legislative response on any level other than local legislation to appropriate small amounts of money for the victims’ families.

In some respects, those were good old days.

UPDATE: Liminality offers some thoughtful ruminations about differing reactions by Koreans and Americans.

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Filed under education, Korea, U.S.

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