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Sympathy for the devil?

By Adrien Swords - posted Friday, 4 January 2008

So who the f**k was Cho Seung-Hui? Anybody know? It’s been two weeks and we know about as much now as we did then. We know what he looked like. We know he was an English major at Virginia Tech. He was known as the “Question Mark” kid because that’s how he signed in at one of his classes. We know he never said anything, never talked, never smiled and hardly ever took his shades and cap off. We know he wrote macabre stuff for his creative writing classes. He was from South Korea. He had a sister who worked for the State Department. His parents run a dry cleaning business.

And we know that on the morning of April 18, 2007 he shot 32 people dead and then blew his face off.

Why did he do it? Almost instantaneously the blogsphere lit up with arguments by various people who had an opinion on gun control. Those in favour of more gun control people were adamant that a kid with a history of psychologically disturbed behaviour should never have been able to buy two guns so easily. The pro-gun people were equally adamant that if the many responsible gun owners had been allowed to carry their weapons onto campus one of them would’ve been able to take Cho out before he did much damage.


The second tier of arguments had to do with America. America, the blood-soaked America: the land of the lone psycho. Blame American, don’t blame America. Germans shoot people too.

But why? Why did Cho do it? There, there wasn’t much by way of insight. We still don’t know him. We only know that he and 32 other people are dead now. Cho remains the Question Mark kid.

Our first exhibit is from a series of photographs taken by Marina Oswald in March, 1963. One of these photos (not this one) has become famous. The photograph of the man who shot Kennedy holding the rifle he did it with and copies of the magazine ideologically aligned to the political philosophy that inspired him to act. There was speculation that these photographs of Oswald were forgeries a charge denied by Marina Oswald herself. One of the prints sent to a shady acquaintance of Oswald’s George de Morhrenschildt was inscribed on the back (by Marina) with the words, “Hunter of Fascists Ha Ha Ha!” written in Russian. The much debated Warren Report’s notes on Oswald’s motives for assassinating Kennedy were thus:

It is apparent, however, that Oswald was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment. He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him.

While I personally have some sympathy with those who question the veracity of the Warren Report I can’t say that Oswald was simply a patsy in the Kennedy assassination. The most believable account of Oswald’s story I’ve encountered thus far comes appropriately enough in fiction.

This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.

Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities, suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers. From Libra by Don DeLillo.


Libra is one of my favourite books. Its take on the Kennedy assassination is that it is the result of a half-baked conspiracy originally designed to provoke Kennedy into renewing his efforts to oust Castro. The assassination attempt is supposed to fail.

The portrayal of the conspiracy unfolds side by side with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald a lonely kid who joins the Marine Corp, becomes a Marxist, attempts to enter the world of espionage and fails miserably. DeLillo’s Oswald is the flipside of the American dream. Oswald’s prime motivation is to be somebody, to be important. His radical anti-capitalism is ironically the product of the capitalist ethos perverted. Oswald defects to Russia tossing in his American passport at the US embassy in Moscow. He tells the embassy receptionist that he’s willing to reveal the secrets he learnt while serving at the USAF base in Atsugi. Later when discussing this with the KGB this is revealed as worse than useless:

“And these secrets, which you’ve carried all this way.”

“I was in Atsugi.”


“Which is a closed base in Japan.

“We’ll talk further. I wonder, though, if these secrets become completely useless once you announce your intention to reveal them.”

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First published at Adrienswords on May 2, 2007.

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About the Author

Adrien Swords (a pen name) is a copywriter and occasional journalist in his 30s. He lives in Melbourne. He was born in London and grew up in various parts of Asia and Africa: most especially Cairo and Tarbella (a small village in Pakistan's North-West Province) but he also spent a lot of time in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok etc. He graduated from Griffith University some hazy time in the last decade of the 20th century. Apparently he studied the media, history and literature. Adrien blogs at Adrienswords.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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