By Mayank Chhaya
Notwithstanding the irresolvable debate whether art imitates life or vice versa, the eerie similarity between the sheer brutal efficiency of the Virginia Tech killer and the remorseless designer violence of the celebrated Korean film “Oldboy” is unsettling.
Beyond the obviously common feature of both Cho Seung-Hui and Oldboy’s protagonist being South Korean, the most disturbing giveaway is one of the 20 odd pictures that show Cho wielding a hammer. There is a scene in the movie where the protagonist, a businessman named Dae-su (played with unnerving menace by Choi Min-sik), wields a hammer exactly like Cho before going on a killing spree.
It is highly likely that Cho knew of the film and probably emulated that scene to accentuate the impact of his own post-mortem. In a series of videos, which he sent to NBC News, Cho rants against perceived or real humiliations he faced, quite like the businessman Dae-su.
From all available accounts, Cho seemed to be disturbingly in control of his faculties, carrying out the murders with extraordinary precision and finality. That too seemed reminiscent of the Oldboy protagonist.
Although it is always hard, if not impossible, to decide whether art reflects life or life absorbs art, in this particular case the latter being the case does not appear too far fetched. Cho’s body language in the footage released by NBC News suggests a fiendishly determined mind who has no doubt whatsoever that the world, or at any rate some people in it, has wronged him and he must avenge that.
That Cho had enough control to mail the audio-visual and pictorial materials to NBC News between the first two murders and the mayhem that followed shows how thoroughly he had thought through his crime.
Another compelling feature of the bloody saga is the quality of the popular response to it in contrast to about 200 killings around the same time with equal brutality and precision in Iraq.
While Virginia Tech, quite like 9/11, became a symbol of a wounded nation uniting in grief, the 200 deaths in Iraq appeared to be just another casualty figure in the unstoppable violence in that country. Barely anyone noticed that such a large number of people, six times the toll in Virginia, had been wiped out in a span of a few hours.
It would be educational to find out how social scientists and psychoanalysts compare the two.
The most rational explanation could be that while the relentless violence in Iraq has caused a fatigue of sorts among the people, the Virginia Tech massacre is a more captivating and immediate tragedy. Be that as it may, both the lunatic insurgents in Iraq and equally deranged Cho were both convinced in their minds that theirs was an act of justifiable consequence.
NBC News said it is likely that the video recordings and pictures sent by Cho were created in the past six days of the eventual massacre. What that reveals is how utterly psyched up the 23-year-old English major student had been. Although his rant sounds like the rambling of an unstable mind, it does offer some clues.
Cho saw himself as someone who was being trampled upon by the circumstance of his life. It is questionable whether there is any validity to that feeling but the fact that he jumps from slamming undefined enemies for their material success to speaking about his own humiliation would indicate that there was some deep-seated pathology at work here.
The Virginia Tech massacre is symptomatic of how impressionable and unstable young minds draw justification for the most unnerving acts of violence from an atmosphere so laden with animus all around.
(Mayank Chhaya is a writer and commentator living in the US)