Massacre Triggers Korean Soul-Searching

Voices of Communal Guilt Contrasted to Rosenbergs, ‘Son of Sam’

By Jennifer Siegel

Published April 27, 2007, issue of April 27, 2007.
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Four days after her brother went on the deadliest shooting spree in American history, Sun-Kyung Cho released a statement on her family’s behalf, expressing anguish and apologies to the victims’ loved ones.

“Our family is so very sorry for my brother’s unspeakable actions,” she wrote.

Such statements from the family of the attacker have become part of the ritualized mourning process after mass killings. What is striking in this instance, however, is the degree to which Koreans beyond the Cho family publicly claimed the Virginia Tech shooter — Seung-Hui Cho, a 23-year-old South Korean national who immigrated with his parents and sister in 1992 — as one of their own and accepted a measure of collective responsibility for the tragedy.

Even through the lens of the American Jewish experience, replete with examples of group embarrassment and anxiety over the misdeeds of individuals, the reaction to the April 16 rampage stands out.

The day after the massacre, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae Shik, spoke at a candlelight vigil organized by Korean churches in Fairfax County, Va. Through tears, Lee suggested the Korean-American community needed to “repent” and volunteered to lead a 32-day fast, one day for each victim. “On the occasion of this shocking incident, the Korean community needs to reflect on itself and take it as an opportunity to incorporate itself with the mainstream of American society,” Lee said.

On the other side of the country, in the Washington state legislature, lawmaker Paull Shin, a first-generation Korean-American, issued a tearful apology to fellow lawmakers, despite their objections that none was in order. “It hurts me deeply, knowing what happened to Korea and how much the U.S. helped,” said Shin, an orphan who was adopted by an American soldier after the Korean War. “This is not the way to pay back the blessings we received.”

In South Korea, the government held an emergency cabinet meeting in response to the killings. The president has reportedly sent a string of condolence messages to the United States and expressed sorrow that the killer was a native South Korean.

The projection of individual guilt onto the group is typical of Korean and other Asian cultures, according to Katharine H.S. Moon, a professor of political science at Wellesley College who published an essay in The Chicago Tribune late last week discussing the phenomenon.

“This is not exclusive to Koreans but to many Confucianized, Asian cultures that are highly familial,” Moon wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “The point is that the collective identity and living experience are essential to life.”

Some observers in the Jewish community — which has weathered its own public villains, including convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and David Berkowitz, who terrorized New York City as the “Son of Sam” serial killer in the late 1970s — have recognized the psychological dynamic as familiar.

“Like the Jews, the Koreans are a diasporic people, a community that is linked not only out of a sense of ties to a homeland, but also a religious and an ethnic sense of identity,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “In those cases, you have the benefits of sense of a collective people —people help one another and there is a sense of a brotherhood and a sisterhood — but when one of the group does something wrong, everybody, so to speak, feels the pain and the shame.”

According to Sarna, disgraced members have prompted a mixed reaction within the American Jewish community, which has tended to react, he said, both with communal soul-searching and an aversion to airing dirty laundry in front of non-Jews.

Historically, several high-profile Jewish organizations emerged in response to public denunciations of Jews. The forerunner to the UJA-Federation of New York, the New York Kehillah, was founded in 1909 in response to a report, released by Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham, which claimed that Jews accounted for half the criminals in the city. The Anti-Defamation League, founded in 1913, traces its emergence to the lynching of Leo Frank, a Georgia Jew who was wrongly convicted of murdering a 14-year old girl.

This week, the ADL issued a report warning that white supremacists are unfairly blaming Asians and immigrants for the tragedy at Virginia Tech. Moon, the Wellesley professor, criticized the media portrayal of the gunman.

“The media went on its own rampage depicting Cho as a foreigner,” Moon said. “Many Korean-Americans found that to be dishonest and racist — because we consider an immigrant who came here at age 8, 15 years ago, as an American.”

Still, even as some Korean-Americans spoke out against unjust stereotypes and stigma, they felt an unshakable, if irrational, emotional connection to the killer.

“When I heard he was Korean, I was shocked,” Pyong-Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College, told the Forward. “I thought I should be prepared to answer questions when I go to the dining hall and when I meet other faculty members, but actually, no one asked the question. But you know, I feel obligated to clarify. We have a connection definitely. We feel uneasy.”


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