Locus Online
April 2007

Friday 27 April 2007

Dear Locus Online,

As a graduate of Virginia Tech ('75, English), I can empathize with Dr. Barr's attitude towards Virginia Tech, in a way. When I attended, 1970-75, the English Department was very small. My class was the first in which undergraduate women were admitted in any great number (before that, I believe, only doctoral candidates were admitted), and the first year in which women were allowed to wear slacks on campus rather than skirts or dresses. I got a lot out of the English classes that were available, but Tech was primarily an engineering school, and the English Department was not its first priority. Of course, I felt like an alien, but that was at a time when women were becoming more and more aware of their marginalization in society, and taking steps to expand their roles, their expectations, their opportunities.

My husband, brother-in-law, niece, and of course many lifelong friends attended VPI. We all watched and listened, almost unbelieving, as the tragic event became international news. Most of us grew to love Blacksburg, an experience that even Dr. Barr admits having succumbed to. But since I graduated, and probably since Dr. Barr was there, VPI, and especially the English Department, have changed tremendously. A FEAST OF WORDS, the English Department's newsletter, is testament to that, as well as the fact that a poet of Nikki Giovanni's stature teaches there.

It is my belief that Cho was schizophrenic. That he was able to obtain guns after being ordered by a judge to have a mental health examination speaks to the abysmal ease of gun access. But I just don't believe that he was capable of thinking clearly enough to target any particular kind of person, alien or otherwise. I wondered why he chose Norris, an engineering building, over wherever English classes are held now (Williams, in my day), since he seemed to have had a lot of difficulty with English classes. Perhaps he experienced some imagined slight in Norris, or was looking for a particular person, rather than a particular type of person. Or perhaps Lucinda Roy's act of trying to help him gave him some kind of distant, foggy choice. I don't think we'll ever know.

Kathleen Ann Goonan
Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Class of '75

Dear Locus Online,

As a Virginia Tech alumnus, I am perhaps more appalled than most at this inexplicable tragedy.  But, unlike Marleen Barr, my association with the school allows me to claim no special insight into the motives of the killer.  Nor does my being a clinical psychologist necessarily do so.  Individuals such as Cho are so far beyond ordinary human experience that no entirely convincing explanation can be offered.  One can perhaps plausibly speculate that he was one of those rare murderous sociopaths who are so demented that they can occasionally appear schizophrenic in the strict definitional sense, but are really just killers awaiting their chance.  Or that he was a similarly rare clinical type who must commit mass murder in order to find the courage to kill himself, i.e., as an elaborate way to commit suicide.  I frankly do not pretend to know. 

But what I am reasonably sure of is that Ms. Barr's bizarre and incoherent theorizing reveals more about her own psychological makeup than that of the killer.  In any event, her take is surely not helpful in coming to grips with the dimensions of this tragedy and contributes nothing to a rational discussion of the event.  What Cho did came from within.  He was an insane individual whose insanity, in the etiological sense, had little or nothing to do with the environment in which he found himself.  My clinical experience tells me that his condition was almost certainly innate.

If Ms. Barr has an axe to grind with Virginia Tech, that's her own business.  But her attempt to project this dissatisfaction and disillusionment onto Cho is specious and self-serving.  It has an aura of cynical opportunism that I find extremely distasteful.  

And, no, I am not persuaded by Dr. Joe Miller's inane defense of Ms. Barr.  It is no less specious, and no less absurd, than Ms. Barr's own hypothesis.

Frankly, I am wondering why Locus Online elected to publish this piece.   It seems a strange venue for such a grotesque diatribe.                                                                                                 

Carl Glover, Ph. D.

Thursday 26 April 2007

Dear Locus Online,

I'd like to respond to some of the letters written in response to Marleen Barr. First, my bona fides. I am a neuroscientist in the Department of Cell and Neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. I am also a minor sf critic with some 10 or 12 publications in the field.

First, I'd like to say that Barr is quite well-known in our little field, is not demented and is about as far from a Nazi as it is possible to get, histrionics of the first two letter writers notwithstanding.

What Barr has proposed is an interesting hypothesis about the motivation of Cho Seung-Hui. It is an uncomfortable hypothesis. But it is also easily tested. She suggests that Seung-Hui was alienated and isolated at Virginia Tech. So here are some numbers from a survey done in 2005 at which time there were approximately 2022 faculty members. Of that number 32% were female. 86% of the faculty were Caucasian. It is quite reasonable to think Seung-Hui was indeed isolated. Whether this was primarily due to his own choosing or external factors is debatable.

What we can do is look at the faculty he killed. Four out of five of them could easily be considered foreign, if not necessarily ethnic minority (one instructor was French and female). What are the chances of that happening randomly? The expectation would be .14 X 5 or about one person out of five. What we actually got was either 3/5 or 4/5, depending on how you feel about the French!

What are the chances some of the five would be female in a random shooting? .34 x 5 or about 2. He actually killed one female faculty member.

What the numbers suggest is that he was not targeting female faculty, but might very well have been targeting individuals as different from the dominant Virginia Tech population as he was. Fanon's "colonized mind" hypothesis indeed suggests that some alienated individuals may strike out against individuals who seem as alien as they perceive themselves to be ("killing the Other" as a way of minimizing your own Otherness). Will we ever know this was the motive? Probably not, but Barr should not be chastised for suggesting the possibility, as uncomfortable as it may be.

Was the university at fault for not dismissing this student? Probably. But so were the mental health authorities who inexplicably did not report his mental condition to the authorities, contravening state law, and allowing his gun purchase. And what about gun laws in Virginia? Apparently it is quite easy to obtain a lethal weapon legally in that state, regardless of your mental condition.

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around.

Was Barr alienated at Virginia Tech? Of course. But that did not stop her from being good friends with a number of the faculty who were killed. Her letter was written at the height of emotional turmoil because she lost those friends and it is easy to see how much she would like to understand this most inexplicable of events. That makes her human, not demented!

I must say that I have also experienced the alienation of being an East Coaster in West Texas, the reddest area of perhaps the reddest state. But Barr and I both survived such experience; less stable individuals might well succumb in the way Seung-Hui did.

Do I agree with all that Barr said? No. I think if Seung-Hui was emulating anyone in his video it was the protagonist of Hubbard's Battlefield Earth (you can find the cover in Google Image very easily).

Finally, I agree with Barr and at least one of the other writers in that some perspective is sorely needed. As Bill Maher said the other night, "33 dead is a very good day in Baghdad".

Dr. Joe Miller
Dept. of Cell and Neurobiology
Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California

Dear Locus Online,

Well.  Marleen Barr’s essay convinced me that Cho Seung-Hui wasn’t the only one affected by estrangement, alienation, and life under a cultural glass dome.  I shudder in sympathy with her ordeal, forced to live for years in the primitive backlands west of the Hudson.

Her ideological contact lenses are so densely tinted that she can’t even see the other person murdered during the first shooting episode.

I have a simpler explanation (no, not the Freemasons).  Cho was insane.  These killing sprees are a classic syndrome requiring no sexist, racist, or other occult explanation.  Cho killed everyone within range, without regard to age, gender, or ethnicity.  The university administrators were just ordinary dopey people, like you and me, coping with an unfamiliar situation. 

As for extreme genre fiction, I agree, teachers shouldn’t be alarmed by budding Lovecrafts in their writing classes.  But I get the impression that Cho’s compositions were far more disturbed than Steven King’s playful use of horror.  Like pornography, you know it when you see it.

David B. Williams

Tuesday 24 April 2007

Dear Locus Online,

I felt compelled to comment on the deliriously demented Letter from Marleen Barr.  If she had made any effort to extract a coherent message from this tragic incident, it was pulverized by outlandish conjectures, goofy theorizing (Cho's alien extermination policy), and an agenda-obsessed determination to establish shadowy truths that clung to her overriding fantasies.

I would have expected more from a self-proclaimed celebrated and renowned literary critic, whom no one has ever heard of.

Mike Deckinger

Monday 23 April 2007

Dear Locus Online,

I have been offended by many things in my life on a personal and professional level, but rarely have I been as disgusted as I am now by something I have read in a science fiction publication. Ms. Barr has written a letter that is so disturbing and bitter I cannot believe you have placed it on your website. I apologize deeply for being a white middle aged male because as people like her know we are responsible for all the world's ills and maybe deserve to be exterminated-sounds like a stupid Austrian corporal circa 1940, and yes, I realize she is Jewish. She is as intolerant and arrogant as all those white European type men she castigates in her "letter" purporting to defend science fiction's right to speculate about other ways of living, dying, and thinking. Why not honor the "speculative" in speculative fiction and not rant about how an evil jerk was "alienated" by all the bad rural George Bush type white European too stupid to understand feminist science fiction yahoos she had to deal with when she was at VT. Some of us do have an open mind and like to read science fiction because it does give us ideas on how maybe we can make our little plot of earth better. Thank you for your attention and please share this with Ms. Barr.

Most sincerely,

Patrick Daly

Dear Locus Online,

In response to Ms. Marleen Barr's letter in Locus concerning the tragedy at Virginia Tech I can only sympathize with her impassioned pleas for perspective and focus on what is particularly dangerous about group mind thinking in university faculties. The 1st amendment to the Constitution has been blatantly ignored in most cases by like minded individuals who seek to mold young people's minds in education. They seek to blame the actions of a single disturbed individual student on the whole group of genres that have sprung up in recent years, but they do not understand that the students they want to mold have minds of their own and they want to be subject to all the experiences this world has to offer. That the students are attracted to disturbing and mind-bending subjects is not so much the problem as the way in which they are presented without advice or counsel.  

The entire world of entertainment caters to demand. If there was no demand for that brand of entertainment they would not produce disturbing and shocking films and other media. But they project the extremes of the real world in fantastic ways. I don't think that the genres are to blame, but the education system, which stuffs facts in concepts into students' heads without couching them in philosophical terms that give the students proper perspective. No one speaks about ethics and moral conscience, which are the underpinnings of anyone's well-rounded education. We give the students free rein to act beyond the classroom without giving them emotional support and a feeling of inclusion. Without those things, any educational institution is nothing more than a glorified babysitter without responsibility and accountability to the parents or the students themselves. Can we get past this long enough to reconsider the long term consequences of too much sheltering from different ideas? The students will seek out what is different and we would be remiss to deprive them of the experience. The real world that they must enter is more horrible in some ways than any horror book or film. It's time to show them the world as it is with a supporting and loving hand.  

T. M. Moore
Ikthalion Press

Dear Locus Online,

Marleen Barr's commentary about the Virginia Tech massacre is a refreshingly different perspective from the media playbook. No doubt Virginia Tech is an insular, white male institution (but, then, so is much of academia, not just in the hinterlands) and she is quite correct to make connections between a senseless shooting massacre and a senseless war (the difference: we're more used to the latter). And, also no doubt, in hindsight there were significant warning signs that were, for whatever reasons ignored. But these may have as much to do with bureucracy and political correctness -- would the university had moved quicker if Cho Seung Hui were instead a white male and not someone who could claim ethnic discrimination? Similarly, the references to "just" a domestic disturbance has a more innocuous explanation than male oppression. It was "just" a domestic disturbance in the sense that that it was "just" a murder case, and not the worst mass campus massacre in history. Yes, extremely poor choice of words. Perhaps, as a white male, I'm likely to be more charitable. But people in police work who deal with human stupidity that results in violence on a regular basis tend to get cynical. "Just another homicide" is part of the regular routine. I'm a cynical guy, but I have a hard time believing that any authority at Virginia Tech, no matter how sexist, shrugged his shoulders because the victim was female. I'm not saying that mistakes weren't made. It's too early to really know what they are yet. I'd like to think Barr is wrong here.

But where she really starts to lose me is when she begins to fit the murderer's actions into a theory of alienation. Certainly, the guy was alienated, and I don't mean to entirely discount all of Barr's observations. However, I think this is an example of an all-too human attempt to impose an explanation on something that may be, ultimately, unexplainable. Barr conveniently ignores, for example, the reports from many students of their attempts to befriend or at least engage the murderer. Sure, Virginia Tech is a predominantly white rural self-contained rural community, but as a New York metropolitan transplant to nearby Charlottesville, VA, I can tell you people here are awful god-damned friendly. Barr's implication that the fault lies not in the individual, but the institution and those who are part of it, seems to me pointing the finger in the wrong direction.

Somehow I don't think (though of course I don't know anymore than Barr does), that Cho went after figures of "the alien and the Other." For one thing, he evidently had a hard time stringing together a coherent intellectual argument, let alone acting on it. His "plan" strikes me as a more in line with what anyone with an average intelligence that closely follows mainstream action movies could have devised, though the cold calculation is appropriately chilling. But I'm sure Barr isn't anymore interested than I am in banning such movies, despite their violence and sexism. Also, I believe the reports are that Livia Librescu was killed in heroically barricading the classroom door so his students could escape out the window. Cho planned that? Or that Jamie Bishop, a white male, becomes a figure of the alien because he teaches German? If Cho had killed an English teacher, would we adjust the theory to say this was a figure of alienation because English was not his native language?

It's a nice theory, but clearly articulated in the heat of the moment and, perhaps, a bit too soon. If it had been one of my kids killed, I don't think I would have appreciated this piece. It's too, well, academic, and a little too neat. My inclination is to think of this, more simply, as yet another example of the incredible "inhumanity" of the species, despite our inclinations to think otherwise and impose intellectual explanations for brutality. Because if we can somehow find an explanation, then we can somehow get rid of it.

Here is precisely where we need Kurt Vonnegut. The fact that he too is no longer amongst us is yet another reason for disbelief in a Diety who cares about us.

So it goes.

David Soyka

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.