Blending into the woodwork until making his tragic mark

Virginia Tech Shootings

April 20, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

I went to Centreville, Va., to see where Cho Seung-Hui lived, but it turns out I went to the wrong place.

Oh, I found the house all right, even though it's in one of those indistinguishable cul-de-sac neighborhoods that unfurl like tentacles from the exits off I-66 in Northern Virginia. (Indistinguishable, that is, to outsiders. "We're the first Sully Station, Sully Station I," one resident explained patiently. "He was Sully Station II.")

But the 23-year-old Virginia Tech killer didn't really live in the townhouse on Truitt Farm Drive, where some neighbors have said they didn't even know the Chos had a son, any more than he lived in Harper Hall on campus, where roommates said he barely spoke or acknowledged them.

No, the young man whose presence barely registered in life seemed to live not so much in the physical world as a virtual one. The nearly silent cipher who wouldn't even return a hallway "hello" found his voice digitally, as the "multimedia manifesto" sent to NBC so shockingly demonstrates.

A lot has been made about the Internet's role in this whole tragedy: How as the shootings were under way and cell phone service became overwhelmed, students turned to e-mail and instant r u ok messages. How a former roommate said the most communication he ever had with Cho, and even this wasn't much, was through IM rather than in person. And how much of the grieving and memorializing is unfolding online on blogs and social networking sites.

So perhaps it was inevitable that the student whose most telling characteristic when he was alive was his near muteness would end up having his say via QuickTime videos after he was dead. Maybe the only surprise is that Cho sent the packet, containing a DVD and printouts of photographs and writings, via snail mail - and slowed its receipt even further by putting in the wrong ZIP code - rather than by e-mail, with multiple attachments.

His content is the usual illogical ranting of madmen, all angry grievances that apparently were as deeply felt as they were ill-defined. Rich brats, vodka and cognac, the catch-all bad guy, "you."

The shock comes from the images - and how in an instant they upended the mug shot-like picture of a bespectacled, blank-faced student that previously had been our only view of him. Gone were the wire frames and the sad visage, replaced by this bad-dude, action-figure star of his own movie, complete with guns and stone-cold stare. The powerless taking power. The mocked, now feared.

It's standard journalistic practice to go to the source: When a Cho emerges, you think there will be clues in his hometown, his neighborhood, his high school. There have been the predictable findings: He was bullied some in school; he wasn't Mr. Popular; he - as seemingly all such killers are inevitably described - kept to himself. Is there any more meaningless observation in America today than neighbors saying the killer in their midst kept to himself?

If you want to keep to yourself, Centreville may be a pretty good place to do it. It's in sprawling Fairfax County - which tends to dominate the demographic greatest-hits charts, invariably called one of the wealthiest, most-educated and fastest-growing counties in the nation.

Who knows if anything in Centreville contributed to Cho's rampage - maybe the wealth that surrounded him there enraged him, as the son of a couple who labored in a dry cleaners. Maybe he would have snapped no matter where he lived.

"It was so little then. [Route] 28 was two lanes," Centreville resident Nancy Hutchison told me, referring to the now six-lane highway that goes through the town she moved to 20 years ago. "We only had one high school. Now we have three."

Hutchison's daughter went to the same high school, Westfield, as Cho - as did two of his victims, Reema Samaha and Erin Peterson. Her daughter, a freshman at Georgia Tech, was a friend of the girls, but didn't know Cho, she said. "The school is so big," she said of the 3,200-student Westfield. "Kids do get lost in the shuffle."

Cho isn't even Centreville's - or Westfield's - first brush with notoriety. Last year, a resident and 2005 Westfield grad, Michael Kennedy, ambushed and killed two Fairfax County police officers, getting off some 70 shots before officers killed him.

As with Cho, there were warning signs - Kennedy had escaped from a psychiatric facility and had expressed suicidal thoughts.

Reporters go to the hometowns of notorious figures because they can - they can't go inside their heads, after all, although a self-styled videographer like Cho can leave posthumous clues.

The tragedy, of course, is that someone as ill as Cho either couldn't or wouldn't let his demons be known and thus possibly vanquished before he unleashed them on 32 students and professors. It's heartbreaking to see those endlessly repeated interviews of his former roommates and professors who knew something was wrong and alerted authorities, who ultimately got him briefly committed in a psychiatric hospital, and yet couldn't do more when Cho resisted further help.

Instead, he only left clues that could be deciphered after it was too late. Like the song that he played over and over on his laptop, even scrawling the lyrics on his dorm room's walls - Shine from Collective Soul's album Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid:

Teach me how to speak Teach me how to share.

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