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Friday, April 27, 2007

Echoes From Blacksburg

Although 224 miles separate the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia and the University of Maryland campus in College Park, Maryland, the shootings that took place in Blacksburg on Monday, April 16 had repercussions that were felt in College Park throughout the last week.

The April 19 issue of The Diamondback, the University of Maryland newspaper, reported that Jen Park, president of the Asian American Student Union, had heard reports of Asian Pacific American students on campus who had to deal with people whispering "there goes another one," or that they should "go back where they came from." To the minds of immature and ill-informed people on campus, the actions of the shooter in Blacksburg, a Korean American named Seung Cho who had immigrated as a child and attended American K-12 schools, had made all APAs suspect.

Fortunately, University of Maryland President Daniel Mote sent a strong, clear and compassionate email message to the entire University of Maryland community on April 20, reminding everyone that the actions of one profoundly disturbed man in Blacksburg were not an excuse to blame or target an entire group of people. Entitled, "A Time to Come Together," it was a perfect example of how a community leader can set a tone that allows the voices of reason to prevail over the voices of hysteria and hate after a catastrophic event.

Meanwhile, a few miles down Route 1 in the nation’s capital, APA organizations struggled with the question of whether to send out official press releases on the Blacksburg shootings and, if so, what to say in those releases. Never in all my days here since the late 1970s as a reporter and civil rights advocate have I seen such trouble in deciding what to say.

The crux of the problem was that while the main actor in a devastating tragedy was Asian Pacific American, his troubled mental state was to blame for the tragedy on April 16, not his racial and ethnic identity. Yet many APA groups, based on past experience, wanted to vaccinate the country against the kind of backlash that had led to anti-Muslim actions after 9/11 and the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor.

Adrian Hong, director of the Mirae Foundation, which mentors Korean American students, wrote an important op-ed piece in the Washington Post on April 20. He explored why the South Korean government and high profile Korean American such as Washington State Senator Paull [yes, it has two L’s] Shin felt compelled to issue formal apologies for Cho’s actions on April 16, based on a "collective sense of guilt and shame."

In but one example, South Korean ambassador Lee Tae Shik called on the Korean American community to "repent," suggesting a 32-day fast (one day for each of Cho’s victims), to prove that Korean Americans were a "worthwhile ethnic minority in America."

Hong’s opinion piece, which was another good example of timely, strong, clear-headed leadership, clarified the difference between being sad about what happened and feeling to blame for what happened. He concluded, "I ask the Koreans of America to please continue expressing your heartfelt condolences. They are helping the healing process. But please do not apologize. The actions of Cho Seung Hui were not your fault. If our heads are hung low, they should be in grief, not in apology and shame. This tragedy is something for all of us to bear, examine and try to prevent as Americans, together." [Link]

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