Posted by: L | April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech Killing: Who in the World Is Ismail Ax?

More ethnological and onomatological ruminations from the ever colorful right, cited in Media Matters:

“Responding to the April 16 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, right-wing pundit Debbie Schlussel “speculat[ed]” in an April 16 weblog post that the shooter, who had been identified at that point only as a man of Asian descent, might be a “Paki” Muslim and part of “a coordinated terrorist attack.”

“Paki” is a disparaging term for a person of Pakistani descent…” (That’s a comment from Media Matters)
(AN ASIDE: As someone originally from India, I just want to remark that the subcontinent (of India) alone contains as many different distinct languages and cultures as Europe. The equivalent of Europe is India, not Asia. There is really no equivalent to Asia. Europeans share more in common than Asians do. Just another way in which language confuses us with false equivalences).

Relatedly, Jerry Boyer (did I get this name right?) of National Review was just on Neil Cavuto on FOX, talking about the name, Ismail Ax. He was insisting on its jihadi overtones, claiming that Cho was a smart young man who made literary references in his writing. and therefore, the words he used need to be taken seriously.

Well, I think Cho was capable of literary references, too. ‘McBeef’, for example, is a subtle reference to Macbeth, as is the reference in the media package to people not being able to wash blood off their hands. But that’s precisely the reason I think Ismail is probably a general reference to Ishmael, as a symbol of the outcast and possibly a reference to Moby Dick and probably not a specific reference to a jihadi brotherhood.

It’s my belief that Cho’s fevered…and probably quite creative …imagination scrambled together a number of things he had read, like passages from Moby Dick (remember the reiteration of the name “Dick” in Richard McBeef…a name loaded with his obsession with sodomy).

The protagonist of Melville’s novel, Captain Ahab, has been wounded by the white whale — which becomes a symbol to him of the malice of the universe. To Ahab, the renegade Christian (which is how Cho also saw himself apparently), the whale is the “pasteboard mask” worn by the supreme inscrutable evil (ch. 36). Ahab proposes to strike back at all that is wrong everywhere by striking “through the mask.”

Moby Dick opens with the line, “Call me Ishmael,” one of the most famous in all literature.

Then here is another interesting chapter in the book, which even contains all of Cho’s references to idols, paganism, and axes:


The Ramadan

As Queequeg?s Ramadan, or Fasting and Humiliation, was to continue all day, I did not choose to disturb him till towards night-fall; for I cherish the greatest respect towards everybody?s religious obligations, never mind how comical, and could not find it in my heart to undervalue even a congregation of ants worshipping a toad-stool; or those other creatures in certain parts of our earth, who with a degree of footmanism quite unprecedented in other planets, bow down before the torso of a deceased landed proprietor merely on account of the inordinate possessions yet owned and rented in his name.

I say, we good Presbyterian Christians should be charitable in these things, and not fancy ourselves so vastly superior to other mortals, pagans and what not, because of their half-crazy conceits on these subjects. There was Queequeg, now, certainly entertaining the most absurd notions about Yojo and his Ramadan;?but what of that? Queequeg thought he knew what he was about, I suppose; he seemed to be content; and there let him rest. All our arguing with him would not avail; let him be, I say: and Heaven have mercy on us all?Presbyterians and Pagans alike?for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.

Towards evening, when I felt assured that all his performances and rituals must be over, I went to his room and knocked at the door; but no answer. I tried to open it, but it was fastened inside. “Queequeg,” said I softly through the key-hole:-all silent. “I say, Queequeg! why don?t you speak? It’s I-Ishmael.” But all remained still as before. I began to grow alarmed. I had allowed him such abundant time; I thought he might have had an apoplectic fit. I looked through the key-hole; but the door opening into an odd corner of the room, the key-hole prospect was but a crooked and sinister one. I could only see part of the foot-board of the bed and a line of the wall, but nothing more. I was surprised to behold resting against the wall the wooden shaft of Queequeg’s harpoon, which the landlady the evening previous had taken from him, before our mounting to the chamber. That?s strange, thought I; but at any rate, since the harpoon stands yonder, and he seldom or never goes abroad without it, therefore he must be inside here, and no possible mistake.

“Queequeg!-Queequeg!”-all still. Something must have happened. Apoplexy! I tried to burst open the door; but it stubbornly resisted. Running down stairs, I quickly stated my suspicions to the first person I met?the chamber-maid. “La! la!” she cried, “I thought something must the matter. I went to make the bed after breakfast, and the door was locked; and not a mouse to be heard; and it’s been just so silent ever since. But I thought, may be, you had both gone off and locked your baggage in for safe keeping. La! la, ma’am!-Mistress! murder! Mrs. Hussey! apoplexy!”and with these cries she ran towards the kitchen, I following.

Mrs. Hussey soon appeared, with a mustard-pot in one hand and a vinegar-cruet in the other, having just broken away from the occupation of attending to the castors, and scolding her little black boy meantime.

“Wood-house!” cried I, ?which way to it? Run for God’s sake, and fetch something to pry open the door-the axe!-the axe! he’s had a stroke; depend upon it!”and so saying I was unmethodically rushing up stairs again empty-handed, when Mrs. Hussey interposed the mustard-pot and vinegar-cruet, and the entire castor of her countenance.

“What’s the matter with you, young man?

“Get the axe! For God?s sake, run for the doctor, some one, while I pry it open!”


Here you find all the references to pagans, Christians, and axes – that were floating around in Cho’s deranged mind…he didn’t have to get any of this from jihadis.

But let’s say Cho saw himself as a kind of Captain Ahab, then what’s the physical injury or handicap he suffered? Ahab, remember, lost his leg to Moby Dick.

A poster at this blog has written in suggesting that Cho had a bad speech impediment, which might account for his introversion and silence.

Once, in English class, the teacher had the students read aloud, and when it was Cho’s turn, he just looked down in silence“, Davids recalled. Finally, after the teacher threatened him with an F for participation, Cho started to read in a strange, deep voice that sounded “like he had something in his mouth,” Davids said.
As soon as he started reading, the whole class started laughing and pointing and saying, ‘Go back to China,“‘ Davids said.
{FOX News article}

We were concerned about him being too quiet and encouraged him to talk more.said an uncle (Cho’s mother’s younger brother), who requested to be identified only by his last name, Kim. Cho “troubled his parents a lot when he was young because he couldn’t speak well, but was well-behaved,” recalled his grandfather, who was also identified by only his last name Kim in an interview with the Dong-a Ilbo daily. In a separate interview with the Hankyoreh newspaper, Kim, 81, said the relatives were worried that (as a child) Cho might even be mute.

Stephanie Roberts, 22, graduated with Cho from Westfield High School.I just remember he was a shy kid who didn’t really want to talk to anybody,” she said. “I guess a lot of people felt like maybe there was a language barrier.” But she said friends of hers who went to middle school with Cho told her they recalled him getting picked on there. “There were just some people who were really mean to him and they would push him down and laugh at him,” Roberts said Wednesday. “He didn’t speak English really well and they would really make fun of him. {FOX News}

And here is a report that he suffered from autism.

So, if you look at it objectively and without an agenda, there really are lots of possible explanations for Cho’s behavior and language. I am not willing to back any of them at this point, but I am pretty certain that what we know so far doesn’t support the jihadi theory.

Bo Dietl, from the (former) Don Imus show, who was also on the same FOX show today, made this point quite well. He pointed out that he too had been struck by the Muslim associations to the name until he saw the video. But the video itself was so deranged and all over the place – with its references to Christ, hedonists and rich people – that he too came to the conclusion that it did not refer specifically to jihadis.

Meanwhile, this is what is worrying the right: some of the file names in that multimedia package that Cho sent to NBC, from an NBC report:

“all of You”, “am al qaeda”, “anti terror”, “as time appr”, “blood of inno”, “congrad”, “could b victim.”

The NBC report goes on: “The rambling comments are those of an angry young man who felt persecuted, who felt that the world is against him, who felt he was a victim of personal terrorism.”

Of course, there are right-wing bloggers who think that NBC is the one rambling here:

“Felt he was a “victim of personal terrorism?” Are they fookin nuts? Who writes this psychobabble? Whoever it is must be sleeping with Geraldo Rivera,” writes one.

I will leave it there for now and just say that in my opinion, these bloggers aren’t too convincing.

What about the identification with Jesus Christ in Cho’s video? How does that square with the jihadi theory? And what about the reference to the Columbine school shooting? Or to hedonists and rich people? The reference to al quaed strikes me as something coming to him from the culture at large to be .taken for its oppositional stance in some general way but not indicating a definite allegiance.

People can legitimately pose theories about an event as sensational as this one – that’s natural. But at some point, they need to provide real evidence for their theories, or they begin to look like they are just making political hay from the moment.

Earlier on, I posted a report about a Korean killing spree (in the post about Cho) to remind us that mass shootings are not unique to the US (some of my foreign friends like to rib me about this….and the post is really for them). Killers can get their inspiration from any number of places, maybe even from several places. Now, it turns out that there’s a report that Cho might have been imitating an award winning South Korean movie he’d watched recently,  OldBoy,  which was ultra-violent and contained grotesque images of revenge and obssession.

We also have news of copy cat killings all over the country – like this one threatened by Jeffery(sic) Thomas Carney, who warns that he is going to go on a spree worse than Virginia Tech.

These copy-cat threats are making a lot of people – rightly – question NBC’s decision to go public with that video, which seems to be what is setting them off.

That tells you how diffiicult it is to lay the blame on any one thing – whether it’s videos… or rap music… or violent games – as an explanation of a particular act of violence. You can see that even news stories can set off deranged, attention- seeking sociopaths (I use the term as a layman).

My point is that deranged people will grasp at anything on which to model their behavior. We can’t really immediately infer that Cho was a jihadi just because some of his behavior resembled some things that jihadis might do.

The fact is the creative mind, even the deranged creative mind, travels very far afield for its imagery and then scrambles it in a way that defies daylight logic. If you’ve ever read about the creation of Coleridge’s “Xanadu,” a poem written in an “opium dream.” you’ll know what I mean. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson once wrote a very lengthy book ( I think it’s called In Search of Xanadu) tracking down Coleridge’s readings for many years before he wrote the poem. He showed how images from all sorts of unrelated reading turned up disguised in the famous poem.

Just something to think about: the immense power of the images around us to shape our thoughts……



  1. Hi Lila, just wished to point out one thing… In your article published on, you refered to Ismail (to use your own words, progenitor of Muslims…) as the ‘Bastard’ son of Abraham.

    If I may, being a Muslim, I found that slightly jarring, to say the least. I’m sure you would realise that Ismail is revered as a prophet by Muslims, no less than his father, Abraham or his half-borther Isaac, or, for that matter, Jesus, Moses, David & Solomon.

    …&, yes, there are some very obvious differences between the beliefs of Christians & Muslims, & between the narratives of Bible & the Quran.
    (The Bible is more descriptive wheareas the Quran is more allegorical. Pardon my ignorance if my use of these terms are incorrect. I am just another regular guy, not one with a backround in literature)
    This obviuosly leads to some poeple being more revered by one group & others less revered, or even, held in contempt, by others. Hagar (or Hajra as per the Arabic tradition) is widely believed , in both traditions, with some variation of course, to have been a slave whom Abraham took as his concubine with the intention of begeeting a child. That child was Ismail or Ishmeal. His wife, Sarah, wnet on to beget Isaac. Muslim tradition has it that Abraham & Ismail build our holiest shrine, the Kaaba in Mecca.

    I guess I’m rambling now but, my point is that the word ‘Bastard’ seems a tad too strong even under the circumstances. Now before I get labelled as an Islamofascist, or whatever fanciful term is in vogue is the US today, may I clarify that I respect freedom of expression, yours or anyone elses, but one does hope that well-meaning poeple like you, who I’m sure bear no malice as such towards common muslim folks like me, would be more circumspect about the words you use for revered religious figures like Ismail.

    In the end, may I also add that I might be overreacting here, but these are trying times, & for someone like me, its really diffcult at times to tell the difference between malice & genuine discourse.

    Thanks for your indulgence.

    Yors Truly
    Bangalore, India

  2. Sorry Ebad. Correction noted. L

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