Wednesday, April 18, 2007

why Korea has little to fear

As the Virginia Tech tragedy continues to play out in the media, it has become obvious to many pundits in the Koreablogosphere and the mainstream media that Korea will default to Cover Your Ass mode. This will include loudly questioning how a Korean could possibly have done such a terrible thing, as well as focusing not on the thirty-two people who were killed, but on the question of American Backlash Against Us.

I think the fear of backlash is largely unjustified. America is stereotyped as a land of shotgun-toting bumpkins, ruled by a fear born of ignorance, but this is far from the case: our country is still one of the most welcoming (if not the most welcoming) nation on earth when it comes to immigrants and the tolerance of difference. If you judge us by our bumpkins, we'll feel free to judge you by yours. That's only fair, I think.

What you won't see in America is mass demonstrations by non-Koreans shouting, "Go home, Korean bastards!" What you might see is random acts of vandalism and perhaps the occasional act of violence as the ignorant among us show off their stupidity. These incidents will be few and far between. American "Netizens" will not be secretly cheering these punks on, and signs saying "Koreans Not Welcome" will not be appearing on restaurant and shop windows. Groups of wild-eyed white folks will not be burning Korean flags, and no Koreans will be lynched. As one commenter at the Marmot's Hole suggested, the Korean fear of the American reaction to this mass murder is sourced in projection, because as we expats know, Korea often slips easily into heedless massmind behavior. Perhaps from the Korean point of view, such a reaction is natural. But most Americans don't roll that way.

Koreans will probably latch upon every isolated instance of violence and take it as confirmation of their suspicion of a larger anti-Korean trend. When no such trend appears, many Koreans will simply drop the issue without publicly admitting they were mistaken. Such behavior isn't unique to Koreans, of course; I see it in all-Westerner comment threads all the time.

What's truly unfortunate is that some Koreans will also remember that certain Americans did, in fact, attack people who either were or looked Arab in the wake of 9/11. But as the years after 9/11 have shown, attacks on Muslims and mosques were nothing on the scale of what still happens in places like France, where Jewish schoolchildren are sometimes assaulted by Muslim children, and Jewish synagogues and cemeteries are routinely burned or defaced. I highly doubt that gangs of anti-Korean Americans will prowl the streets in search of Korean churches to spraypaint or Korean businesses to vandalize. If such gangs do appear, they will be the glaring exception, not the rule, and I will abominate them along with scandalized Koreans. What happened to certain Muslims in the months after 9/11 was unjustifiable, of course, but it needs to be put in perspective.

One reason why I think America will not react badly toward Koreans is that, in the wake of the VA Tech killings, Korea's reaction was not the same as Palestine's after 9/11. There, in Gaza, thousands of esctatic Muslims poured out into the street in celebration. As I recall, Korea's reaction immediately following 9/11 was the same as the rest of the civilized world's: there was an outpouring of sympathy from the peninsula to the States. Many of us Americans remember that and are grateful. Korea's reaction now, while perhaps selfish in the Cover Your Ass sense, is a far cry from jubilation in the streets. It is, in my opinion, a civilized reaction: people here are shocked, reflective, critical, and self-critical. Americans have doubtless taken note of this. Given that many Komerican communities routinely practice some form of neighborhood outreach, I doubt that those communities are in danger of being attacked and plundered.

In fact, if America's stupid people do rouse themselves to violent action, I suspect that many of them will hit the wrong targets: Chinese and Vietnamese and Japanese folks just minding their own business. So my message to Korea this evening is: remain calm. And if something does happen in the States, don't take that as evidence of an ominous trend. Such fear is self-justifying and self-perpetuating. Wait until there actually is a plottable trend before letting us have it in your papers and TV news. Remain at your civilized best.

Some bitter foreigners may find this hard to admit, but Korea is an eminently civilized country. Look around you, expats, and notice the distinct lack of AK-47s firing into the air. Koreans have little to fear from us, and we have little to fear from them.



Anonymous said...

While I agree with the overall message of your post, can we really compare this shooting to 9-11? The two events are entirely different in nature--one was a carefully planned assault on a nation with the intent of sending a message, while the other was a very troubled individual lashing out in a very selfish way. I do understand (and agree) with what you are saying, I just think the comparison might be a little unreasonable.

Kevin Kim said...

But unreasonable to which side?

At the risk of undercutting my own "they're civilized people" claim, I'd note that Koreans don't seem to need much justification (from a Western point of view, anyway) to gather en masse in huge demonstrations. The death of two girls was enough to bring out the thundering horde.

To me, the lack of open celebration of the deaths of several dozen Americans indicates that something is holding Koreans back. I'd like to think it's a civilized impulse. It's probably also rooted in Korea's "face/shame" culture, but reducing Korean motives to that would be uncharitable.

Instead of focusing on the disanalogous elements, I prefer to focus on what's similar: sudden disaster visited upon the innocent.

And it's quite possible that the VA Tech killings were carefully planned, too: if it turns out, for example, that Cho was behind the recent bomb threats and was testing campus security. The fact that he was loaded down with ammo and had chains to lock a building's doors is another sign of premeditaton. So I'd say there are enough elements to at least construct an analogy.


Anonymous said...

Hmm... I see what you're saying. It's just that something about the analogy rubs me the wrong way. I can't quite put my finger on it, though.

Demonstrating over the death of two girls is an entirely different thing than celebrating the deaths of over thirty people. The demonstrations were expressing outrage and frustration at the deaths.

I'm a bit confused about the second paragraph in your comment as well. You're not saying that, were it not for a "civilized impulse," Koreans would be openly celebrating this tragedy, are you? I don't see it as an issue of anyone holding anything back--that would seem to imply that the impulse would be to celebrate death.

As for the planning, yeah, I will admit that there probably was some planning involved. But the planning isn't as important as the intended message. I don't think Cho was trying to send a message of hate against Americans, just rich people and women (from what I've heard). I think that is the primary difference.

Anyway, I do see your point. The analogy still bothers me, but I understand why you made it, and I agree with the point you are making through it, so I'll let it go. If you want to address any of the issues via email rather than cluttering up the comments, that's cool. If not, that's cool too.

Kevin Kim said...


It would be nice if neat and tidy analogies abounded, but alas, they don't. All analogies fail in some way; some are, perhaps, neater than others. I admit this wasn't the neatest analogy; it puts the "anal" in "analogy," truth be told. But I think it points in the right direction.


Elisson said...

I tend to agree with Charles here. You cannot draw an analogy between the attacks of 9/11, which were well-planned, coordinated assaults on American targets, committed by an organized entity to further the agenda of Islamist radicalism, and the actions of a deranged individual.

In the case of the 9/11 attacks (and the Palestinian celebrations that followed), there was an undeniable cultural/ethnic component. Americans showed great restraint by not attacking local resident Muslims en masse - and, of course, such attacks would have been unjustified, being the result of entirely justifiable (but misdirected) anger.

But the Virginia Tech massacre was the action of a single, deranged individual. His ethnicity or cultural background is irrelevant. For Americans to impute his actions to a purported defect in Koreans in general would be completely ridiculous...and I can't, for the life of me, see it happening.

Kevin Kim said...


There are two ways I can go on this, I think:

1. The VA Tech killer was pretty rational and methodical in his actions;

2. The 9/11 attacks, while methodical and extremely well coordinated, were founded upon what might be paradoxically called a doctrine of irrationalism. In other words-- what sane, civilized people would seek to do such a thing?

While I'm not married to this analogy of mine, I think the imagery I used expresses the basic point that Koreans aren't the type to be screaming "Allahu akbar!" in the streets when a bunch of Americans get killed, and this obtains whether the number of American dead is 32 or 3000. That's really the point I was trying to make.

So the more I think about it, the more I think it's inappropriate to say that I was striving to draw analogies between 9/11 and this incident as if I were doing a historical comparison. No: my point was merely to compare the responses of two disparate people to the sudden and tragic loss of many American lives. That, for me, was the relevant point of comparison: the level of civilization evident in the respective responses. Perhaps I should have made this clearer in my original essay.

Even when Koreans were demonstrating against America after the 2002 accident in which two Korean schoolgirls were killed, Koreans did not actively seek expat Americans out, drag them into the street, and beat them to death. Compare this with, say, the Muslim response in various countries after the Muhammad cartoon incident, in which certain Muslims, furious over a perceived slight to their religion, burned down embassies and threatened Westerners with death.

So I'll happily grant the disanalogies that you and Charles are pointing out, but will humbly insist that the focus for my comparison is more on how two groups of people react to American tragedies and not on the specifics of those tragedies.