When the news broke about the shootings at Virginia Tech, one of the first stories that came to mind was an essay widely read in writing courses at American schools: Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter.” It’s a skillfully written tale — a good teaching tool for writers, and a story I read years ago with great interest — in which the core event is the shooting spree at the University of Iowa in 1991, in which a Chinese physics student murdered five people and paralyzed a sixth for life. In yesterday’s killings, there were so many eerie echoes of that horror that I pulled the story off the web and re-read it.
Now we learn that the shooter at Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-Hui, was an English major. In the course offerings at Virginia Tech this spring semester, there is “English 3724: Creative Writing: Creative Nonfiction,” covering “the works of writers like Jo Ann Beard,” among others. Did Cho take this course? Did he read that story?
I mention this because I expect that before the investigating and press coverage is done, we’ll find out. If so, I’d like to put down a marker right now, to say that whatever sent Cho on his hideous mission of mass murder, it surely had far deeper roots than anything he might have read in an English class.