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Raffique Shah


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Gun culture devalues human life

By Raffique Shah
April 22, 2007

By the time you read this column (I am writing on Thursday morning), don't be surprised if US intelligence agencies have discovered that student and mass killer Cho Seung-Hui was really an Al Qaeda agent masquerading as a "Chinee". Or maybe, although his family migrated from pro-American South Korea to Virginia 15 years ago, Cho was really a "sleeper" (deep undercover agent) for the hostile North Korea. In today's newspapers there are references to the bizarre video and "hate note" he left behind, signing as "Ismail Ax". Hmm. Maybe the boy was not schooled properly in Arabic, hence the "Ax" instead of "Al".

I am also not surprised that a 23-year-old misfit who just happened to be Korean went on a crazed rampage on a campus, killing 32 people, from professors to fellow students, finally turning the gun to his head. Outrageous incidents like this have long haunted America. Remember the 1999 Columbine High School shooting spree in which 13 teenagers were murdered by two kids their age? Or Timothy McVeigh's deadly bombing of the City Hall in Oklahoma in which 200-plus people were killed almost 12 years to date-on April 19, 1995?

And if you want to go one worse, jog your memory to 1983 when Henry Lee Lucas, who was in prison for some minor offences, confessed to having murdered around 350 persons. In a killing-spree that spanned many years, he and his accomplices probably broke the world record for murders. He had much in common with Jeffrey Dahmer, who, in 1992, was arrested for the murder of 17 teenagers. Both Lucas and Dahmer were also cannibals, and for bad measure, Lucas added necrophilia to his repertoire!

I am not recounting these gruesome, Hannibal Lecter-like characters to put America in a bad light. As a country, I don't think it's any better or worse than most other developed states. What happened last Monday, though, was a grim reminder that even the seemingly civilised world produces many very violent people, mad murderers aplenty. Ever since 9/11 the George W Bush regime has sought to convince Americans and the world otherwise. Bush thrives on propaganda that such deadly acts are perpetrated only by Islamists. Every act or violence, from Nigeria to Afghanistan, in Bush-speak, is perpetrated by Al Quaeda operatives, Muslim extremists.

But last Monday, just 20 miles or so away from the White House, a would-be American, a Korean one step away from citizenship, proved how easily the American dream can turn into a nightmare. From the little we have learned about Cho, he was hardly an aberration in that complex society. He was described as a "loner", a "weird student" who wrote bizarre essays. Clearly he was a candidate for psychiatric assessment and treatment. Again, this is not uncommon in America. This time-bomb-in-the-making is prevalent at all levels of that society, but none more so than among battle-scarred soldiers who survived the living hell that is Iraq, and who are very likely to turn their training and guns on their own people.

In the Virginia Tech massacre lies a lesson for Trinidadians who swear the answer to our crime problem is to allow supposedly upstanding citizens the right to own and carry firearms. Among the few who own legal guns, several have shown they do not deserve the right to so do. And statistics from America are a telling indictment against any such move. In the Guardian (UK) last week, one report estimated that there is one gun for every American-about 300 million weapons (not all of them legal) in that country. In a typical year, some 29,000 Americans are killed by firearms: 11,000 are murdered and a whopping 17,000 commit suicide! Virginia, where the incident took place, is a gun state: anyone can buy up to one gun a month, once you meet the basic requirements. Cho bought two in a short period. He paid US$570 for a Glock 9mm handgun and 50 rounds of ammunition, and backed it up with another pistol and more ammo. Was he preparing for war, or for his crazed exit from this world?

The gun culture in America offers an easy avenue for gun crimes and the devaluation of human life. Both these sub-human traits are creeping upon us here, evidenced by the gruesome murders and gun-toting criminals that stalk the society today. As readers digest this column, I am in Mayaro enjoying an annual reunion of the rebel soldiers of 1970. Then, we were young men-average age 24-who carried an arsenal of weapons that could have wreaked havoc on the country, taken too many lives to count. We could have unleashed a bloodbath that would have made Cho look like an angel.

But we did not. Not because we were cowards. Not because we did not have the means to so do. But because we valued human life as being sacrosanct, even for soldiers who were trained to kill. Thirty-seven years later, we feel vindicated, we have no regrets. Proud rebels we remain. But we have no blood on our hands.