The Deeper Significance of the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

An Open Letter to the Community

“Corruption has appeared on the land and on the sea on account of what Men’s hands have wrought…” – The Noble Qur’an

I begin by stating our hearts, in The Peace And Justice Foundation, go out to all of the victims of this senseless tragedy – which includes the loved ones of the deceased; and, yes, even the grieving family of the perpetrator. May God give you strength in this difficult hour, and soon bring solace to your hearts.

In the days ahead, competing ideological factions will do their best to manipulate the tragedy at Virginia Tech to suit their own political ends. Most, perhaps, will argue that the issue is about gun control, while others may use this tragedy to expand the immigration debate. Few, unfortunately, will have the insight or courage to address the issue for what it really is – a tragic manifestation of our own collective and very bitter societal fruits.

As the full magnitude of this human tragedy began to unfold – 34 dead as of this writing – many thoughts rushed through my mind. In addition to the aforementioned verse from the Qur’an, I recalled a memorable observation that was made by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many years ago. Dr. King, known both for his eloquence and insight, opined:

Nothing in our glittering technology can raise man to new heights, because material growth has been made an end in itself, and, in the absence of moral purpose, man himself becomes smaller as the works of man become bigger…

When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation – perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society.

This observation goes right to the heart of the issues raised by the bloodbath at Virginia Tech University, last Monday. The crazed gunman, a 23 year old South Korean born senior named Cho Seung-Hui, has been described by those who knew him as a loner, an introvert, and as someone who exhibited (in his writings) violent and deranged tendencies. It has also been reported that this troubled young man suffered from chronic depression, and had few (if any) friends; traits that represent a common denominator for many (if not most) of America’s mass murderers.

It is indeed interesting to note that persons familiar with this young man on campus noticed warning signs of potential disaster. I’ve read one of Seung-Hui’s short plays (“Richard McBeef”) and was immediately struck by the mental disturbance it revealed about its author. I’ve also been struck by what a number of students have had to say about their past impressions of Cho Seung-Hui.

Former classmate Ian MacFarlane had this to say about the young man at the center of the nation’s latest tragedy:

When I first heard about the multiple shootings at Virginia Tech yesterday, my first thought was about my friends, and my second thought was “I bet it was Seung Cho…” Looking back, he fit the exact stereotype of what one would typically think of as a “school shooter” – a loner, obsessed with violence, and serious personal problems…

A major part of [our] playwriting class was peer reviews… When we read Cho’s plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn’t have even thought of. Before Cho got to class that day, we students were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter. I was even thinking of scenarios of what I would do in case he did come in with a gun, I was that freaked out about him. When the students gave reviews of his play in class, we were very careful with our words in case he decided to snap. Even the professor didn’t pressure him to give closing comments.

After hearing about the mass shootings, I sent one of my friends a Facebook message asking him if he knew anything about Seung Cho and if he could have been involved. He replied: “dude that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking! No, I haven’t heard anything, but seriously, that was the first thing I thought when I heard he was Asian.”

And thus, even among his student peers, there was this visceral awareness of a real disturbance below the surface of Seung Cho-Hui. Ian Macfarlane now opines, “I hope this [tragedy] might help people start caring about others more, no matter how weird they might seem, because if this was some kind of cry for attention, then he should have gotten it a long time ago.”

In the coming days our voracious news media will dissect this tragedy in every way imaginable, and comparisons will repeatedly be made, no doubt, with prior mass killings (or campus-related murder-suicides) – i.e., the University of Arizona Nursing College on October 28, 2002 (4 dead); Virginia’s Appalachian School of Law on January 16, 2002 (3 dead, 3 wounded); Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 (15 dead); Killeen Texas in 1991 (24 dead); the University of Iowa on November 1, 1991 (6 dead; 2 wounded); University of Texas on August 1, 1966 (17 dead, 31 wounded), etc., etc.

The real challenge for America will be what lessons and productive resolutions come out of this most recent tragedy in Blacksburg, Virginia. On an encouraging note, the memorial service that was held at Virginia Tech yesterday (Tuesday) was both dignified and structured in a way that was conducive to collective healing.

In addition to the academic and political leaders on hand, the program also included interfaith messages of hope and healing from a Muslim, Buddhist, Jew and a Christian (in that order), along with a mental health professional who alerted the academic community (and family members in need) of the services that would be available on campus for as long as they were needed. The high point came at the end, through the celebrated poet and Virginia Tech professor, Nikki Giovanni.

Giovanni ended the program with a poem (“We Are Virginia Tech”) that graphically illustrated the power of words. The poem, which appeared to be written for the occasion, addressed itself to the culture of violence that permeates this planet…and the often unfair consequences that come in its wake. But even in the face of unspeakable horrors, the poem suggested, there is the possibility for a resoluteness of spirit that, when harnessed properly, has the ability to take wings and rise above the fray – even in the darkest hour.

When Giovanni ended her moving recitation with “We Are Virginia Tech,” thousands of voices went up in a collective and repetitive chant, “LET’S GO HOKIES!” – giving this writer, and I’m sure many others, chills. But now the difficult work ahead begins.

Most of us know someone who exhibits many of the signs of chronic depression and/or other forms of mental or emotional disturbance. In the words of Ian Macfarlane, “I hope this [tragedy] might help people start caring about others more, no matter how weird they might seem, because if this was some kind of cry for attention, then he should have gotten it a long time ago.”

The Virginia Tech massacre reminds us of the immediate in-your-face-challenge that each of us has, or should have, as concerned citizens. In addition to this individual challenge, however, there is the larger (societal) challenge that we must also face.

It is my humble opinion that the massacre at Virginia Tech University – like so many similar tragedies on American school campuses over the past few years – is a tragic reminder of two maladies that grips the very soul of this global community (especially the “developed” West): alienation and a culture of violence. Until we do more to address ourselves to the root causes of these twin evils contaminating the human spirit, history will continue to repeat itself – again, and again, and again.

As it is written, ALLAH (The Almighty) will not change the condition of a people, until they first change – through the appropriate exercise of their own limited free will – what is within themselves. May God help us.

Yours in the struggle for peace thru justice,

El-Hajj Mauri’ Saalakhan
Director of Operations
The Peace And Justice Foundation


Will America Accept it’s Share of Responsibility?

The Qur’an says: “Corruption has appeared on the land and on the sea, on account of what men’s hands have wrought; that Allah may make them taste a part of what they have done so that they might return (to a state of God-consciousness).”

I begin with the words of one of America‘s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; His justice cannot sleep forever.”

A couple of nights ago I caught a few minutes of Bill O’Reilly’s show on the Fox television network. (I believe that it’s more than a little difficult for any thinking and balanced person to tolerate this show for a full hour).

On this particular night he had a retired U.S. general, who is now operating as a private contractor in Iraq. As the two of them put on their usual show for O’Reilly’s dedicated viewers – arrogantly pontificating (in a typically biased one-sided manner) on the ongoing carnage in Iraq – I decided that it was time that I write part two of the open letter on the deeper significance of the tragedy at Virginia Tech University.

A well known Muslim scholar of another age, Sheikh ibn Taymeeyah, impressed upon his students the following: “Civilization is rooted in justice, and the consequences of oppression are devastating. Therefore, it is said that Allah aids the just state even if it is non-Muslim, yet withholds His help from the oppressive state even if it is Muslim.”

As our nation struggles to understand the carnage that recently erupted on the campus of Virginia Tech University, nestled up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, our government’s actions (both here and abroad) – i.e., the culture of violence that permeates life and living in the USA, and the violence that we shamelessly export to other parts of the world – must be factored into the equation.

For purposes of this writing we will focus our attention on the violence that America exports to other corners of the world. While volumes and volumes could be written on the destructive impact that American foreign policy has had in Africa and Asia, or Central and South America, we will devote our attention to one country (in one corner of the world) that is regularly in the news: Iraq and the Middle East.

We begin with a simple question: Is an American life of greater value than a life that is not “American” (especially if that life happens to be found in one of the “developing countries“)? We invite the reader to seriously, and honestly, ponder this question for a few moments before proceeding any further in this commentary.

In a featured article published in the April 2007 edition of Vanity Fair Magazine, titled “Iraq’s Mercenary King,” [former C.I.A. agent] Robert Baer provides detailed insight into the world of high paid, U.S. financed mercenaries currently operating in Iraq. Baer begins his article with a provocative question: “As a former C.I.A. agent, the author knows how mercenaries work: in the shadows. But how did a notorious former British officer, Tim Spicer, come to coordinate the second largest army in Iraq – the tens of thousands of private security contractors?” How indeed?

Baer writes: “[Spicer] popped up on the C.I.A.’s radar after he retired from the British Army and went to work, in 1996, as the C.E.O. of Sandline International, a private military company offering ‘operational support’ to ‘legitimate governments.’ A year later Spicer was in Papua New Guinea, where he fielded a mercenary army for the government in order to protect a multinational copper-mining company. After Spicer was expelled, he moved to Sierra Leone, this time helping to ship arms to coup plotters. Spicer’s name resurfaced in 2004 in connection with a putsch aimed a Equatorial Guinea…

“But then, somehow, two months later, Spicer’s new company, known as Aegis Defence Services, landed a $293 million Pentagon contract to coordinate security for reconstruction projects, as well as support for other private military companies, in Iraq. This effectively put him in command of the second largest foreign armed force in the country – behind America’s but ahead of Britain’s. These men aren’t officially part of the Coalition of the Willing, because they’re all paid contractors – the Coalition of the Billing, you might call it – but they’re a crucial part of the coalition’s forces nonetheless.”

On the issue of “billing” – what is the going rate for mercenaries these days? The Government Accountability Office released a report in February 2006 which stated there were approximately 48,000 private military contractors in Iraq, employed by 181 different companies. (No doubt, the numbers have increased since then.) The bulk of the military contractors are American and British – many retired from elite units such as the British Special Air Service or the U.S. Special Forces – with a sprinkling of other nationalities thrown in for good measure. A report in The Economist opines that mercenaries are Britain’s largest export to Iraq – not food, medicine, or construction material; MERCENARIES!

Soldiers with an elite military background can make up to $1,500 per day! More typically a western military contractor will earn $180,000 a year – while a contractor from one of the “developing nations” (i.e., Bosnians, Chileans, Filipinos or Nepalese, etc.) can be acquired for considerably less.

For example, Baer references the hot water that Blackwater USA got itself into because of its unscrupulous hiring practices. (Blackwater USA is one of the largest private military contractors in Iraq.) About three dozen former Colombian soldiers are suing Blackwater for breach of contract, because Blackwater reportedly reduced their rate of pay at the last minute to $34 a day (a virtual slave wage in comparison to what an American or Brit receives)!

These “contractors” often operate with depraved indifference toward the lives and property of the indigenous natives. Baer writes that one of their “tactics” in the field is to shoot first and ask questions later, but it doesn’t stop there. Some of America’s paid mercenaries “have been accused of shooting Iraqis for sport.” Case in point: In November 2005 a disgruntled Aegis ex-employee posted a “trophy video” on the Internet, featuring some of Aegis’s employees speeding down the highway and indiscriminately shooting at civilian cars, against Elvis Presley “Mystery Train” soundtrack.

The company’s internal investigation of the video concluded that the actions depicted represented “legitimate operations,” undertaken in compliance with rules of engagement. “The Pentagon looked into the video and declined to take further steps,” Baer writes. It should also be noted that many of these “contractors” come with murky backgrounds, to say the least.

Hart Security, for example, is a private military company with roots in Apartheid South Africa (once known for having one of the world’s most ruthless counter-insurgency forces). According to Baer, “One of Hart’s men was Gray Branfield, a former covert South African operative who spent years assassinating leaders of the African National Congress. After Branfield was killed, in Kut during the 2004 uprising of the Mahdi Army, and his history became public, Hart Security said it had been unaware of his past.”

After another subcontractor named Francois Strydom was killed by Iraqi insurgents in 2004, the private military company Erinys discovered that it too had an Apartheid South African problem. Strydom, it turns out, was a former member of the notorious Koevoet – formerly an arm of Apartheid South Africa’s counter-insurgency campaign in the territory now known as Namibia.

These contractors operate as small military units. They routinely carry automatic weapons, rocket launchers, and travel at high rates of speed in heavily armored SUVs. They are known to shoot at any civilian vehicle that appears even remotely to be a threat. Nowadays when a contractor gets into trouble over its head, it can call for assistance in the form of military air support, or a quick reaction force. (Contractors carry transponders, allowing the military to locate them in an emergency.)

Baer notes:

It’s easy to imagine how a young man in Fallujah, where the unemployment rate is now perhaps 70 percent, views private military contractors. They arrive in the form of an armored GMC Suburban, with smoked windows, bearing down at high speed. The closest thing to a visible human being is the turret gunner. But in his kevlar helmet and blue-mirrored wrap around Oakleys, the gunner doesn’t seem all that human. The young Iraqi knows that the gunner makes more money in a year than he will in a lifetime, that he is effectively IMMUNE FROM PROSECUTION [emphasis mine], and that he won’t hesitate to shoot if people don’t get out of the way fast enough.

Private military companies are said to represent a $30 billion a year industry. A lot of lobbying clout comes with that kind of money, and needless to say, the industry has friends in high places. Steve Kappes, the current deputy director of the C.I.A., came from ArmorGroup, a private military company with contracts in Iraq; Cofer Black, formerly with the C.I.A. and the State Department, is the vice-chairman of Blackwater. (The industry reportedly has many other friends who flow in and out of government.)

Baer also makes mention of a very revealing address that Mr. Black delivered in a predominantly Muslim country: “Last year Cofer Black addressed a convention of mercenaries in Jordan, and he floated a plan to create a full-size Blackwater brigade, ready to be deployed virtually anywhere, for a price. ‘It’s an intriguing, good idea from a practical standpoint because we’re low-cost and fast. The issue is: Who’s going to let us play on their team?’”

Ponder for moment the mentality that such language reflects: “Who’s going to let us PLAY on their team?” Before concluding, let us cite (by way of example) the form that such PLAY can take in Iraq.

We often hear about the despicable and fundamentally un-Islamic insurgent warfare that deliberately targets civilian non-combatants in Iraq – but we seldom hear about the innocent Iraqi lives that are routinely snuffed out by the occupiers (at PLAY)! The April 15, 2007, edition of The Washington Post featured a front page article titled “A Chaotic Day On Baghdad’s Airport Road,” by Steve Fainaru, that provides a case in point. The article begins with the following words:

On the afternoon of July 8, 2006, four private security guards rolled out of Baghdad’s Green Zone in an armored SUV. The team leader, Jacob Washbourne, rode in the front passenger seat. He seemed in a good mood. His vacation started the next day. ‘I want to kill somebody today,’ Washbourne said, according to the three other men in the vehicle, who later recalled it as an offhand remark. Before the day was over, however, the guards had been involved in three shooting incidents. In one, Washbourne [a 29 year old former U. S. Marine from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma] allegedly fired into the windshield of a taxi for amusement.

When you factor this one incident against the backdrop of over 48,000, military contractors in Iraq – many of whom coming from questionable backgrounds and psychological states – one gets some sense of the magnitude of destructive pathology on the ground in Iraq; and why many Iraqis have nick-named the private mercenaries, black death! And to date, not a single criminal case has been brought against a security contractor operating in Iraq or Afghanistan!

(Private contractors were granted immunity from the Iraqi legal process in 2004 by the former head of the U.S. occupation government, Paul Bremer. That the nominally independent Iraqi government has not moved to amend this oppressive provision, speaks volumes about its “independence.”)

The private military firm that employed the four contractors involved in the aforementioned July 8 incident, Triple Canopy, conducted an inquiry that led to the firing of three of the men – Jacob C. Washbourne, Shane B. Schmidt and Charles L. Sheppard III. The fourth contractor, Isireli Naucukidi, reported the incident to his superiors immediately and left the company on his own volition. Schmidt and Sheppard filed reports on the incident days later, and attempted to distance themselves from any culpability.

Naucukidi described the taxi driver as a 60 to 70 year old man. “From my point of view, this old man, he was so innocent, because he was ahead of us with a normal speed. He couldn’t have [been] any danger for us.” He also noted that “the three Americans were laughing,” and that Schmidt reached over, tapped Washbourne on the shoulder and said, “good shot.” All three soldiers of fortune are now back in the states, spending their ill-gotten gains.

(It should also be noted that Naucukidi is a Fijian Army veteran who earned $70 a day – as compared to Washborne’s $600 a day and Schmidt and Sheppard’s $500 a day, for the same work. He has reportedly returned to the Fiji Island of Ovalau, where he farms.)

I strongly encourage our readers to pull up The Washington Post article and read it for themselves. It is very revealing, indeed.

In closing, I’d like to revisit the rhetorical question raised by President Bush at the recent Virginia Tech memorial ceremony, as he wondered out loud what had the victims done to deserve such a fate. As individuals they did nothing. But not have the people of Iraq, the people of Palestine, the people of Somalia, nor the people of Darfur done anything to deserve the ongoing carnage in those lands. (And regarding Darfur, my strongest criticism is directed at those who armed the rebels, and encouraged them to remain recalcitrant at the negotiation table; thus prolonging the crisis.)

In IRAQ, there are several massacres equivalent to the Virginia Tech massacre EACH DAY! Where are the memorials for these slaughtered innocents? And why haven’t the perpetrators, many of whom are still alive and in uniform, been held accountable for these atrocities? The collective conscience of the nation, from which most of these young men and women at Virginia Tech were born, should be raising these challenging questions of itself. For only then can we begin to institute urgently needed spiritually-based reforms before it is too late.

As the Bible says: As a man soweth, so shall he reap.” As it is for men, so it is for NATIONS!