News & Politics

Should Koreans Apologize for Cho?

The demand that an entire group apologize for the malicious act, even a mass atrocity, committed by one individual rests on shaky legal ground and even shakier moral ground.
A clearly anguished Reverend John J. Park publicly expressed shame and responsibility for the murderous rampage of Cho Seung-Hui. Park's expression of responsibility was much more than one man's remorse over the killings.

A dozen other Los Angeles Korean-American community leaders gathered with Park a day after Cho's killing spree to anguish over the violence. Some Korean-Americans vehemently protested that they bore no collective responsibility for Cho, and that they should not be required to say or do anything that indicated they did.

A too vocal public expression of regret, not to mention an apology, could send the damaging message that somehow Koreans shared in Cho's guilt. If the shooter had been a white man, as most mass killers in America still are, no one would dare suggest that all whites bear blame for his deed and express regret for it. They are right and wrong.

The notion that Koreans, whether citizens or immigrants, should bear collective guilt let alone responsibility for Cho's horrendous act is sheer nonsense. The demand that an entire group apologize and atone for the malicious act, even a mass atrocity, committed by one individual rests on shaky legal ground and even shakier moral ground.

Yet the precedent that governments and even individuals apologize for illegal and immoral acts committed by one person is well established in public policy and recent history. There's the German government's apology for the Holocaust. The U.S. government apologized to Japanese-Americans for World War II internment, and for the four decade long Tuskegee experiment in which African-American men in Alabama were deliberately denied treatment by the U.S. Health Department for syphilis.

The same rule of apology applies to individuals that harm a group with their words or a deed. In the week before Cho's rampage, shock jock Don Imus apologized to the Rutgers Women's basketball team for his racially and gender demeaning slur. Though the women were the direct target of Imus's bile, African-Americans felt the sting of it, and thus Imus's racially loaded quip was deemed to have harmed an entire group.

Next Durham, North Carolina District Attorney Mike Nifong apologized to three Duke University Lacrosse players charged with a bogus rape. The fact that the three players were white, and the alleged victim was black deemed that his ill-served prosecution was as much racially as legally motivated.

A day before Nifong's mea culpa, the North Carolina General Assembly issued an official apology for slavery in North Carolina. The clear difference in each case was that these were readily culpable acts by an individual or government against a victimized group, and the harm done was or appeared to be based on race and gender.

Cho's act is far different. He did not target a group for death or ridicule because of their race or nationality. But the Koreans that apologized feared that his race and nationality made them a potential target for vilification.

This is the exact reverse of why apologies for harm to a group are made. There's another difference. When governments offer official apologies and an individual offers their personal apology to a group, in the case of the government financial compensation or restitution is made to the victims or their survivors.

In the case of individuals they often pay by being dumped from their job (Imus) or are hit with a lawsuit. It may be the case with Nifong. Or there is some hit on their career. That was true with comedian Michael Richards.

That can't and won't be the case with Koreans and Cho. There was no public demand for them to express regret for him. Their expression of regret was in part a humane gesture, and in part a reflexive reaction to their fear and worry that they would be collectively blamed for Cho's towering crime.

The initial description from eyewitnesses that the shooter was an Asian man before he was actually identified sent tremors through many Asians. When Cho was eventually identified as a Korean national, that's when some Korean-Americans hit the panic switch. They know the long and vicious history of stereotyping and negative typecasting of Asians.

Korean immigrants are still in the precarious position in American society and struggle to adjust to customs, culture and life in American society, as well as getting mainstream acceptance. There's also the strain of Korean-American relations. The massive U.S. and world pound on North Korea for its crude nuclear saber rattling has tossed more negative attention on Koreans. This further stirs the feeling among some Korean-Americans that a public regret had to be made.

Even though, a group expression of regret stretched the boundary way past what is appropriate or even needed when an individual commits a monstrous crime, it ultimately served a noble purpose. It showed that Koreans as all other Americans felt the intense pain and suffering that Cho wreaked on innocents at Virginia Tech. Their regret said that the victim's suffering was their suffering too.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the book, The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and the GOP's court of black voters.
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