Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Question Mark: Ismail Ax?

(Image from Wikipedia)

I just learned that the suspect in yesterday's Virginia Tech shootings was a 23-year-old South Korean man named Cho Seung-Hui (조승희, 曹丞禧) who had lived as a legal resident alien in the United States since 1992, when he arrived at the age of 8 with his parents.

I guess that we'll soon discover his motives, for according to this report in the Belleville News Democrat, he left behind a note several pages long:
ABC News, citing confidential law enforcement sources, reported that Cho left a long and "disturbing" note in his dorm room. The note, running several pages, reportedly begins in the present tense and then shifts to the past tense. It contains passages explaining Cho's actions and says, "You caused me to do this," the sources told ABC News. (Kytja Weir et al., "South Korean undergraduate identified as VA Tech shooter" (April 17, 2007))
Since two hours separated the first two killings, in a dormitory, from the 30 other killings in a classroom building, I wonder if he wrote this message during that time. The past tense of the statement "You caused me to do this" might refer to what he had already done and was now imminently intending to do. The report says that the dormitory where the first shooting took place was immediately locked down and secured by police, so Cho must have left that dorm immediately after the shooting. If he went from there to his own dorm, which was elsewhere, he could have written a long note at that time.

According to the same Belleville report, Cho seems to have been a loner:
University spokesman Larry Hinker called Cho a "loner" and said university officials were having a hard time finding information about him.
Even the Koreans on campus seem not to have known him well:
Young-Hwan Kim, president of the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ on campus, said his group had tried repeatedly to get Cho involved in its activities at Virginia Tech. Cho rebuffed the invitations and declined to provide contact information, said Kim, 24, a graduate student in civil engineering.

"No one knew him," Kim said. "We had no contact throughout four years. It's amazing. We could not reach out to him."
From the information provided in this Yahoo! News report by Matt Apuzzo, "Va. Tech gunman writings raised concerns" (April 17, 2007), Cho seems to have wanted little contact with anyone:
Classmates . . . said that on the first day of an introduction to British literature class last year, the 30 or so English students went around and introduced themselves. When it was Cho's turn, he didn't speak.

The professor looked at the sign-in sheet and, where everyone else had written their names, Cho had written a question mark. "Is your name, 'Question mark?'" classmate Julie Poole recalled the professor asking. The young man offered little response.

Cho spent much of that class sitting in the back of the room, wearing a hat and seldom participating. In a small department, Cho distinguished himself for being anonymous. "He didn't reach out to anyone. He never talked," Poole said.

"We just really knew him as the question mark kid," Poole said.
Cho has left behind a lot of question marks.

One question is what he meant by writing, in red ink, the expression "Ismail Ax" on one of his arms (presumably his left forearm if he was righthanded). Two sorts of speculation have emerged -- the literary and the religious.

A certain "Ray F." has suggested to Hot Air that the reference might be to a character in a story by James Fenimore Cooper:
You probably already know this, but in James Fennimore Cooper's story "The Prairie," the settler Ishmael Bush, who is attempting to escape from civilization, sets out across the prairie with two key tools, a gun and an axe. Each has a symbolic meaning. The axe -- which can either kill or provide shelter -- stands for both creation and destruction. Given that the VT killer was an English major, might this be the likely meaning of the words on his arm? Just my two cents.
But Boing Boing reports Daniel J. Geduld's tentative suggestion of the main character in the book Ishmael by E.D.E.N. Southworth, the 'relevant' passage being this one:
But there, my dear! that boy has slipped out, and is cutting the wood; I'll go and do it for him," said Reuben, as the sound of Ishmael's ax fell upon his ears.

Hannah arose and followed Gray to the door, and there before it stood Ishmael, chopping away at random, upon the pile of wood, his cheeks flushed with fever and his eyes wild with excitement.
Since Cho was an English major, who knows? Maybe he did identify with some Ishmael character. If so, why not the famous "Ishmael" in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. That character probably used an axe somewhere in that epic story.

But I don't think that any of these suggestions are likely, for Cho -- being an English major -- would probably not have altered the spelling of "Ishmael" to the Muslim spelling "Ismail." The spelling "Ismail" suggests a different source, and this is where the religious speculation pops up. The same Boing Boing report notes a suggestion by a reader, William McEwan, who points to a possible link to an Islamic story about Ibrahim (Muslim name for Abraham):
He left his father after he lost hope to convert him to the right path, and directed his efforts towards the people of the town, but they rejected his call and threatened him. By Allah, he said, I shall plot a plan to destroy their idols. He knew that a big celebration was coming soon, where everybody would leave town for a big feast on the riverbank. After making sure that nobody was left in town, Ibrahim went towards the temple armed with an ax. Statues of all shapes and sizes were sitting there adorned with decorations. Plates of food were offered to them, but the food was untouched. "Well, why don't you eat? The food is getting cold." He said to the statues, joking; then with his axe he destroyed all the statues except one, the biggest of them. He hung the ax around its neck and left.
The connection here is that Ibrahim was the father of Ismail, and his moral fervor in destroying the statues might reflect Cho's 'moral' fervor in condemning his fellow students, for the note left behind in his dorm room condemned "debauchery" and "deceitful charlatans" at the university.

But I don't think that this Islamic story is likely as a reference either, for the axe is not Ismail's but Ibrahim's. And since we're on the topic, I very strongly doubt that Cho has anything to do with Islam, despite the Muslim name "Ismail" in the expression "Ismail Ax."

The question mark remains.

UPDATE 1: My Korean wife informs me that in Korean culture, writing one's name in red ink is believed to bring bad luck.

UPDATE 2: On the package that Cho sent to NBC's New York headquarters, the return address had the name "A. Ishmael," which increases the likelihood that Cho was referring to James Fennimore Cooper's story "The Prairie," with its main character, Ishmael Bush, and his axe (and also further increases the likelihood that this this massacre has nothing to do with Islam).



At 10:00 AM, Blogger NivekProAnimations said...

I am researching the phrase "Ismail Ax"

So far nothing much is coming up besides Quadratic equation formulas that apply a variable denoted "Ax" apparently made famous by a mathematician named "Ismail"

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the note, Shift. I hadn't seen that on my websearch. If you happen to find out more, I'd be grateful to know of it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is anybody besides me annoyed that Cho Byung-je said that South Korea hoped that the tragedy would not "stir up racial prejudice or confrontation"?

Unfortunately I can imagine there being anti-American riots if this situation was reversed and it was an American killing students at a Korean University. But I am insulted that he would be worrying about anti-Korean problems in America. Dad gum it. We recognize that this other Cho was just a nut case and not a Korean plot against the US.

And while I'm at it, I'm not so glad to read that "Roh instructed diplomats to care for the [injured South Korean] student" either. Excuse me but I think our American doctors might do a better job taking care of that student than your diplomats.

Korea Fears Prejudice With Shooting Link

(Who is having trouble with an old blogger account on new blogger blogs.)

At 12:29 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, CIV, I think that these statements by the Korean government were not appropriate.

I largely agree with you. Also, I'm sure that we'll be hearing a bit more various bloggers about those remarks.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:12 PM, Blogger Kate Marie said...


I had heard that belief about writing one's name in red ink bringing bad luck from my Korean-American students when I taught high school.

CIV, I am very annoyed by that and by this blog entry I found today.

At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" ismail ax = ismailax = is mai lax = is my luck "

At 5:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KM, a lot of silliness will be written along those lines. We'll have to be patient.

My students asked me if Americans would "hate Koreans" after this.

I said that I thought that most Americans would see this as yet another very American pattern of "insane loner with guns." I pointed out that this sort of thing happens every few years in the U.S. and that we know the pattern by now.

I also told them that it used to be called "going postal" because one or two early incidents involved postmen.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:21 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Boeddi, I can see a possible wordplay, but can we be sure?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Assure your students that the focus is not on hating neither is most feeling directed; at. The greater feelings here are directed; for.

I had worries when I first knew the identity, my remembrances of the land that you now call home are of kind and caring folk.

I wish I knew better in how to say it.


At 6:17 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I think that you said it fine, and I will pass along your message. My students will be glad to hear that Americans, of all groups, direct not hatred at but sympathy for.

We can't exclude the possibility of some disturbed individuals expressing hateful actions, of course, but such actions would be broadly and roundly condemned by nearly everyone ... I think, hope, and believe.

Thanks again, JK.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:01 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

The Chicago Tribune cites this essay on J.F.Cooper by William H. Goetzmann. It contain's the phrase "spoiler's axe", wielded by the frightening Ishmail Bush.

... The good law is, by implication, Jeffersonian law which is in harmony with nature, indeed derives from it, but which nevertheless allows a man to be as free as possible without injury to his fellow creatures. It depends fundamentally upon tolerance and mutual respect.

These qualities are sadly lacking in Ishmael Bush who might be considered the main character in the story. Bush is a brute who has killed a man back in "civilization" in a fight over land. Gathering his numerous brood about him like some tribal leader, he has set out on his exodus across the forbidding prairie to get as far as possible beyond the restraints of law for which he has only contempt. …

He dresses like a gypsy, absurdly loaded with the plunder of a hundred brushes with hated civilization: a silken sash, a silver-hafted knife, a marten's-fur cap, Mexican coins for buttons, three worthless watches slung around his neck, a rifle with a mahogany stock banded in precious metal; and he carries the prime symbol of evil -- the spoiler's axe. Like Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, he is ignorant, but possessed of terrible and menacing potential for destruction which he can barely control. He stands for the great barbarian melting pot of America, unleashed, in Cooper's aristocratic view, upon the prostrate body of nature.

The phrase "the spoiler's axe" induces shivers.

The interesting thing about this essay is that Goetzmann, a professor at Utexas won the Pulitzer prize at about the same time as the Tower massacre at the same university. Is that a coincidence?

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the link, JJ.

One correction: Ishmael, not Ishmail.

Which leads to my question: If this story is Cho's allusion, why the alteration in spelling from "Ishmael" to "Ismail"?

Was Cho misspelling from bad memory ... or signaling his actions at those of a 'terrorist' punisher of immorality?

I'm curious what his final message says.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Internet abuzz over shooter's mysterious markings

I bet they saw it first on GypsyScholarship


At 6:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If "Ismail Ax" is as shift suggests, perhaps, "Cho Glock"?

Or maybe it was a word verifcation...

On names in red; except with to-jangs.

At 7:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, it'd be flattering to imagine so, but I wasn't the first to post on this issue (as my sources reveal).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Richardson, a "Glock" is the name of a pistol, right, and "Cho" is the student's family name, but what's the connection to "Ismail Ax"?

On the "dojang" (my wife's spelling), I hadn't thought of that. Those name stamps are aways in red, aren't they?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HJH, you are too modest. Even if you weren't first to blog about the topic, yours is the first blog many turn to for anything Korean, English, German, Religion, ... why the list goes on and on.

I've not seen names in red in a dojang. I've only seen names in gold thread on black belts or in black magic marker on white uniforms. What sort of name stamps have you seen?


At 10:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, every dojang that I've seen used for stamping a Korean name has used red ink for official documents. It seems to be standard practice.

As for my modesty . . . no, just my realism. Perhaps my blog is the first that some -- e.g., you and KM -- turn to, but surely not "many" or my site meter would read higher numbers.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:16 AM, Blogger Rex Mondo said...

The meaning of Ismael Ax:

"Investigators said Cho's body was found Monday with the words "Ismael Ax" scrawled on his arm."


He does not name anyone specifically, but he mentions "hedonism" and Christianity, and he talks at length about his hatred of the wealthy.

"Small Axe" (Bob Marley)

Why boasteth thyself
Oh, evil men
Playing smart
And not being clever?
I said, youre working iniquity
To achieve vanity (if a-so a-so)
But the goodness of jah, jah
I-dureth for-i-ver

So if you are the big tree
We are a small axe
Ready to cut you down (well sharp)
To cut you down

These are the words
Of my master, keep on tellin me
No weak heart
Shall prosper
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall fall in it, fall in it
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall fall in it (... fall in it)

If you are the big tree, let me tell you that
We are the small axe, sharp and ready
Ready to cut you down (well sharp)
To cut you down

(to cut you down)

(to cut you down)

These are the words
Of my master, tellin me that
No weak heart
Shall prosper
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall fall in it, uh, bury in it
And whosoever diggeth a pit
Shall bury in it, uh (... bury in it)

If you are the big, big tree
We are a small axe
Ready to cut you down (well sharp)
To cut you down
If you are the big, big tree, let me tell you that
We are a small axe
Ready to cut you down (well sharp)
To cut you down
Sharpened ...


Say it out loud...

A small axe.

Just my theory, but I suspect I'm right.

-Rev Carter LeBlanc

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

One blog has referred to Ismail Ax as Korean.
When my local TV news sends an Asian American reporter to VT, is has become about the race of Cho. The blog Kate marie linked is right.

At 4:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Rev Carter LeBlanc, interesting. I can indeed hear the similarity of "A Small Axe" to "Ismail Ax."

But more recent evidence -- such as the return address on the package that he sent to the television station -- suggests that Cho wrote "Ishmael Ax" rather than "Ismail Ax."

And that sounds rather different.

We'll just have to wait and see what he actually wrote on his arm.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:37 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, do you know what blog that was? The expression "Ismail Ax" doesn't sound very Korean. Or have I misunderstood you.

On Cho's race, I'm tempted to say that it had both nothing and everything to do with what happened.

Nothing: because Cho was (probably) schizophrenic, and that, not race, was the crucial factor.

Everything: because Cho was (undeniably) Korean, and that, which is ethnicity, was a major part of his identity.

Which one explains what happened?

His (apparent) schizophrenia, in my opinion.

His Koreanness would merely lead him to express his madness in somewhat different ways, perhaps -- but I haven't yet seen all of his statements.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:18 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I tried to backtrack and find the blog, before I wrote the comment. I couldn't remember the name. I do recall the blogger didn't give any reason why they thought it was Korean, I think they had gotten it from another source.
When I spoke of race, it is the consequences of extending the news day that brings race into the reporting. Its not that I think Americans are blaming the incident because Cho was Korean, its just the media thought that there has to be a Korean angle or send a Korean so as not to offend the Korean population in this area. This reporter was not the first on the scene, he was sent several days later.
Doing things like this, usually starts people to think in terms of race not culture. I may be wrong, but I think in certain areas in the US there is racism against Asians; especially where there have been Asians immigrating in their area for less than a generation.

At 7:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, you're undoubtedly right that some Americans are prejudiced against Asians, and I expect that we'll be seeing some of their remarks on blogs and in comments.

Most of the rest of us will see this incident for what it mostly is, the expression of a severely disturbed, probably schizophrenic individual.

It fits a pattern that we've seen and that we all know.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sue was right, I had the same thought:
"Manchurian candidate, Ismail is his name, ax is what he did-(Ismail acts)"
The guy's code name was Ishmael X. When he was called on his code name he turned into a totally different person. He comitted whatever he was programmed to do. Typical MK-Ultra kid, nothing else. Three years ago I witnessed myself how people can be influenced by hypnosis and mindcontrol and under the influence commit violent acts.
Who benefits? Try to think about it!
Try to think about the gun laws, your Constitution, and the coming civil disobedience...
Conspiracy theory? Decide yourself!

Jeff Gordon

At 4:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jeff Gordon, I seem to recall somebody making the wordplay on "ax" and "acts," but I don't recall where. Who is "Sue"?

As for "mind control," I'm rather doubtful, for the evidence seems to me to indicate that Cho was simply 'out of his mind' (to speak colloquially).

I'm opting for schizophrenia as the problem, for much of the evidence points that way.

What's an "MK-Ultra Kid"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:17 AM, Blogger KRZog said...

Regarding "Ishmael Bush", try a image search on "Bush Axe"... You will find several results from a photo-op of Earth Day '02, 5 years ago today.
One of these I've posted with my own observations upon the subject...

At 5:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

KRZog, I've read your blog entry, but I don't find a strong argument for identifying the expression "Ismail Ax" in the sense that Cho meant it (if he actually did write "Ismail").

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you guys are going way to deep with the "Ismail Ax" thing. From what I have read Cho spent a lot of time playing violent online video games such as Counterstrike, and the name he used on there was Ismail_Ax. Maybe he wrote this on his arm as a form of dark humor. Like he was acting out a video game by killing people and writing his screen name on his arm would be something funny for him.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gunnar, that still wouldn't explain where he got the name in the first place.

Jeffery Hodges

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