Asian Male Takes Hostages at Discovery Channel HQ (and Comparisons to Virginia Tech)

James Lee, a militant environmental activist, was killed by police after taking hostages at the Discovery Channel HQ this afternoon.

I completely missed the ongoing news drama today (work, work, work), so I’m a little late blogging on this.

Turns out that earlier this afternoon, a gunman stormed into Discovery Channel headquarters in Silver Springs, Maryland. The gunman had silver cannisters taped to his torso (believed initially to be explosives), and took three male hostages in the lobby of Discovery Channel HQ. Apparently the gunman’s grievances involved believing that humans are “filthy, destructive, polluting creatures” responsible for destroying the environment, and that the Discovery Channel encourages “the birth of more parasitic human infants” — (I guess he was talking about reality television shows like Birth Day aired by Discovery Health that follow pregnant mothers about to give birth).

Oh, yes, and the gunman was an Asian male named James Lee. Great.

When I first caught the headline half an hour ago on the CNN homepage, I experienced the familiar feeling of holding my breath and hoping that this Lee wasn’t Asian. Sadly, I was wrong. As we learn more about James Lee, the more we see the familiar story of an Asian guy with severe mental issues falling between the cracks, and losing his life because of it. In fact, it’s a little eerie how similar Lee’s story is to that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman who slaughtered over thirty college students in 2007.

Seung-Hui Cho, the gunman of the Virginia Tech Massacre.

The similarities extend far beyond the shared demographics of the gunmen (sorry Angry Asian Man, I am making the connection — but hopefully I’ll demonstrate that it’s not just an easy comparison based on the whole race thing…). Both Lee and Cho displayed a marked hatred of humanity. In Cho’s case, he railed against fellow college students, whom he described as “brats”, “charlatans” and “snobs”:

“You had everything you wanted. Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac weren’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything,” quoted Cho as saying.

Lee’s manifesto and other writings are also available online, through blogs, forum posts, and his MySpace page. In them, Lee also demonstrates a strong antipathy for humanity, advocating forced sterilization to decrease the human population and railing against “anchor babies” (…way to go, Republicans and Fox News…). He writes: 

Humans are the most destructive, filthy, pollutive creatures around and are wrecking what’s left of the planet with their false morals and breeding culture.

Both Lee and Cho used new media to release their twisted rants to the media. Cho sent a “multimedia manifesto” containing videos, text and photographs to MSNBC on the morning of his rampage; it was actually dropped into the mail while Cho walked to the building where he staged his rampage. Lee’s writings are collected from years of blogging and forum posting, but are nonetheless both public and multimedia in nature. In both cases, it’s clear that Lee and Cho felt unheard and used whatever means they had at their disposal to force a dialogue on their issues.

Both Lee and Cho demonstrated mental health issues in their final, violent stand-offs (although, arguably, what kind of gunman doesn’t have mental issues?). Importantly, both Lee and Cho had encounters with mental health professionals, and in neither case were Lee or Cho properly diagnosed and treated. Cho was assessed by psychiatrists in 2005 — two years before the Virginia Tech massacre — and identified as potentially posing “an imminent danger to himself or others”, yet he was recommended only for outpatient treatment. Cho failed to comply with that order, and it was never followed up on, allowing Cho to slip through the cracks and spiral further out of control due to lack of therapy and mental care. Lee was arrested in 2008 after a protest on the sidewalk outside of Discovery Channel headquarters where he threw money in the air causing a public disturbance. While in jail, Lee was assessed by psychiatrists but claims he was not diagnosed with any mental disorder.

”I told them my idea of saving the planet,” Lee was quoted in the Gazette. ”They couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

Yet, Lee clearly suffered from undiagnosed mental issues. Aside from the rambling, hate-filled manifesto that has been published online, hostage negotiators reported today that Lee appeared to be severely troubled.

Manger said hostage negotiators negotiated for almost four hours by phone with Lee while police officers watched and listened to Lee on the building’s surveillance system.

“At times during the negotiations, he was calm, but I wouldn’t call him lucid. The conversation was indicative to me he was dealing with some mental issues,” he said.

Cover art for Daniel Quinn's book, "Ishmael".

Finally — and perhaps weirdest and most disturbing — both Cho and Lee appear to have some sort of connection with the name “Ishmael”. Ishmael is Abraham’s son in the Hebrew bible and the Qu’ran, who was hated and eventually exiled based on the circumstance of his birth. “Ishmael” is also the name of a 1992 novel by Daniel Quinn (and is referenced in two subsequent books) that recounts a dialogue between a gorilla (Ishmael) and a human. Through their interaction, the unnamed narrator of the book learns of Ishmael’s belief that humans have a responsibility to care for the planet and its inhabitants, rather than to pillage and consume it. 

In 2007, it was revealed that Seung-Hui Cho wrote “Ax Ishmael” on his arm immediately prior to his rampage, and that his “multimedia manifesto” had a return address to “A. Ishmael”, suggesting that Seung-Hui Cho was trying to reinvent himself in reference to either the biblical figure or the 1992 Quinn novel’s primate protagonist. Jason Godesky of Anthropik Network (who has read Quinn’s novel and is familiar with its themes) argues that Cho’s actions indicate he never read “Ishmael”, and that he carried himself in direct conflict with the book’s message of peace and self-discovery, fueling further controversy over whether Cho’s “Ax Ishmael” alter-ego referenced the Hebrew bible or Daniel Quinn’s book.

Lee also, apparently, had a connection with the name “Ishmael”, although in this case it is clear that he is referring to Quinn’s novels. Lee recounts in his writings that reading Quinn’s “Ishmael” was a transformative experience for him:

Lee said he began his crusade to save the planet after being laid off from his job in San Diego and reading ”Ishmael,” a novel by Daniel Quinn about a gorilla that tells a man what it is like to live in captivity in a world where humans exploit natural resources.

Lee said he then felt an ”awakening,” watched former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary ”An Inconvenient Truth,” and decided he had been doing too little to protect the environment.

Now, I’m not saying that Daniel Quinn’s book causes Asian men to go on shooting sprees. What I am noting is how the name Ishmael, whether in reference to the Hebrew bible or Daniel Quinn’s gorilla, symbolizes alienation, oppression, powerlessness, and moral redemption, and how these themes resonated with both shooters. Could it be that Asian males suffering from destructive mental health issues specifically — and uniquely — identify with these same themes?

In any event, if there was any more evidence needed that there is a huge health disparity between Asian Americans and the rest of the population, this is it. Less than ten years ago, findings from one of the first and most comprehensive studies conducted on Asian American mental health were published by the National Institute of Mental Health. In it, Asian Americans are identified as having lower rates of mental health concerns — but that is coupled with substantially lower rates of seeking treatment. (This begs the question — do Asian Americans have lower rates of mental health, or lower rates of being diagnosed with mental health problems?)

Usage of mental health treatment is reduced in Asian American populations, from API Info Net. Click image for source.

Researchers have identified several potential factors that appear to discourage Asian Americans from seeking mental health treatment, including cultural stigma and language barriers. Other studies have shown that, despite the lower rates of mental illness among Asian Americans, the suicide rate in the APIA community (5.75 deaths out of 100,000) is higher than that of other ethnic groups. Furthermore, elderly Asian American men experience a suicide rate nearly four times the overall community average (27.95 deaths out of 100,000), and the suicide rate amongst Asian American women rankest highest amongst females of any other ethnic group.

In short, this is a problem, folks. A real problem. A we-can’t-afford-to-ignore-this problem.

Thankfully, unlike with the Virginia Tech Massacre, no one was killed in today’s hostage situation except the gunman, James Lee. But it would still be a tragedy to forget the lessons that could be learned from today’s drama: we should not learn to hate or fear Asian males (or to stereotype them as violent offenders prone to shooting sprees), or to subscribe to Lee’s misguided beliefs involving forced sterilization. But, rather than to fear the inevitable comparisons between Seung-Hui Cho and James Lee (and to lament yet another story that paints Asian folks as the bad guys), we can instead use this incident to start a national dialogue about mental health issues that are proven to exist within the Asian American community precisely because we don’t like to identify those patterns or associate ourselves with those problems.

Hopefully today’s events can teach us to be more cognizant of mental health issues and how they are socially and culturally stigmatized — particularly in the context of the Asian American community. We can and should do more to raise mental health awareness amongst Asian Americans, and to support and promote non-profit and federal efforts to improve diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in Asian American patients.

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