'I am Ax Ishmael,' again

Hagar   Ishmael Augo4Right after the massacre at Virginia Tech, I wrote an emotional post in which I wondered aloud when the "religion shoe" was going to drop in this story. Not long after that, I ended another post on a related topic with this note:

Speaking of conspiracy theories, I am receiving all kinds of email about the alleged contents of the Cho suicide videotapes and speculating as to why officials are not releasing transcripts. The assumption, of course, is that they contain waves of religious language -- specifically curses against Christianity. I am not interested in another wave of rumors. However, has anyone seen or heard a solid mainstream story on the tapes and the silence from authorities?

Earlier this week, The Washington Post gave us glimpses of what investigators are learning about the heart, mind and soul of Seung Hui Cho, and it is clear that religion is a big part of the story. However, the details are still murky and, quite frankly, I am still fascinated that we are not reading the actual language of Cho himself, in terms of direct quotes in which he explains -- rationally or not -- why he did what he did.

It's the same silence and I am still worried about it.

But the new Post story by Sari Horwitz does offer a lot of new information. Here's the main headline: "Va. Tech Shooter Seen as 'Collector of Injustice' -- Cho Had Vendetta Against Society, Federal Agents Suggest."

Society? Check this out:

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also think Cho mentally and physically tried to transform himself into an alter ego he called "Ax Ishmael" before his rampage. In the days and weeks leading up to the massacre of 32 students and faculty members, Cho changed his personality from passive to active. On the morning of the shootings, which the agents say were motivated by a vendetta against society, he tried to further erase his identity by deleting his Hotmail account from his computer. In addition, he removed the hard drive, and investigators have not been able to find it, the agents say.

When police found Cho's body inside a Norris Hall classroom, the words "Ax Ishmael" were scrawled in red on his left arm, and notes and tapes he left also referred to them.

Investigators think "Ax Ishmael" is based on the biblical figure Ishmael, the son of Hagar, a maidservant to Sarah, and the prophet Abraham. Ishmael lived as an outcast, and his brother Isaac was favored. Writings that Cho left in his dorm room, sent to the Virginia Tech English Department and mailed to NBC reveal twisted references to religion as part of his identity.

When, as a journalist, I read that material sent to a school and to a network reveal "twisted references to religion," then I immediately think that the reporter is about to give me examples -- direct quotes. I want the real stuff, the facts of what was said.

While Cho tried to erase parts of the story, it is clear that there is a lot of material out there. Investigators -- and journalists -- have a lot of information. I am not sure the public needs to read all of it. But, as was the case with the Columbine High School killings, there is also a chance that the authorities think the religion angle of the event is too much for people to handle.

So who did Cho hate and why did he say he hated them?

There is this:

Cho, 23, of Centreville, whose family was religious and had sought help for him from a Woodbridge church, repeatedly made religious references. He said that he had been "crucified" and that, as with Jesus, his actions would set people free. He called himself a "martyr" who would "sacrifice" his life. He wrote that he would go down in history as the "Jesus Christ of the Weak and Defenseless." He thought his actions would inspire others to fight back and get even.

Among the writings, Cho included three pictures of himself, which investigators think show how his self-image progressed. In the first picture, he is smiling. In the next, his arms are outstretched like Jesus's on the cross. And in the third, his arms are crossed as if he is lying dead in a coffin, agents said.

And this:

When he was ready, he wrote: "I am Ax Ishmael."

... "I say we take up the cross, Children of Ishmael, take up our guns and knives ... and take no prisoners and spare no lives."

So, who precisely was the enemy? Isn't that the question that looms behind this story? Who wronged Cho and how did they wrong him? I would predict that the documents and materials he left tell us the details. Where are those details?

I hope that journalists push authorities to be more candid.

Art: Hagar and Ishmael in the desert

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