Posted at 09:32 PM ET, 04/17/2007

"Ismail Ax" The VT Gunman's Final Message?

The Would-Be Clue Sends The Blogosphere Spinning

Hokies Search For Answers By Candlelight (AP)

"Ismail Ax." Eight letters scrawled in red ink across the inside arm of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui; possibly the last thing he wrote before taking his own life. As soon as police revealed that detail, search engines flew into a frenzy as bloggers hunted every inch of the world wide web for some meaning. The phrase surged into Technorati's top ten most popular searches by yesterday afternoon and soon conspiracy theories began popping up as fast as goosebumps on windy April day.

Boing Boing led the charge with a measured explanation: "Ismail is an Islamic prophet. AX may also stand for the Alpha Chi Omega women's fraternity."

But comments followed which began converting "Ismail" to "Ibrahim" a Muslim prophet who according to the Koran entered an idolater temple and "with his axe he destroyed all the statues except one." Though some bloggers jumped on the Islam terror bandwagon, others pointed out that Cho had never given any signs of being Muslim. Another theory changed the spelling again this time to read "Ishmael's Ax" which has connections to the novel Ishmael by E.D.E.N. Southworth about a poor kid growing up outside of what is now DC, just like Cho. Check out this line from it: "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." The similarities are tempting and Cho after all was an English major.

Still others suggested that perhaps he was referencing Moby Dick, which tells the tale of Ishmael's fateful battle against a giant whale. One far fetched entry proposed that police might have misread the final two letters confusing AX for YK. Ismail YK just happens to be the name of a fairly famous Turkish rapper, but beyond the name they seem to have little in common.

The idea which seemed most promising to me was that "Ismail AX" was possibly his screen name or maybe an anagram. I began playing around with the eight letters and reading through Cho's creative writing for some other clues. On of his plays, "Mr. Brownstone" reference a Guns and Roses song by the same name. The lead singer of GNR was Axl Rose, so perhaps his online identity might be "Axl is I am"? (You never know!)

Then I stumbled on a blog suggesting "Ismail Ax" could be his online identity for the first-person-shooter video game "Counterstrike." That seemed to fit the profile of a loner who honed his shooting skills playing violent computer games. So I joined the fray hunting through Counterstrike chatrooms to find out if anyone had heard of or seen an "Ismail Ax" aka "Ishmael's Axe," aka "Axl Is I Am". The closest thing I could find was this tempting link at conspiracytheorycentral asking "Has anyone heard from Ismail Ax lately?" But it seemed to be yet another dead end. Finally a search spat out this cryptic document from Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science which contained both the words "counterstrike" and "Ismail Ax." I scanned it top to bottom hoping to find some hidden meaning or maybe a motive or at least a hint where to look next. And though I can't say for sure it isn't related somehow to Cho's final message, it looks more likely to be a language program for translating English and Dutch.

At that point, stumped and nearly blind from squinting through computer code I was ready to give up. But then I remembered "Citizen Kane" and the concluding line of Jerry Thompson, the reporter hunting for Rosebud: "I don't think that any word can explain a man's life." And there it was! We bloggers spent yesterday searching high and low for Cho's Rosebud as if finding it would be some kind of poetic closure for the pain, or at least a clue as to why he committed this horrific crime. But the bottom line is that no 8 letters can explain the method of any human's madness and no explanation can bring back the 33 people who died as a result of it. "Ismail Ax" is instead a reason for us to examine this young man's life and the world it briefly inhabited, in the hopes that we can learn how to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

-- Emil Steiner

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Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 04/17/2007

Bloggers, MSM and Geeks on Gun Control

Bloggers and some mainstream media pundits today fired the opening salvos in what is shaping up to be a lively policy debate over the future of the nation's gun-control laws following the shootings that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech on Monday.

Instapundit author Glenn Reynolds points readers to an essay by a VT student Bradford B. Wiles, who lamented campus rules that kept him from carrying his licensed handgun that he might have otherwise used to defend himself, and presumably his fellow classmates. Wiles writes:

"First, I never want to have my safety fully in the hands of anyone else, including the police. Second, I considered bringing my gun with me to campus, but did not due to the obvious risk of losing my graduate career, which is ridiculous because had I been shot and killed, there would have been no graduate career for me anyway."

Blogger Michelle Malkin also carried missives from students and parents who argued that the chain of events might have been different had other students been armed. Malkin also takes aim at a New York Times editorial (subscription required) for "jumping the gun" in calling for stricter gun control laws in the wake of the massacre. Andrew Sullivan, in his blog The Daily Dish, shoots back at Malkin: "Is it just me or is there something just a little creepy about the impulse to blame gun-control policies on campus for a massacre of over 30 people? While the corpses are not yet cold?"

Garance Franke-Ruta, a senior editor at The American Prospect magazine and author of the blog theGarance, suggests that the university's response to the initial shooting - which school officials said they thought they had contained because it was thought to have been related to a domestic dispute - overlooks a more fundamental issue: domestic violence. From her post:

"Because the first victim was a woman, and possible had a romantic connection to the killer, the police did not see her murder as a threat to the community. Now the police are pretty plainly telling the public that they failed to warn the campus there was a killer on the loose because they failed to understand that men who kill their partners are also threats to society."

Politico writer Roger Simon takes a dim view of the prospects for this tragedy to substantively advance the gun control debate. Simon notes that despite the fact that pretty much every major 2008 presidential candidate issued a statement in response to the attacks, none of them (not even the Democratic candidates) mentioned gun control.

Finally, over at the high-traffic news-for-nerds site Slashdot, an unusually minimalist news blurb about the shootings prompts 2,500 comments (a staggering response even for the Slashdot community) which predictably devolved into a shouting match over violence in video games and 2nd Amendment rights, a subject on which many geeks apparently have rather strong opinions.

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Posted at 03:18 PM ET, 04/17/2007

Today We Are All Hokies

UVA Shows Its Support For VT (Courtesy of Facebook)

In colleges across America, students are using Facebook to rally around Virginia Tech, in a show of uniform solidarity not seen since September 11th. The message is clear: No matter what campus you may call home, your heart goes out to those victims and their families in Blacksburg, Virginia.

A description of the group "Hoos Supporting the Hokies?" -- a group started by a graduate of Virginia Tech's archrival, the University of Virginia, summarizes the sentiment felt by just about everyone who has learned about this tragedy: "I know we Hoos may have some issues with our southwestern neighbors, but today we all grieve together. This group is solely to show our support for everyone at Virginia Tech as they struggle to deal with this enormous tragedy. Please join to show our concern for our fellow Virginians and Virginia state students. Even if you aren't a Virginian or didn't go to either of these schools, share your sympathy with those who have suffered. Feel free to invite anyone else who might be concerned to the group."

Students at other longtime sports rivals such as the universities of North Carolina, Florida, LSU, JMU and Michigan have also put aside intercollegiate competition which somehow seem irrelevant in the wake of America's worst school shooting ever. Together they have constructed banners and created groups on Facebook which proudly proclaim that "Today We Are All Hokies".

--Emil Steiner

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Posted at 02:41 PM ET, 04/17/2007

Ignore Grief Profiteers: Donate to Legit Charities

Less than 24 hours after the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech, a number of "grief profiteers" already have moved to register dozens of Web site domain names that include words most closely associated with the tragedy. At least one is even up for auction on eBay.com.

If history is any teacher (hark back to the frenzy that ensued following Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Southeast Asia), some of these sites will be set up by well-meaning individuals to collect donations on behalf of victim families, while others no doubt will chiefly benefit low-life scam artists.

Anyone seeking to donate funds to assist victims of the shooting and their families should consider giving to established charities, such as the United Way. The United Way of Montgomery, Radford & Floyd, the local Virginia chapter of the charity that includes Virginia Tech's home town of Blacksburg, is currently accepting donations to help meet "the intermediate and long-term needs of those affected by the shooting."

Stephanie J. Graham, Director of Community Resources for the chapter, said the group is working to put together a "distribution team" to decide how the funds should be spent, and that it plans to release more information on those plans by close of business today.

"We're currently ironing out which banks that we will be working with locally, who exactly we want to call in on to be a part of the distribution team, and exactly what our support priorities are going to be," she said.

Graham said the she anticipates a good portion of the funds going toward more immediate needs of those affected, such as crisis intervention and counseling. Longer term, the United Way chapter hopes to provide support for funerals and short-term housing for displaced students.

"A lot of students don't have health insurance and a lot of families don't have life insurance to cover things like funeral costs. There's an entire dorm shut down right now on campus, and Blacksburg is a not a major city."

-- Brian Krebs

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Posted at 01:55 PM ET, 04/17/2007

Alleged Killer in Facebook

According to Police Cho Seung Hui, 23, is responsible for shootings that left 33 people dead at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Va. (Fairfax County Public Schools/AP)

It's been less than 6 hours since the Virginia Tech gunman Cho Seung Hui was identified and already 38 global groups bearing his name in their title or description have sprung up on Facebook. That number seems to be increasing by the minute as students from across the country and indeed the world, voice their opinion on the largest school shooting in American history.

Of these groups, 18 convey messages of sympathy, tribute or solitary, six are from media outlets which express sympathy while fishing for students with any information on either Hui or the shooting generally and 16 are so-called "bashing groups" with names like "Crazy bastard Cho Seung-hui" and "I Hope Cho Seung-Hui Burns in Hell."

The largest group thus far is "4/16/07" a memorial group with 5,556 members, "Prayer For Virginia Tech University" is next with 3,509 members and "f*** cho seung-hui" is third with 1,226 members. The social networking site is also being used to commemorate some of the 33 members of the Virginia Tech community who were killed during yesterday's attack, and as a forum to grieve.

-- Emil Steiner

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Posted at 07:09 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'Why Did All Those People Have to Die?'

Again on the very active Livejournal Virginia Tech student swift535 discusses the surreal aspect of a tragedy of this magnitude descending on the sleepy college town and how this could have happened:

"Some of my best friends now lived in WAJ, and I just keep remembering going over to their dorms to kill time and hang out. And it makes me wonder if I was there when it happened, would I be able to stop this?

It's been a long day of soul-searching for a lot of my friends and me. How does [expletive] like this happen? How was someone capable of such a thing one of our comrades? And honestly I am pissed off at the school right now. They had over 2 hours before the second shooting to close down campus, warn people, cancel classes, and they didn't. 2 kids were killed in a dorm, the shooter runs loose, and the administration just continues the day like nothing happened? Why did all those people in the second shooting have to die?"

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Posted at 06:45 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'I Don't Deserve Any Credit'

Blogger ntcoolfool, quoted earlier, continues to post his thoughts to Livejournal -- though he's progressed from initial reactions to the shooting to his feelings about finding himself at the center of a media feeding frenzy:

"As this blog has received international attention, I find myself wondering what the world has come to. The media watch dogs, no offense, have jumped on this story and on me for, as one anonymous user said, 'exploit my emotions.' At this time I do not believe this is so, because to put it simply: I'm willing to share my experience. This is nothing special. I don't deserve any credit. I went to class as any other student would. I just happened to be on the other side of campus when the shots were fired later in the day. But isn't that just it? What is remarkable about this story is that this is the story of an average student at this great school. Stories of horror, bloodshed, and death are soon to come from the victims of this horrible catastrophe and the limelight will shine onwards, for that is what the public thirsts for."

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Posted at 06:00 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'Concentrate on Hoping'

Over at Achenblog, Joel Achenbach has posted an e-mail from reader Phillip Murillas, a freshman at Virginia Tech:

"But right now, all I can do is wait and hope. Right now, I'm waiting to hear on the safety of two dorm mates who were in Norris when the incident took place. They are unaccounted for. But all my energy is devoted to functioning on the assumption that they are alive and well.

"What I want is for the Northern Virginia and DC Metropolitan community to also concentrate on hoping. Hoping for the safety of all students, including those from the area. Hoping for the physical and emotional recovery of victims and their families. And hoping that this university will not let itself be forever crippled or tarnished by this nightmare."

Read Murillas's full text on Achenblog.

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Posted at 04:59 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'Shouldn't Happen Here'

Blogger and Virginia Tech grad student silvertongue1 used her livejournal blog to let her family and friends know she was safe:

"Now I'm in my dorm, which is under lockdown (along with the rest of campus). I won't be teaching class today, but this is another one of those times where I'm grateful to have an Au Bon Pain in my lobby. I've got food. Things are scary outside. We were told to stay away from windows. I can hear the severe weather alert loudspeakers outside being used to tell us to stay indoors, and there are sirens. I'm listening to CNN, and find it so hard to believe this, just a few days after a bomb threat closed 3 buildings. I know the places they're showing on TV. It's just surreal. Blacksburg is 'the country.' Things like this just shouldn't happen here."

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Posted at 04:45 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'No One Knows Where She Is'

Livejournal writer aciel shares his raw feelings as he wonders about the fate of two friends:

"I was Maxine's date on Friday for Alpha Omega Epsilon (engineering sorority) formals. She had German class this morning in Norris -- one of the classes where a lot of people were shot -- and she never came back from it. No one knows where she is. Her mother has called all of the hospitals in the area, and nothing.

"I suspect Kathy S. was there, too. I know she had Elementary German last semester with Max, and can't think why she would have dropped. She's an EMT and absolutely one of the nicest, most wonderful people I know."

Aciel asks readers to forego responding to him unless they have specific information about the whereabouts of his friends.

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Posted at 04:32 PM ET, 04/16/2007

'Scariest Moment of My Life'

Planet Blacksburg posted a quote from Ruiqi Zhang, a computer engineering major, who was in Norris 205 this morning:

"I was sitting in class when we heard loud popping noises a couple rooms down... The teacher and a student went into the hallway and rushed back in and told everybody to get down. We put a table against the door and had a few students holding down the door. The gunman tried to shoulder his way in and when he saw that he couldn't, he put two shots through the door it was the scariest moment of my life..."

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