And they think America is safe?


            “In America,” our Moroccan friend says, “people go straight to their guns. Their anger shoots up.”

            The rest of us at the table blink – we can’t really deny what he says, since just before dinner the shootings at Virginia Tech were made known to the entire world – at his bald statement.

            “What do you mean, Americans go to guns?” one of us manages to ask.

We dig into the food as a debate brews on the cause of the massacre. The setting is a Lebanese restaurant in Doha, Qatar, a tiny desert state in the Arabian Gulf, situated just above Saudi Arabia. At the table is an ethnic hodgepodge:  a couple, Latino American Catholics, my husband and I, Asian American Protestants, our friend an Arab African Muslim, who has lived in the United States, so we can’t contradict his observation outright as total ignorance.

            “When I was in the States, one night a man said to me, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ In Morocco this happens all the time. We say, okay, kill me, but tomorrow, okay? Not today, I’m busy,” he brushes one hand against the other, palm to palm, which is an Arab gesture to indicate a matter is finished and shrugs.

We all laugh.

            “But this night, the guy says this and the police ask me, ‘Are you sure?  Are you sure you don’t want to –’ ” our friend stops, at a loss for words, but the missing phrase is familiar to the rest of us – “Press charges?”

            He nods.

            “Press charges, that’s it. I said no. I didn’t take the guy seriously. He is just saying something, you know? But the policeman take me by the arm, around the corner, and he ask me again. ‘Are you sure?’”

            He scoops up hummus with bread and chews thoughtfully.

            “I used to think the police in America were too hasty, always going for their guns, but I know now they are not. They have to be that way because everyone else is that way.”

            We Americans sit in silence as he elucidates the social etiquette of conflict in Morocco.

            “At home, people argue for hours and you just let them. If two men are arguing you let it continue and know they are not that serious no matter what they say – if they start shoving – that’s a warning sign. People will go and break it up.”

            Poor gun control is his analysis of the Virginia Tech massacre but not for us Americans. Mental health, we insist, the shooter was mentally ill and needed extensive care, and this is the real omission he fell into, not lenient gun laws.

            “A person who wants to kill will kill. He will find a gun, no matter what laws there are,” someone retorts.

            I wonder about each of our cultural models for conflict and resolution. For my husband and me, children of Asian immigrants, growing up we learned discretion in public and at home as a guiding principle. Each member of our respective families circulated on his/her own orbit, distributing the others as little as possible.

            Is this why I feel uncomfortable when our close friends erupt into an argument in the midst of social gatherings, their heated tones and speedy back and forth exchange leaving me a little breathless and embarrassed? Is it stereotypical to attribute their expressiveness to Latino backgrounds – a culture opposite our own – which sanctions this type of open exchange as constructive, nothing unusual, and even healthy?

Similarly, our parents’ stoic exteriors are likely the reason why in public, my husband and I speak to each other through clenched teeth, until we get home and then the screeching begins. We generally have our more pensive discussions alone rather then in the midst of the continuous dialogue of our friends; tonight is no exception.

During his undergraduate days at Virginia Tech,
my husband made himself at home in the Korean community. He feels a connection to the shooter and perhaps some of the blame. On the drive home, he is still thinking about the dinner conversation and the horrific incident at his alma mater.

             “You know counseling is such a stigma for Asians. Maybe his parents just ignored him and thought would get better. Maybe white parents would have sent him to therapy,” he says.

We both stare ahead into the red light tail lights of vehicles stopped in front of us; traffic is not just a problem in Washington, D.C., the city we relocated from to Doha.

            Yet even life in Qatar seems filled with audible expressiveness of everyone around us: is it the intonations of Arabic that makes people sound angry or is it the volume at which they speak?  Do my eyes pick up on the moving arms and raised eyebrows and interpret these are warning signs of anger? 

I wonder about the ways in which we understand ourselves and communicate these perceptions to others. These issues of cultural communication which the shooter revealed to us – his having been perceived as an EFL student despite the near perfect English he speaks in his NBC videos – the contradiction between who we know we are and the person others think we are? Perhaps this is another lesson made clear by this incident at an American university; is America still the land of complacent suburbia and rampant consumerism or is there now a menace which has nothing to do with terrorists?

I live in the Middle East, which, according to many, is an unstable region where my safety is constantly at risk – yet I find myself glued to the T.V. – not by images of Iraq, but by shaky camera phone shots of Blacksburg, VA. Seated in my living room in Doha, I see the U.S. as an outsider, listening to footage of the screaming.

In a twisted irony, a few days after the Virginia Tech rampage my book club was scheduled to discuss We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, a book about a teenage boy who shows up at school one day and shoots classmates to death with a crossbow. The discussion turned to safety in America and American attitudes towards the rest of the world. The rest of women are ex-pats of the Caucasian Diaspora; they are from England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, everywhere but North America. As the only American in the group, I attempt to articulate the blessing-curse nature of the Second Amendment.

“This wasn’t the Muslim bogeyman,” one woman says of the grainy flat eyed image of the shooter, “This was one of their own.”

Who needs a War on Terror when there’s war waging right inside our own borders amongst our young people? No one that week – not pundits, or psychologists, or news anchors – could come up with a plausible theory to explain the violent expressiveness of individuals with grievances in the United States. Few of these disaffected youth experience the economic hardship of refugees in Gaza or other unstable places around the globe. None have the religious ideology which propels suicide bombers towards the unthinkable. Yet they still resort to carnage and violence as a revolutionary force of one.

            “Do you feel safe?”

 This is the one question I hear most often when people discover we live in the Middle East.

It’s an ironic refrain because most of my new friends, Arab, Asian, and European alike, see America as a hot bed of ethnic and religious discrimination marked by random violence, equally unpredictable as the rumored instability in the Middle East.

The Virginia Tech shooter reconfirms their suspicions and raises questions of our own.

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