Thursday, September 08, 2005

Vang: Killer yes, but murderer or heroic killer?

Chai Vang's jury selection starts today. Vang is the Hmong hunter who was hunting in Wisconsin when cornered by some of the hunters and friends (all white) who owned the property. What happened next is very unclear, but what is undisputable is that Vang killed six of the other hunters, wounding two others.

The Chicago Tribune has just released a two-part series
(you may need to register for free on the site--sorry about that) on the events of that day with a great deal of background on the different participants.

The dispute centers on who fired first and what exactly was said when the hunters confronted Vang. Vang says that the hunters threatened him and used racial slurs against him. The sole survivor from the initial group says that he "can't remember" if the other hunters used racial slurs, but from the article:

To me, it wasn't a race issue. It was about someone trespassing," Hesebeck said. Hesebeck admits that the men cursed at Vang. But, he says, "I don't know how he would be fearful of his life."

When I read this, I felt like I finally understood exactly what happened. First of all, let's establish that the hunters did curse at, and did use racial slurs to threaten Vang. I'm sorry, that's not something that you can just pull a Reagan and "not recall". Hesebeck might want to protect his dead friends, and who can blame him, but it's pretty clear that they used the slurs. You have a group of white men in a historically racist community with lots of disgust with the Hmong and other minority groups who have cornered a person of color who they feel has overstepped his bounds. They were going to teach him a lesson. It's possible that race wasn't a big issue to the hunters. It was a tool they whipped out when they wanted to beat someone “bad” down, but it was not something special that they were afraid of. To Vang and many of us folks of color, it's something else. When a badge or other person with a gun starts cursing, "Chink this, Chink that", it's time to duck behind something sturdy.

Am I talking about all people of color? Of course not. But there certainly are plenty of us who have been targeted for violence--beaten, attacked, shot at, or had close relatives or friends who have had these experiences. To Vang, who has had an incredible life up to this point, he knew the coding of this experience--white folks using their power to beat him down. He prepared for the worse and made some quick decisions. He thought that his life was in danger and that his exemplary marksmanship skills would be needed. Vang's own statements back this:
In his statement to police, Vang did not describe how he felt about the shootings, but in a letter, Vang wrote, "I have done something to defend myself and my race."

Remember also that many Hmong do not believe in private property. Vang had as much conviction that he did belong in that place, as the hunters believed that he didn't. Now, it can certainly be argued that in the U.S.--for better or for worse--we do have private property and if Vang chose to live here, he must follow those laws. But Vang did not choose to live in the U.S. The U.S. government chose to enlist his people to fight against the Vietnamese and got countless numbers of them killed in the process. If they did not want the Hmong to bring their cultural values to the U.S., they shouldn't have destroyed their ability to live in their homeland in the first place.

As tension built, one side or the other shot first. There's no way anyone except for the principles will ever know who did. Vang certainly has a strong interest in saying that the other side fired first and there's is no way in hell the survivors are going to say, "We shot first and he fired back killing all of us!"

Whomever shot first, Vang relentlessly continued firing until six people lay dead. Even if he had acted in self-defense, he certainly went beyond that when he gunned down two of the hunters as they ran from the scene. The two he killed who were approaching him quickly in an ATV, are more logical--according to him, they raised a rifle towards him. I tend to believe his story, but even if they had no gun, why were they pursuing him in the vehicle in the first place?

In the end, I blame the days events on two things. First, remember this was a trained American soldier in what he viewed as severely hostile territory. I believe that Vang's training kicked in and he used his shooting skill to take out as many enemy combatants as was possible. The fact that once he came down from the experience, he threw away his ammunition supports this. Secondly, I believe that the white hunters paid the ultimate price for their white privilege. Like thousands and millions of people across the country, they were tempted to use their racial privilege to attack someone else. They assumed that nothing would happen--as Vang's brother said, "
If they killed him, who would know? If they shot him, they wouldn't say anything at all.
He would just disappear."

However, they made a terrible miscalculation and chose to exercise their power against a trained U.S. veteran with a semi-automatic weapon.

None of this is to say that Vang shouldn't be convicted or shouldn't serve a long sentence for his crimes. My question is "How do we prevent this from happening again?" Do we just lock up Vang or kill him to remind people of color that it is wrong for us to try to defend ourselves when our lives are threatened? Or do we focus some of the responsibility at the racist roots of the incident so that Vang serves time for his excessive force, say two of the six deaths and we learn from the other four deaths so that nothing like this ever happens again.

I am not saying that the hunters were bad people. I know that they had families and engagements and helped so many people in their lives. That's what's so scary about these racial issues--I've been cornered on the street by white fathers with their children at their side. This is not even about whiteness or blackness or yellowness--it is about the sick, sick part of human beings that makes people want to use our differences as an excuse to hurt others. A sick force that flowed from that community, between Vang and the hunters and back into the community again in their hatred for the Hmong.

I do not want to bother to answer the question in the lead because there is no right answer. Vang killed six other human beings and there are myriad ways to view his actions. I just want to ask the question and remind people to look at the big picture--not just their own warped perspective. Because in the same way that some delighted at the deaths of the bridge snipers who had been shooting at relief teams, some part of some of us is delighted that some dangerous, racist whites finally got theirs. Until we practice enough empathy for everyone involved, we will not be able to collaborate or do anything constructive. We will only be able to react in incredulous surprise when our negligence backfires upon us and mourn these tragedies again and again like the fools that we are.


Blogger none said...

I live in Wisconsin and I remember when this incident happened. I think hunting is a strange hobby to begin with. It puts you in that murder/spill blood, macho mood that is not condusive to rational thinking. Hordes of grown men ganging up on a bunny or a bambi to prove they are tough shit. It's only a small step to shooting a person. I suspect Vang was in a weird mood to begin with, lurking in a forest with a gun all by himself. And the group of eventual victims, probably felt a surge of power as well, both from a sense of protecting their property from an intruder, and from the deceiving safety of numbers.
Weird macho meets weird macho, both parties in a bloodthirsty mood; there's only one way to settle this - with bullets. There is, of course, a difference between defending your life and reacting to a smarting insult, even one that burns very deeply. People hurt our feelings every day, often in profoundly devastating ways, but that does not give us the right to terminate them on the spot. We can enjoy a quick fantasy about it, but we are expected to move on and lick our soul wounds in private, not resort to physical violence. Killing should be a last resort, saved for very special circumstances when you are defending yourself, categorically, against an imminent attack. If they had racially insulted him, and made him feel awful, that is despicable, but it does not deserve a death sentence. If they did attack him, then he did what he had to do.

12:53 PM  
Blogger xian said...

I think that you show a very thoughtful analysis that displays your love for human life. I would agree with you. I just have two questions that come out of it:

1. What do we do in these situations where there is no way that we'll ever know who fired first?
2. Regardless what is the "right" way to deal with Vang, how do we separate out the "right" way from the "equal" way? I'm just as interested in what would have been done if the ethnicities involved were reversed.

We can't do anything to undo the tragedy itself, but we can address the fact that law enforcement, the justice system, the media and the majority of the America public reacts entirely differently to the same event if the race/class/gender/sexual orientation of the protagonist is different.

I mean, I've seen the police do enough terrible stuff to wonder if they were there hiding guns and bullets and briefing the victims on what statements to make before filing their report...

9:26 PM  
Blogger James Chang said...

This is absurd. The fact that the root cause of the problem means nothing more than the fact that the redress Mr. Vang should seek should also be systematic in nature. If he's not happy with the fact that "his people" has been duped by the U.S. Government when they were back in Laos, he should sue the U.S. Government in a U.S. District Court for damage, and use the monies to move to somewhere he's more comfortable with. Killing random folks is an irrational and isolated response to a systematic wrong, and it is by definition evil since it was the U.S. Government, not the individual "white" hunters who had wronged Mr. Vang.

The notion that hunting is bloodthirsty and that it's merely one step away from shooting human beings is also absurd. Ever heard of "specie-ism"? Peter Singer the leftie would've told you that it's something more entrenched than racism, and for once I believe him. Amish hunt, Quakers hunt, Mennonites, Old Order Brethrens and Hutterites all hunt. Yet I've yet to hear some Amish serial killer/rapist looting Asian people.

The victims did nothing that merit their cold-blooded murder. If they were privileged due to their skin-color, they didn't choose to be born white, and therefore cannot be held accountable for that. Basic Kantian categorical imperative. End of story. Apply all your foregoing logic with Mr. Vang to the white hunters and you'll agree with me that they're the real victims of this tragedy.


12:08 PM  

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