“ismail ax”

Cho Seung-Hui, the 23 year old student who killed 32 people yesterday, is rumored to have had the words “Ismail Ax” written in red ink on one of his arms. One of today’s big online games is to interpret what it means. It seems that right wing bloggers are especially interested.

The folks at Captain’s Quarters think that the reference might imply religious radicalism. Here’s a clip:

…It appears to be a reference to Abraham/Ibrahim, in which Ismail and Abraham take an axe to the idols of a temple as part of (their) conversion to monotheism. Is this a cryptic reference to Islamist or Christian radicalism?

And, according to the folks at Hot Air it might be a reference to “The Prairie” by James Fennimore Cooper. Here’s a clip:

…(I)n James Fennimore Cooper’s story “The Prairie,” the settler Ishmael Bush, who is attempting to escape from civilization, sets out across the prairie with two key tools, a gun and an axe. Each has a symbolic meaning. The axe — which can either kill or provide shelter — stands for both creation and destruction. Given that the VT killer was an English major, might this be the likely meaning of the words on his arm? Just my two cents.

My question is this – why do we care? Do we think that solving the riddle will help us prevent similar acts in the future, or do we as humans just have this insatiable thirst for all things tinged with blood? I suspect it’s the latter, and I’m just as guilty of it as these other folks. So far I’ve been able to fight the urge to go and check out Cho’s short story that appeared online this morning, but I know that I’ll eventually give in. Maybe we have this macabre fascination with death for a reason. Maybe it’s evolved along with us. Maybe prehistoric men that looked at dead bodies, and thought about how they came to be that way, lived longer, had more offspring, etc. Natural or not, though, it doesn’t feel right to me. The whole thing leaves me feeling incredibly dirty. What this phrase may have meant is meaningless, and I know it. Knowing won’t bring those people back, and it won’t help us save people in the future. It’s just a way for us CSI-watching armchair detectives to feel as though we’re part of the action. It feeds something inside of us that’s probably best left unfed.

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  1. Dick Cheney's Extending Taint
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Two of the shooter’s short plays:


  2. oliva
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    A friend of mine sent me the link to a good diary entry at Daily Kos; here a snippet:

    . . . I’d suggest that if we truly want to keep more Columbines and Virginia Techs from happening over the long term, we’d best look beyond simpleminded feel-good answers like “better security” and “gun control” and look instead at what sort of human beings are produced by hypercompetitive, image-obsessed, consumption-driven, sensation-seeking cultures.

    Yesterday’s sick slaughter wasn’t the first of its type, and it won’t be the last. I wouldn’t say that my partially formed ideas on this subject constitute complete answers, but I think that they could be part of a starting point for a different kind of dialogue on this subject. The “lone gunman” is a symptom of a pervasive American sickness. Let’s start correctly apprehending it as such; then we might stand a chance of arriving at a cure.


    I remember as a child lying in bed, on my way to sleep, and I’d put my hand on my stomach or on my leg, holding it as if I’d been shot–this was right after JFK was killed. I remember asking my mother how much it hurt to be shot–and I distinctly remember thinking that from then on that’s how all of us would die. That up till then it was something like “from old age” but that now it was always going to be from gun shots. What a tainted thought for an otherwise happy child. I didn’t feel fearful either; sadly, I think I thought I was being pragmatic–trying to prepare myself appropriately. Yikes!

    And nowadays there are so many more guns . . . yuck. I can only imagine what kind of awful thoughts children go to sleep with nowadays. Wishing them sheep to count, many many sheep . . . and lambs and doves!

  3. js
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Don’t give in, Mark! It’s really terrible!

  4. edweird
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    If you really want to be frightened, look at how the right wing nut jobs are starting to use this story:


  5. murph
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Related to oliva’s clip, I’m trying to look beyond the rampant political opportunism surrounding this, and I feel like the “fluffy liberal” reaction shows true optimism. Quotes like that say, “no, this is not unavoidable and unpredictable evil; this is an illness – both an individual illness and a symptom of a larger social illness, and, as such, is treatable and therefore preventable.” Will hyperscrutiny of every sharpie scrawl of the shooter on national news help us do that? No, probably not – but it’s what accessible to people.

    If I had to guess what the social illness in question is – well, no. I’ll just point out the pessimistic flipside of the reason, which is to say, “This was totally an unavoidable act of evil. The only thing we can do is issue guns to college students to defend themselves.”

  6. UBU
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    These things happen much more rarely in Europe and Canada, which, if anything, are more godless than we are, and share much of the same violent culture. The ONLY difference is that they have gun control…

  7. Hillary
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I think the main difference is that Europeans and Canadians are more advanced when it comes to health care and treatment of mental health problems. Cho Seung-Hui was obviously very sick.

  8. ol' e cross
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Suicide, has always been very sad. But I have to say, the new vogue of committing suicide really, really sucks.

  9. kez
    Posted April 18, 2007 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    “ismail ax” is probably just a note to remind him to mail that package… “is mail am?”

  10. John N Murphy
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    According to reports from South Korean Buddhist authorities, the name written on the arm of Cho Seung Hui, ‘ISMAIL AX’, is an anagram for SALAMI XI, and as deciphered according to the ancient texts of the unique Buddhism-Shamanic religion as practiced only in ancient Korea.

    The meaning of SALAMI comes from the Italian verb salare, meaning ‘to salt’, and is a reference to salting the earth, and which refers to the practice of spreading salt on fields to make them incapable of being used for crop-growing.

    This was done in ancient times at the end of some wars as an extremely punitive scorched earth tactic.

    The Latin symbol for the number 11 (XI) is the reference used by Cho Seung Hui to signify his ‘authority’ to ‘Salt the Earth’ as this is the number ascribed by both ancient and modern numerologists alike to great artists, religious leaders, prophets, and leading figures in history, and is considered to be the ‘highest’ of all numbers.

  11. Annette
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m not seeing it spelled Ismail on the package. It looks more like Ishmiel. There are many spelling variations for Ishmael. Cho seems to compare himself to Jesus being cruxified in one of his videos. In his written manifesto, there is a drawng of a cross with two eyes surrounded by a heart. Regardless of the spelling, the pronunciation sounds like “Is my hell”. The AX is confusing. An X is two crossed lines and could be considered a cross. I came up with the translation: IS MY HELL A CROSS?
    LOL We all think too much about this.

  12. mark
    Posted April 19, 2007 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Here are the Jesus quotes you mention:

    “I die like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the weak and defenseless people,” Cho Seung Hui, 23, said during a rambling video message that he mailed to NBC News after killing his first two victims.

    “Do you know what it feels like to be humiliated and be impaled upon a cross and left to bleed to death for your amusement?” Cho said during the profanity-laced tirade which encompassed religion and his hatred of rich “snobs” and “brats.”

    The entire article can be found here:


  13. Posted April 20, 2007 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    “Ismail Ax” is an anagram for “Axis Mali” which is Latin for “Axis of Evil” so there you have your connection to North Korea.

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