After a knife attack carried out by 21-year-old student Cheng Che on the Taipei MRT left four people dead on Wednesday, the internet has been awash with reflections on what it says about Taiwanese society, and how the country can cope, heal, and prevent such tragedies in the future. Although many people were understandably frightened and angry, their calls for retribution were generally crowded out by voices of compassion and reason, in a way that one rarely gets to see after similar events across the strait.
In a Chinese-language article entitled ‘We must not be hijacked by fear‘, one commentator reflected on how a Beijing-based reporter appeared on TV to praise the Chinese capital’s subways for their heavy police presence and mandatory inspections of passengers’ belongings, hoping that Taiwan could become a police state as well. However, he expressed doubt that a Taiwan with ‘more death sentences, more police and most inspections’ will truly lead to a society free from fear. ‘Every tragedy and disaster,’ he writes, ‘refines how we understand our society and how to establish faith in it, as well as testing our level of civilization.’
Although the government claims that the majority of Taiwanese support the death penalty, the week’s events have reopened the debate and given occasion for its opponents to state their case. An Apple Daily editorial asked people not to be ruled by ‘primitive feelings and impulses’ and ‘let go of your ignorance’. Lin Fei-fan, the student leader of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, pointed out that last month the Ministry of Justice sentenced five people to death, yet that didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. ‘In the moment he dies in front of a firing squad,’ he asks ‘will be truly feel that justice has been served, that there will never be another murder again in the future? If not, then what do we truly want?’
Reports of Cheng saying he feels nothing for his victims or felt at ease after killing his victims have been proliferating in the media, but top comment on one such story expresses disinterest. ‘Please stop broadcasting everything he says,’ the commenter said, ‘you’re making it out to be some sort of wise saying.’ News sources have piled accolades such as ‘demon’ and ‘monster’ on Cheng, but indeed many see him as more pathetic than demonic. His parents describe him as being a friendless zhainan, and he has told police that he just wanted to die but didn’t have the wherewithal to end his own life, so committed his crimes in a bid to receive the death sentence. Tens of thousands have identified with a blog post which argues that even the ‘losers’ in society deserve ‘love, respect, and tolerance’; that Cheng must have had his reasons, whatever they were; and that such incidents can only be prevented by reaching out to these people earlier, a responsibility that ought to fall particularly on their parents.
A 52-year-old businessman surnamed Tsai, meanwhile, has emerged as a hero in this saga, using an umbrella to fend off the knifeman from fellow passengers until the train arrived at the next station and then making sure they all evacuated. Tsai is currently recovering from his injuries in hospital, but in response to claims that he is a hero he simply said, ‘I wasn’t the only one.’
The Taipei MRT killings have indeed revealed fault lines in Taiwanese society as well the latent pessimism and anxiety that has led so many young people to refer to their country as a “ghost island“; but it has also demonstrated its strengths: its capacity for compassion and sympathy, and its readiness to debate difficult issues publicly and reasonably.
Add oil, Taiwan.
By Ryan Kilpatrick