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The political motives of mass killers

What a lack of mental health services and gun control doesn’t explain about mass violence in America

July 7, 2014 12:00AM ET

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, without another mass killing. The imagery has become clichéd, routine, perhaps more horrible for its banality. The somber tones of the newscasters, the middle school, strip mall or college campus empty and covered in police tape, a grief-stricken father calling for gun control, a huddled group of crying young people. Another town going down in infamy, another mass murder in the streets. Another day in America.

Why does this keep happening, and why does it happen so much more in the U.S. than in other affluent countries? For a long time, we heard variations on the same answer: The killer was crazy. Maybe it was because he played Doom and listened to Marilyn Manson (like the Columbine kids), or maybe he  received insufficient psychiatric monitoring (as was said of both Fort Hood shooters, in 2009 and 2014), but it was always something fundamentally wrong with the killer. This focus on mental illness has always been a depoliticizing move, a way of explaining these events as random, stripped of history and context and, as such, unsolvable. This explanation is so effective that when Jared Lee Loughner shot a politician, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona, in 2011, it was chalked up to his schizophrenia.

But the frequency of these “random” acts of violence in America and the increasingly visible online lives and manifestos of the killers have started to change even the mainstream analysis. That Jerad Miller and Amanda Miller, the married couple who killed two policemen and a third man on June 8, considered their Las Vegas killing spree the start of a violent libertarian revolution has been widely discussed. Two weeks earlier, a media attempt to depoliticize the Isla Vista, California, murders by Elliott Rodger was met with a powerful activist campaign, #yesallwomen, which emerged to frame and understand his violence for what it was: everyday misogyny and patriarchy turned material. 

As a result, even the mass media can no longer ignore the political nature of this violence. Even still, few are understanding it as part of a historical trend of American terrorism, the context in which those actions make the most sense.

Perverse logic

This isn’t to argue that these people aren’t crazy. But why didn’t Dzokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev get called crazy too? Instead of engaging in armchair psychoanalysis, the media ran long profiles of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, emphasizing their political radicalization, despite the fact that the marathon was not an obviously political target. When a Muslim commits an act of mass violence, any craziness is downplayed in favor of his beliefs, but when the perpetrator is a white, non-Muslim man, his action is understood as a product of his broken psychology, not the structural or political forces that surround him.

Despite the stereotypes of bomb-throwing anarchists and ecoterrorists, terrorism in the U.S. has been a much more common tactic of the far right.

Before an act of terrorism was assumed to be the work of Muslims from abroad, it was a regular (if extreme) part of American politics. Despite the stereotypes of bomb-throwing anarchists and ecoterrorists, terrorism in the U.S. has been a much more common tactic of white supremacy and the far right. Since the Civil War, the typical American terrorist has been an otherwise respectable white man who kills a black man or burns down a black business as part of “maintaining his community.” Lynchings, race riots, the KKK, vigilante murder — these are all forms of white terrorism, random acts of physical and economic violence that work to keep black Americans fearful and oppressed and that continue to this day. Much of this violence was not and is not necessarily understood as political by its perpetrators. Lynching and vigilante murder is just as often explained as reacting to a particular outrage — Emmett Till flirting with a white woman, Trayvon Martin supposedly menacing George Zimmerman.

This violence against black Americans is rarely called terrorism, while attacks on government or corporate structures (even those resulting in no casualties, like the ELF and ALF arsons in the 1990s and early 2000s) or public gatherings with large groups of white people are. The militia-movement inspired Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the anti-technology mail bombs of the Unabomber and Eric Rudolph’s attacking the 1996 Atlanta Olympics for “spreading world socialism” were all seen as acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, the targeted shootings and bombings at abortion clinics, gay bars and synagogues throughout the 1980s and ’90s and the attacks on Muslims and mosques more recently are often understood as hate crimes. 

And yet even with this racist and reactionary definition of terrorism, school and mass shooters, who often attack affluent white people at random and in public, are never included. Rather, their actions are understood as senseless tragedies. But if the acts are really senseless, why do they keep happening, week after week? And why do the newscasters have to keep telling us, with increasing desperation, that they’re senseless? 

Open secret

This is the dark, unspoken but open secret about the Rodgers and Loughners of America: Their actions make a kind of sense. They display a comprehensible rage and alienation in the face of political, economic and social powerlessness. They even make historical sense, reflecting a fundamental truth of America. It was supposed to be victorious in global peace and prosperity at the end of history but is instead riven by a host of internal contradictions that threaten to rip it apart.

Not many are willing to acknowledge — let alone argue — that point. The most common political argument, the liberal explanation, is that this happens in America, as opposed to, say, Canada or the U.K., because of a lack of gun control and mental health care. But widespread gun ownership as an explanation is insufficient at best. Despite no major changes in gun law (if anything, gun laws have gotten looser), homicide and gun violence in general have gone down dramatically in the United States over the last 30 years, dropping almost 50 percent. But the number of mass shootings (defined as homicides that claimed at least three lives) and the percentage of all homicides from mass shootings are both up, according to a Pew study. Furthermore, the data in the broader homicide study goes only through 2008, but the rate of mass shootings has tripled since 2009, according to Attorney General Eric Holder.

The shooters are winning: They are changing the world.

It’s true that if James Eagan Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, shooter from 2012, hadn’t had access to an automatic shotgun, Glocks and an AR-15 assault rifle, he might not have been able to kill and injure as many people as he did. That is a reasonable enough position from which to argue for gun control. It’s also true that guns-rights advocates have cynically used his mental illness (and that of the other shooters) to sweep the question of gun control under the rug. But does that mean that gun control would have kept him from doing it at all? Rodger killed three of his six victims with a knife and is no Second Amendment partisan. In his manifesto he describes the first time he used a handgun as making him sick to his stomach. The liberal equation (gun ownership + mental illness = mass violence) is incomplete. There’s something else, something more fundamental and historical driving these shootings.

Perhaps the most important statistic in explaining why these incidents keep happening is in that Pew report. Despite the fact that gun violence is way down, 56 percent of Americans believe it has risen since 1980. And I’d be willing to bet, although it would be impossible to verify, that it’s the rise of spectacular mass shootings and the media coverage surrounding them that has lead to that belief. This isn’t an accidental response to the mass killings. It’s this sense of rising violence and alienation that the shooters refer to when they claim they want to change the world. The shooters are winning: They are changing the world.

Dog eat dog

These killings have helped make a far-right view of society mainstream. They produce an image of America as a Hobbesian war of all against all, where nowhere is safe and no stranger is to be trusted. The paranoia that follows the incidents only serves to compound these fears. These killings have meant that, despite the facts, the majority of Americans believe that violence is on the rise. Not all these shooters are politicized far-right “revolutionaries” (although the vast majority are white men who profess misogynist views). There is a spectrum among them of political awareness and mental instability. But these shootings and the coverage thereof produce a sense of America as a broken and deeply violent country and palpably spread the killers’ rage and despair outward onto everyone.

In the wake of each event, many call for greater state intervention and crackdown, not just in the form of gun control and state-administered mental health but also in increased police surveillance and power. But police visited and were already watching Rodger and the Millers. It didn’t matter, and there’s no reason to believe it would help in the future. And ironically, as each successive event occurs and the government proves itself unable or unwilling to do anything to stop the shootings, distrust is sown in the ability of the government to get anything done even as people cede more and more power to it. The shootings have continued precisely because they are effective. They are changing America — through fear, alienation and violence — to reflect the view of the aggrieved white males who commit them. The mass shootings have been a string of successful terrorist attacks.

Violence on such a large scale reveals a country that needs not just legal tinkering but radical change. The activists who stood up with the #yesallwomen hashtag battled the encroaching misogyny and violence that is done, paradoxically, by pretending that Rodger was only crazy. By highlighting how everyday misogyny helped produce Rodger, that his views were mainstream and reflected and were encouraged by our entire culture, the campaign begins to point toward solutions. Only by recognizing his act’s political nature was it possible to imagine how future Rodgers could be stopped: through smashing the patriarchy and the rape culture that produced him.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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