Historically racialised and narrowed language is curbing self-reflection and positive mobilisation in the United States
In the hours and days following the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, politicians and many media outlets reflexively described the shooter, Stephen Paddock, as a solitary madman who planned and carried out the mass killing without apparent connection to any larger network, group or ideology. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, for instance, depicted Paddock as “an individual” and “a sole actor, lone wolf type actor”.
When perpetrators of violence are people of colour, journalists, politicians and many citizens treat their violence as natural, expected. But when shooters are white men who kill white victims, politicians, mainstream media, and many other facets of white America, reach for the notion of an unstable, angry, isolated person driven to mass murder.
These descriptions make sense on many levels. Though it’s still very early in the investigation, nothing to this point suggests that Paddock had ties to a larger organisation, fake claims from the Islamic State notwithstanding. And turning to the language of mental illness seems entirely apt when describing an act that appears so far beyond the bounds of sanity or civilisation.
At the same time, however, there is something telling about the tendency to reflexively describe Paddock as a lone wolf or individual-level madman — a label widely used even though authorities don’t yet know conclusively whether Paddock had help as he amassed his arsenal and planned his unthinkable crime.
The description of the “lone wolf” shooter is a relatively new one: the image of a disturbed, gun-obsessed, white male loner who presents a threat to mainstream society emerged alongside the rise of mass shootings over the past two decades. To pick but one example, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012, killer Adam Lanza was repeatedly described as a deranged “loner” who “felt no pain”.
We emphasise the mental health of white mass shooters because these men look like “us”, meaning that there is nothing predictive about the ways they look that might foretell their actions. In other words, they could be anyone — part of what gives these events their terrifying valence. Put bluntly, the only reason we aren’t referring to mass killers like Paddock as terrorists, even though spectacular events like the Las Vegas shooting meet the textbook definition of terrorism, is because of their race.
Blaming non-white “cultures” when guns are involved is a tradition with deep roots in American history. Indeed, the dynamic took shape decades before the current double standard of white “shooters” and Muslim “cultures” emerged. In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, a number of high profile black activists and political leaders advocated for gun rights for African Americans, arguing that the Second Amendment applied to all citizens and that black communities required firearms for self-defence because police offered little protection. Without a single shot fired, police, government officials and mainstream U.S. society labelled these leaders and the larger movements they represented insane.
The FBI diagnosed Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia” and membership in the “Muslim Cult of Islam” after he posed with a gun and advocated armed black self-reliance the day after his home was fire-bombed. The bureau similarly diagnosed Robert Williams, the controversial head of the Monroe, N.C., chapter of the NAACP, as schizophrenic, armed and dangerous after he advocated for black, armed “self-defence” and, later, authored a book titled “Negroes With Guns”.
These and other African American leaders were far from mentally ill. But the often reflexive associations between armed non-white individuals and mental illness allowed white America to enforce the legal privilege of bearing arms as a white privilege. Legislative approaches such as the so-called castle doctrine, the notion that “a man’s home is his castle” and he has a right to defend it with a gun – or the “stand your ground” legislation that applies outside of the home – often treat firearms as the tools of white protectors. Unlike the ideas that drove the pejoratives and suspicion that greeted black activists arguing for armed self-defence, these laws envision a heroic white homeowner fighting off a violent threat. Indeed, these laws were initially written to assure gun rights solely for “white, heterosexual, property-owning men,” and often play into the mythologies surrounding American firearms.
When we are faced with today’s automatic assumption that white shooters who commit acts of terror are isolated, deranged individuals, not connected to any larger cultures, networks or ideologies that might foment violence, we must ask ourselves whether the lone-wolf framing potentially plays off of, and perverts, the same lionisation of white male individualism so often used to justify gun rights in the United States.
Absent the lone wolf narrative, horrific incidents like the mass shooting in Las Vegas might also force us to discuss the ways in which American white masculinity itself may have grown increasingly solitary and guarded, as the types of labour white men produce become less vital to the workforce, and increased competition emerges from women and minorities, and demographic changes threaten to reduce white men’s “status and respect”. Or maybe we might take more seriously the cultural re-emergence of what gender scholars call toxic masculinity, a threatened, defensive form of manliness that appears to manifest in many mass shooters.
Of course, over-generalising after mass shootings to cast blame on entire races or religions is just as wrong when it applies to white males as other groups. Yet our refusal to talk about broader contexts when shooters are white suggests the opposite problem: a narrowed language for self-reflection and a fear of confronting difficult topics.
Such self-reflection seems all the more urgent as we, as a nation, come to terms with yet another senseless act of mass violence carried out against innocent civilians. As we mourn and pray and begin yet again the process of grief segueing to questioning, which so often becomes resignation, it seems high time to advance a richer understanding of the ways that white mass shooters represent both isolated loners cut off from white mainstream society, and also in some ways emerge as pathological extensions of it.
By so doing, we might then begin to use this moment of tragedy as a chance to rethink the racially hierarchical assumptions and mythologies that pull Americans apart when we should be coming together. Doing so would involve applying new frameworks to the epidemic of white mass shootings — frameworks that might better identify and prevent the lethal actions of “them”, but do so while also developing more honest and vulnerable ways of expressing and forming community around the realities, frustrations and everyday tensions of “us”.
After all, perhaps a lone white male protector is not the best way to prevent the actions of a deranged lone white male shooter. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it takes more than individuals working alone: it takes mass mobilisation, public policy and a national commitment to curb gun violence.
A version of this piece ran originally on 6 October in the Washington Post.
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