As of Wednesday, the 7th of August, there had been 255 mass shootings in the United States. Monday was the 219th day of the year. CBS News gleefully tells me that if this pace continues, 2019 will be the first year since 2016 to average more than one mass shooting a day. We are currently averaging more than one mass shooting per day. I think Americans are pretty much numb to this. Office Depot is selling ‘bullet resistant’ backpacks, whatever that means. The usual American response to mass shootings is a moment of indignant anger. And then life carries on. Many have argued that since we, as a society, allowed children to be shot at Sandy Hook in 2012, it was clear American society gave up. I don’t know what to make of this. But it does seem to be pretty accurate. Since 4 December 2012, the day of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been 2,178 mass shootings.
Every time there is such a shooting, the first response from the right is the ‘thoughts and prayers’ routine, which does sweet fuck all in terms of stopping this. But what concerns me more is the next step, which is to demonize the killer, to question his (and it is always a he) sanity, to attempt to push him outside the norms of the community, as it were.
When I was in grad school, I took a course on genocide. The sin qua non of genocide studies is, of course, the Shoah, out of which we get the term ‘genocide’ and the study thereof. What fascinated me about the discussion over the Holocaust was not the killing. Nor the method of killing. Nor the systematic ways in which the Nazis rounded up Jews, LGBTQ people, the physically disabled, and the Roma. No. What fascinated me was the attempt to deal with the génocidaire himself, Adolph Hitler.
Generally, scholars and the general public have tended to dismiss Hitler as crazy or a loser frustrated artist or as pure evil. I have had students present a billion and one conspiracy theories about Hitler, from chronic stomach ulcers to having a single testicle. Last year, Norman Ohler got famous with the thesis that Hitler was taking incredible amounts of psychotropic drugs (it is a really good read, I must admit). Hitler is far from the only genocidal maniac in history, but he’s also kind of the sin qua non of genocide studies. All other génocidaires are in his shadow.
But what if we accepted Hitler as a human being, as a normal, regular human being? This was what our professor, René Lemarchand, put to us. What if, he argued, we considered Hitler’s behaviour and actions within the realm of human behaviours. Lemarchand pointed to other génocidaires, like Stalin or Mao, as a point of comparison. Both Mao and Stalin killed more people than Hitler, several times over. And yet, they are not pushed beyond the pale, generally speaking, of human behaviour. But Hitler is.
Lemarchand argued in that class that if we deal with Hitler on a human level, then his actions and the massive genocide of Jews, LGBTQ people, disabled people, and Roma, can be seen on that same level. In other words, to see Hitler as a member of the human species, and not insane, is to accept that human beings can do some seriously shitty things to each other.
This came to make more sense to me once I began teaching Western Civilization and World History courses at the university level. All the horrible ways human beings have come up with to kill each other struck me. The endless creativity of murderers (whether generals, kings, or just regular people) is stunning. And yet, no one thought the Persian emperors crazy. Or the Greeks. And so on.
And so this brings me back to this discussion about the perpetrators of mass shootings. If we insist that they are mentally ill, then we can dismiss their activities as being beyond the pale of society. And do nothing. We all know the challenges people with mental illness face in society, and we know that, generally speaking, we do not spend much time worrying about them, nor do we demand that our governments help the more vulnerable members of society to start with. So, ultimately, this absolves us of responsibility for these mass shootings. We can turn away because the shooter was ‘crazy.’
But the thing is, the men who commit these atrocities are not mentally ill. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) tweeted this nugget of information the other day:
19 out of 20 murderers have no mental illness diagnosis.
4 out of 5 mass shooters have no mental illness diagnosis, and half showed no signs on a prior, undiagnosed illness.
Framing this as just a mental illness problem is a gun industry trope. Period. Stop.
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) August 4, 2019
In other words, the men who shoot up churches, synagogues, classrooms, high schools, movie theatres, concert halls, and so on are just like you and me. Sen. Murphy’s claim in this tweet is backed by evidence-based research.
Thus, if the shooters are not mentally ill, if they are by-and-large ‘normal’ (whatever that is) people, then we are forced, as a society, to deal with this. Dismissing these men as mentally ill means that we can ignore them.
And then there’s the idea that it’s not a question of mental health that leads men to open fire in crowded locations; rather, it is evil. Yesterday in the Washington Post, Jonathan Capehart toyed with the idea of evil being behind these shootings. To be fair, he identified evil as lying in white supremacy. But, the question of evil comes up time and again when it comes to mass shootings in the United States. As with Hitler, this is an attempt to put the shooter beyond the pale.
Of course, it is understandable why we would want to put these shooters beyond the pale. If we do so, we don’t have to deal with the root causes of mass shootings. We went through this in the response to 9/11, too. Rather than understand what motivated al-Qaeda into attacking the United States, our initial response was simply that Osama bin Laden was evil. And just as with Hitler, if we conclude that bin Laden or the shooter in Dayton, OH, was evil, then there’s nothing we can do. Carry on.
But this isn’t good enough. Just as it wasn’t enough to simply conclude bin Laden was evil, it is not enough to conclude mass shooters are evil even if that evil is white supremacy.
The United States desperately needs to have a discussion about mass shootings and gun culture. But this is well nigh impossible to do. My Twitter feed is awash with both the mental health and evil theses. And, of course, as Sen. Murphy notes, there is the matter of the gun industry, the NRA, and the Republican Party to deal with. Because the first thing that comes out of this is a series of obfuscations to direct attention away from guns (from ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the mental health and evil theses, as well as blaming video games, abortion, secularism, marriage equality, Obama, immigrants, and so on). And then we get the campaign team of Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Majority Leader, who is up for re-election this year. On the same day as the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, his team tweeted this:
— Team Mitch (@Team_Mitch) August 3, 2019
And yet, we need to overcome this opposition, we need to have this discussion, and we need to end the violence.