Lafayette, Louisiana, on July 23, 2015: Two women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, were shot and killed, and nine other people were injured, when John Russell Houser opened fire during a showing of the film “Trainwreck.” On July 24, Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal explained to the Today show that “there’s never a reason for these senseless acts of violence, ” and his statement spread across media platforms such as MSNBC and CNN.
Unfortunately, this type of language is not new — in fact, it sounds rather familiar. This is the way our public discussion of mass shootings almost always sounds: Someone decides to shoot innocent people and we, as witnesses to this horrible tragedy, desperately search for language to condemn it — or just understand it by — and halfheartedly settle upon the word “senseless.” We decide nothing can be said about where it comes from, firm in our belief that this violence can’t be understood.
Regardless of how senseless we see these acts to be, shooters still claim to have their reasons — and we, in turn, inevitably find ourselves caught up in solving and understanding those reasons after the initial shock of the shooting has settled. Because we truly can only understand mass shootings as senseless acts, we struggle during this stage. Humanity has always struggled with comprehending occurrences that we, in hindsight, see no sense in. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples is genocide, or the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of a nation. Words cannot begin to scratch the surface of an explanation for the Holocaust or the Rwandan Genocide. In the United States, we’ve struggled to understand our history of slavery. Now, we see it to be senseless, an obvious breach of human rights,to enslave someone on the basis of a different skin color — yet the enslavement of black individuals was a societal norm for almost 250 years.
Humanity has always struggled with comprehending occurrences that we, in hindsight, see no sense in.
It is natural human tendency to grapple with heinous events that “made sense” in the past but now seem overwhelmingly wrong. In fact, it is quite noble of humanity to want to understand the ugliest, most disturbing parts of our existence. At this moment in our history, where the number of mass shootings with at least four people shot outnumbered the number of days in a year, there is no better time to attempt to understand — to investigate — why this type of violence is so prevalent.
The dialogue we engage in in our attempts to understand these shootings is not working. First, much of our dialogue centers on humanizing the perpetrators. Our conversation fixates almost solely on them, searching through their histories for trivial details that could possibly explain their motives. This spiral of fascination with their personal history directs us away from a conversation about the actual potential sources of violence, such as mental illness. Even worse, the information and perceptions of shooters that we gain from their personal histories isn’t unique; after a time, we begin speaking of them in simple, easy narratives — such as the “mentally ill white male” or the “radicalized Muslim.” We draw upon a fountain of stereotypes to back up our claims, fetishizing them rather than understanding them.
The resulting media coverage is not surprising. White men are almost always portrayed as social outsiders, victims of mental illnesses who simply “snapped” in the wrong place at the wrong time. Black men and women involved in gun violence are labeled “thugs,” and Muslim men and women are immediately assumed to be radical terrorists. Our attempt to humanize, to investigate the shooter’s background as a way to understand the violence that occurred falls short. Instead of constructing a holistic picture of the guilty individual, we simply look for a few telling and provocative details to confirm our preconceived notions and, yet again, settle upon them.
For example, before the names of the San Bernardino shooters were released, Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump tweeted prayers to the victims and praise to the first responders. But once the names of the killers were revealed (Syeed Farook and Tashfeen Malik), the two candidates drastically changed their tone. Cruz claimed the attack was an act of war. Trump tied the shooting to “radical Islamic terrorism.” Though new sources have shown that Farook allegedly had ties to Islamist radicalism, at the time, Cruz and Trump had no substantial evidence to back up their claims.
Even worse, the information and perceptions of shooters that we gain from their personal histories isn’t unique; after a time, we begin speaking of them in simple, easy narratives — such as the “mentally ill white male” or the “radicalized Muslim.” We draw upon a fountain of stereotypes to back up our claims, fetishizing them rather than understanding them.
This proclivity toward preconceived narratives is further illuminated by last year’s Charleston, South Carolina shooting that killed nine black churchgoers. Many civil rights activists classify the Charleston shooting as a terrorist attack because Dylann Roof, the shooter, had a reasonably clear motivation to intimidate and subjugate the black population through violence. Furthermore, Roof demonstrated a white supremacist streak. There exists information suggesting he was planning to start a race war. Despite the overwhelming evidence that suggests Roof’s terror spree was racially motivated, the media never referred to it in the same way it did in San Bernardino.
Of course, the media still had a response to the Charleston shooting. Sources such as Fox News claimed that Roof was just another mentally-ill individual who had not received appropriate treatment — an easy way out that has become a privilege reserved exclusively for white males. Robert Louis Dear, the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, was given the same prerogative. Dear — though he has an alleged criminal history of rape, assault and animal violence — was labeled as a societal outcast who was “adrift” and “alienated.”
The way we currently humanize perpetrators of mass shootings actively exacerbates the problem. It opens up avenues where obvious injustices, especially on a racial level, can persist in the face of an already devastating event. The point of humanizing the shooter — understanding the shooter’s personal story in hopes of finding the root cause of the mass shooting — is reversed when the narrative of the shooter is already in a predetermined category. We are not genuinely or originally creating a humanized portrait of the shooters. Rather, we strip a shooter down to his physical appearance to create a narrow, one-sided account of him that a satisfies a wholly prejudiced perspective. This one sided portrayal of the shooter results in a correspondingly one-sided discussion surrounding the mass shooting. It isn’t shootings that are senseless, but our conversation during the aftermath of the shooting that is bordering senselessness.
The question our society now faces is this: How can we change our conversation to gain a better understanding of mass shootings, with the hope of finding a viable solution to the problem? This is a difficult challenge because our current conversation is comfortably unproductive, and changing our discussion means changing the way we think. Yet, it is imperative that we change our viewpoint on mass shootings so that we can better understand why they continue to plague our society.
It isn’t shootings that are senseless, but our conversation during the aftermath of the shooting that is bordering senselessness.
One way is to alter the reporting style used by the media in examining mass shootings.
In an article from the Atlantic, sociologist Zeynep Tufecki argues that law enforcement should not release the details of the shooting and how it was accomplished, the shooter’s social media accounts should be taken down, the shooter’s name should not be released immediately and surviving victims of the violence should not be interviewed in their most vulnerable moments. Tufecki’s suggestions encourage media sources to end the theatrical presentation that reports on mass shootings usually take. By presenting the story of the mass shooting in less glamorous and more deliberate terms, the media could steer the conversation away from being strictly about the shooter, and curb our fascination.
Tufecki’s recommendations have picked up followers in the media world and in law enforcement. After the Umpqua Community College shooting that took place Oct. 1, Sheriff John Hanlin refused to release the killer’s name, saying “I will not give him the credit he probably sought for this horrific and cowardly act.” Police Chief Rick Smith, an officer from Marysville, Washington, also withheld the name of the shooter who killed four people in a Marysville high school. In the days after the Roanoke, Virginia shooting that occurred Aug. 26, television news sources such as CNN only showed the footage of the shooting once per hour. Other television news agencies opted to freeze frame the video of the shooting, stopping the footage before the actual shooting begins.
On the other hand, Jim Warren, the chief media correspondent for the Poynter Institute, argues that journalists need to continue reporting in-depth on mass shooters in order to avoid a spread of misinformation. Considering the reactions to the San Bernardino shooting and the Charleston shooting, it is easy to morph a shooting for which we have little information into a misinformed narrative based on societal prejudices.
Ideally, there would be a balance of information given to the public: enough to reflect the gravity of the situation but excluding unnecessary details that could dramatize the situation, warping it into a single spotlight on the shooter that distracts from the larger, more pertinent issue. Theodore Glasser, a Stanford University communications professor, suggests that a mass shooting news story needs to have more substance than just titillating details about the shooter. We humanize the shooter by cherry-picking stereotyped details and building a poorly structured narrative around them. Rather, finding a common motive, a deeper trend among all these disparate shootings, could potentially reveal the root cause of this mass violence. In order to locate this root, we have to have more nuanced conversations.
The most nightmarish shootings by far — the ones that sting the most — occur at schools. From Columbine to Virginia Tech to Newtown to the nearby UCSB shooting and finally to the recent Umpqua Community College shooting, it makes me grimace to think that shots were fired on people just like me, people pursuing an education to help them prepare to tackle the world’s biggest problems. The alarming frequency of mass shootings is a far reaching issue and solving it will take input from a variety of fields: public health, politics, law and education itself.
Ideally, there would be a balance of information given to the public: enough to reflect the gravity of the situation but excluding unnecessary details that could dramatize the situation, warping it into a single spotlight on the shooter that distracts from the larger, more pertinent issue.
I’m not sure how to end this epidemic of mass killings and my input just barely skims the surface on the topic, but our generation has inherited this challenge and we must rise to face it. There isn’t a silver bullet, a one-time change, that will fix this. I think it’s going to be a matter of making small but still significant changes that originate from a collective solution. Perhaps these small changes can begin with the conversations we have with one another. If we can alter the way we are talking about mass shootings, spending less time stereotyping the shooter and more time searching for the underlying themes that motivate mass shooters to act, then we can turn an issue that is “senseless” into an issue that is “solvable” instead.
Contact Tess Hanson at [email protected]