Politics & Policy

Mass Killings Have Become Rorschach Tests

A memorial for the victims of the shootings in Santa Barbara, Calif. (Spencer Weiner/Getty Images)
The California shooting is a peculiar one for the white-privilege crowd to have latched onto.

Mass shootings are described by the good denizens of the American press corps in quite the variety of ways. The favored sobriquet is “tragedy,” but there are others on offer too — among them “rampage,” “abomination,” “running amok,” and “killing spree.” Having watched over the weekend the various reactions to the horrific crime in California, I might proffer a new appellation. How about, “Rorschach test”?

Onto the despicable act of a disturbed young man, entire worldviews are today being projected and confirmed. Over at Salon, a teacher of “Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies” named Brittney Cooper asked a question that she thought most germane:

How many times must troubled young white men engage in these terroristic acts that make public space unsafe for everyone before we admit that white male privilege kills?

The shooter, Cooper claimed at various points in what is an impressively self-serving little essay, was a “young white guy” who fed off of “heterosexual white male entitlement”; “a young, clean-cut white man” who was distraught at his inability to “access all the markers of white male heterosexual middle-class privilege”; a representative of “troubled young white men” whose philosophy was rooted in “white supremacy” and who serves an exemplar of both “pathological white masculinity” and “middle-class, heterosexual, white male rage”; and someone who was not only marinated in “racism, white supremacy and patriarchy” but coddled by “systems of whiteness and patriarchy [that] continue to produce white men who think like this.” “As long as America refuses to deal with its white male privilege problem,” Cooper concluded rather predictably, “we will continue to have” mass shootings.

It is unsurprising that Cooper would draw this conclusion. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like the Klan. Still, there is a tiny problem with her theory, and that is that it’s nonsense. Certainly, the claim that “usually, the young men who . . . shoot large numbers of people . . . are white, male, heterosexual and middle-class” is a popular one. Just this weekend, serial fabulist Michael Moore told his fans that “nearly all of our mass shootings are by angry or disturbed white males.” Still, popular does not equal true. Shooters are invariably male, yes. But, racially, they are all over the map. As Salon’s own Andrew O’Hehir noted in 2012, “the stereotype that these kinds of shooters are invariably white men is less true than it used to be”:

In the last decade or so, almost every possible demographic has been represented: There have been two infamous campus shootings by Asian graduate students, one by a Native American teenager living on a Minnesota reservation, and a couple by African-Americans and Latinos. Overall, 43 of the 61 shooters in mass killings since 1982 have been white, which is only a little higher than the proportion of whites in the general population.

Actually, it’s a little lower.  And the FBI confirmed in 2010 that, despite the widespread belief to the contrary, “the racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.” That is: White people commit mass shootings pretty much in line with their demographic representation. Is Cooper suggesting something has changed?

All in all, this particular shooting is a peculiar one for the white-privilege crowd to have latched onto. The killer’s hideous 140-page manifesto is many things: misogynistic, racist, devious, narcissistic, self-indulgent, rambling, calculating, immature. But it is not “white supremacist” — at least not in any meaningful sense. Indeed, pace Cooper, the shooter appears to have been racked with doubt as to his identity. “I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian,” he writes in one passage. “On top of this,” he confirms elsewhere, “was the feeling that I was different because I am of mixed race. I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with. I envied the cool kids, and I wanted to be one of them.” Really, then, the only way that one can possibly reconcile the facts of the matter with Cooper’s holistic argument is to submit that other people enjoying white privilege caused him to flip. In other words, that, as a half-Indonesian American, he was a minority victim of a white-supremacist culture. One can make that (eminently silly) case if one wishes to, I suppose. But one can’t have it both ways. Critics have to decide: Was he an exponent of heterosexual white male entitlement, or was he a victim of it?

One has to play similar games in order to harmonize the killer’s astonishing, deep-seated hatred of females with the fact that four out of the six people he killed were male. There is no question that the shooter had constructed a poisonous ideology in which women were the sworn enemy. His targets, in his own ugly words, were “all you girls who rejected me and looked down on me, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men,” and so intolerably angry was he at women in general that he expressed a wish to put them into camps, to watch them “starve to death,” and to force a few carefully selected survivors to breed with him and others of his choosing. This having been done, he suggested, “sexuality would not exist,” “humanity will be pure and civilized,” and “men will grow up healthily, without having to worry about such a barbaric act.” He was, let’s say, not a fan of the fairer sex.

Nevertheless, as disturbing as this is, we have a good word for attitudes and behavior such as this. That word is “crazy.” The essential trouble with the panoply of indignant hashtags and self-righteous op-eds that have appeared in the aftermath of the outrage is that they have tended to establish a false dichotomy: Either one believes that this incident is directly reflective of a given problem or one is denying that that given problem exists at all. This is silly and manipulative. To suggest that the cartoon misogyny of an extremely disturbed young man is not usefully related to women’s rights in general is not to suggest that women face no problems in America at all — any more than to suggest that dismissing as schizophrenia the “microwave machine” surveillance-paranoia of the sick man who shot up the Navy Yard implies that Americans have nothing to fear from wiretaps or the relentless pace of the Internet. It is just to say that the shooter’s ostensible motive is of limited utility going forward , and that if it wasn’t this, it would almost certainly have been something else.

Without ever quite making anything that could be reasonably described as a case, the Guardian’s Jessica Valenti argued yesterday for the collectivization of the killer’s guilt, maintaining that to describe the perpetrators of these crimes as crazy “not only stigmatizes the mentally ill — who are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it — but glosses over the role that misogyny and gun culture play (and just how foreseeable violence like this is) in a sexist society.” This is a rather impressive stretch. Insofar as the disturbed will draw from and respond to the culture in which they live, the contents of murderers’ manifestos are relevant and interesting. If we were to see a network of would-be killers develop, each member claiming to be acting in the same way for the reason, they would become especially so. But, really, that’s about the extent of their relevance.

Rare is the case in which one can directly blame the acts of madmen on the particular cultural influences that they have appropriated. Words do not pull triggers; people do. As the Southern Poverty Law Center was not to blame for the shooting at the Family Research Council and Sarah Palin was not to blame for the attack on Gabby Giffords, no recriminations are due for “Judd Apatow comedies,” “pathological white masculinity,” or “liberal Hollywood.” Unless we wipe out civil society, there will always be influences, urges, and upsets. John Lennon’s killer was obsessed with J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and to such an extent that he pretended to be its protagonist and, once he had committed his grisly execution, he stood and read the book until the police arrived. Charles Manson was so captivated by the music of The Beatles that he believed their lyrics contained messages for him, and took to writing out phrases in his victims’ blood. This latest shooter was a fan of Cenk Uygur, a onetime MSNBC host and leading progressive on YouTube. What does this all mean? Nothing much at all, I’m afraid.

All told, the killer hated everybody. He hated himself. He hated women. He hated other men because women liked them. He hated white people because he was only half-white, and he hated minorities because he wasn’t as non-white as they were. He craved sex, but was also disgusted by it. He hated his classmates, but also his whole town, which he had originally planned to wipe out in toto on Halloween. Four of the victims were men, two were women; three were ethnic Chinese, three were white. This was a crime whose execution was as complicated — and, possibly, as meaningless — as its conception. When terror strikes, the first word to our lips is “why?” We sully the search for genuine answers when, just hours into our inquiry, we are seen already to have woven the questions into our Weltanschauung.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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