The week draws to a close with horrific news out of Annapolis, some grim thoughts about why violence and hate seem so inevitable, and some hopeful news from the U.S. southern border.
A Terrible Day in Maryland
All of the available evidence so far indicates that the shooter in Annapolis yesterday wasn’t motivated or “set off” by any comment from President Trump criticizing the media. The strange new world of social media means that immediately after an infamous criminal’s name leaks, you can find his personal pages and peer more-or-less directly into what was on his mind.
In the case of this shooter, it was a longstanding grudge against the paper, stemming from a 2011 article about a criminal harassment case against him. The gunman filed a defamation suit against the paper and lost, and apparently his obsessive hatred only grew. On his Twitter account, he said he was “making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”
The staff of the Capital Gazette somehow managed to put out a newspaper the afternoon and evening after being the target of a mass shooting. God bless everybody over there:
Journalists dived under their desks and pleaded for help on social media. One reporter described the scene as a “war zone.” A photographer said he jumped over a dead colleague and fled for his life.
The victims were identified as Rob Hiaasen, 59, a former feature writer for The Baltimore Sun who joined the Capital Gazette in 2010 as an assistant editor and columnist; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who headed special publications; Gerald Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor; John McNamara, 56, a staff writer who had covered high school, college and professional sports for decades; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant hired in November.
Two others were injured in the attack that began about 2:40 p.m. at the Capital Gazette offices at 888 Bestgate Road in Annapolis.
In one of the stomach-turning ironies, no one involved in the original article about the gunman is still with the newspaper. From the paper’s article: “Neither the columnist, Eric Hartley, nor the editor and publisher, Thomas Marquardt, are still employed by the Capital Gazette. They were not present during the shootings.”
The shooter sounds like one of those people that everyone could see was a ticking time bomb.
“He’s not a forgettable character,” [William Shirley, one of the lawyers who defended the Capital Gazette] told the Daily News. “I remember at one point he was talking in a motion and somehow worked in how he wanted to smash Hartley’s face into the concrete. We were concerned at the time. He was not stable.”
Those who had encountered the gunman previously were apparently not all that surprised by his actions.
“I was seriously concerned he would threaten us with physical violence,” Marquardt said from his retirement home in Florida. “I even told my wife, ‘We have to be concerned. This guy could really hurt us.’”
Marquardt said he called the Anne Arundel County police about Ramos in 2013, but nothing came of it. He consulted the paper’s lawyers about filing a restraining order, but decided against it.
“I remember telling our attorneys, ‘This is a guy who is going to come in and shoot us,’” he said.
The coming days will no doubt bring questions and answers about how a person so unstable obtained a firearm. Sadly, it’s not that difficult to figure out:
The online abuse lasted for months and eventually [the shooter] lashed out at her friends and employers, in which he demanded she be fired. He was slapped with probation instead of a jail sentence after pleading guilty.
The shooter pled guilty to harassment, which is a misdemeanor, with a maximum sentence of 90 days. Maryland law has a lot of restrictions on who can purchase a gun, including anyone convicted of a crime of violence, convicted of a felony, or who has been “convicted of any Maryland-classified misdemeanor that carries a statutory penalty of more than two years.”
Had the shooter been convicted of stalking instead of harassment, it’s possible yesterday’s events would have turned out differently. Stalking carries a penalty of “imprisonment not exceeding 5 years or a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both.” In other words, convicting this man of stalking instead of harassment would have made it impossible for him to legally purchase or possess a firearm.
Of course, just because the president’s statements had nothing to do with this shooting doesn’t mean it’s okay or even accurate for him to declare that institutions such as the New York Times and various television networks are “the enemy of the American People!” No. ISIS and al-Qaeda are the enemies of the American people. The Iranian mullahs are the enemies of the American people. Gangs such as MS-13 and drug cartels are the enemy of the American people. Russia’s intelligence services are often the enemies of the American people, outside of some intermittent cooperation on terrorism. (And that cooperation is much less frequent and genuinely productive than U.S. intelligence would like it to be.) And, if it gets back to its old tricks, the North Korean regime is the enemy of the American people. We need to re-learn the distinction between enemies and domestic political opponents. Enemies want to kill you.
Hate and Menace, Lurking All Too Close to Home
A church not far from my house in “Authenticity Woods” has been repeatedly attacked and vandalized: “The vandalism marked the seventh time since May 11 that Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Annandale, Virginia, has been defaced — and this time was the most vile. The sanctuary walls were graffitied with racial slurs, a swastika and a message, ‘Youre (sic) all going to hell.’”
Apparently the perpetrator is a Nazi, but not a grammar Nazi.
A little more than a year ago, a 20-year-old man “was arrested on hate-related charges after a Jewish community center, a church and a community college in Fairfax County were defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti and stickers, police said.”
Why does someone do something like this? Because it makes them feel powerful? They’ve got so little pride in themselves as individuals that they have to take pride in not being one of those people?
But between this and the Annapolis shooter, I’m finding myself grappling with that question of “why” again. To be fair, you can find contradictions in my avenues of thought over the years. In October of last year, I wondered if it even mattered, because it all amounted to the same irrational complaint about life:
Aren’t all of these shooters more or less the same? In their minds, they’ve been wronged by the world; the world owed them something and it refused to give it to them. The Isla Vista shooter believed he deserved pretty women; the Alexandria shooter who tried to kill GOP Congressmen believed he deserved a world where his party was in charge. The Columbine killers believed they deserved a world where they would never feel ostracized.
After mass shootings, I often find myself referring back to the observations of Willard Gaylin, one of the world’s preeminent psychology professors. Gaylin writes about the dangers of “grievance collecting” in his book Hatred: The Psychological Descent into Violence:
Grievance collecting is a step on the journey to a full-blown paranoid psychosis. A grievance collector will move from the passive assumption of deprivation and low expectancy common to most paranoid personalities to a more aggressive mode. He will not endure passively his deprived state; he will occupy himself with accumulating evidence of his misfortunes and locating the sources. Grievance collectors are distrustful and provocative, convinced that they are always taken advantage of and given less than their fair share. . . .
Underlying this philosophy is an undeviating comparative and competitive view of life. Everything is part of a zero-sum game. Deprivation can be felt in another person’s abundance of good fortune.
The irony, of course, is that nearly a year after the Las Vegas massacre, law enforcement still hasn’t been able to figure out the motive of the worst mass shooting in American history.
In October 2015, I wondered if certain aspects of modern society aided and abetted “grievance collecting.”
Is it that our society makes it so easy to hide away from the world in a dark room, illuminated by only the computer screen, clicking from angry chat rooms to Internet porn to first-person shooter games to Facebook pages of people who seem happier than us, marinating in bitter envy?
Is it that for too many young people, when they say something insanely irresponsible and self-pitying —“the problems in my life are the world’s fault, not mine!” — there isn’t someone around to say, “No, that’s not true. Your problems are at least partially, and probably largely your fault and a consequence of choices you have made. The good news is this means you have the power to do something about them”?
Remember the Virginia shooter who was a classic “grievance collector”? Is it that we as a society become too accepting of people who practice this philosophy, and that we sort of acquiesce to it, or aren’t willing to stand up to it and rebuke it enough? Does something about our society cultivate grievance and resentment, instead of gratitude for our blessings?
What is it that makes someone go from “I’m really angry at those people” to “I’m really angry at those people. I’m going to go shoot them.”?
Good News on Our Southern Border
One of the joys of journalism is that as you think up questions — “Hey, I wonder how things are going with the building of the wall at the border?” — you can call up people and they’ll answer your questions.
The good news for those who wish to see a wall built along the U.S.–Mexican border is that U.S. Customs and Border Protection has built seven miles of 30-foot-high wall in the past few months, and roughly 30 more miles of high fencing are slated for construction.
The bad news is that there’s still a lot of border to go.
New reports from Carlos Diaz, southwest branch chief of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, indicate that one of the three current wall projects is nearly complete, another is about a quarter of the way done, and one just began earlier this month.
There are about 700 miles of fencing along our nearly 2,000-mile border. For what it’s worth, the National Border Patrol Council — the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol — contends that the country doesn’t need a wall stretching across every inch from the Pacific to the Atlantic; they believe drug smuggling and illegal immigration can best be controlled with an expansion of current walls and fences that leaves certain areas open, steering those attempting to cross illegally into fewer, more easily-managed spots.
ADDENDUM: Former New York Times public editor Jill Abramson: “From four years of teaching at Harvard, so many of my students are interested in journalism, but they mostly want to write first-person, highly personal narratives about themselves. That may reflect their age. But I think there’s too much of that in journalism. It’s not about us. It’s about the world, and covering the world.”