The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Shoehorning Multiple-Causation Shootings into Single-Cause Narratives

A police cordon after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

On Saturday afternoon, after the El Paso shooting but before the Dayton shooting, New York Daily News opinion editor Josh Greenman observed, “It’s never just guns. It’s never just mental health. It’s never just radical ideology. It’s never just sad manhood. It’s almost always a toxic combination.”

We keep hearing the same kinds of anecdotes after a mass shooting. The details change, but the gist is the same. Often but not always, there’s no father in the home. Often but not always, the shooter has few or no friends and nothing resembling a real support network. Often but not always, the shooter is unemployed or barely employed. Often but not always, the shooter has some mental-health issue, sometimes formally diagnosed, sometimes not. Often but not always, the shooter played violent video games. Often but not always, the shooter was active on extremist or Columbine-focused chat boards or had a noticeable interest in or obsession with previous mass shootings. Often but not always, the shooter has gotten in trouble in school or has been kicked out of school.

And then in every single case, when the shooter leaves some sort of message, it reveals he has convinced himself that he is the real victim of powerful forces beyond his control, and that the only remaining option he sees for defiance is shooting as many random people as possible in a public place. And in every single case, the shooter manages to get his hands on a gun — sometimes legally purchasing them, sometimes stealing them or taking them from someone else.

Only a handful of those who play violent video games become mass shooters, and the same is true for those without a father in the home, loners, the unemployed or under-employed, those with mental-health issues, those with discipline issues at school, or gun owners. But if enough of those traits are found in the same individual, we have a formula for trouble.

In the coming days, you’re going to hear a lot of fruitless arguments about which ideological side is responsible for these monsters.

The El Paso shooter’s manifesto describes America being taken over by “unchecked corporations,” “invaders who have close to the highest birthrate in America,” and “our lifestyle is destroying the environment of this country,” and describes his attack as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

 

The Dayton shooter’s social media history described himself as, “he/him / anime fan / metalhead / leftist / i’m going to hell and i’m not coming back.” He wrote on Twitter that he would happily vote for Democrat Elizabeth Warren, praised Satan, was upset about the 2016 presidential election results, and added, “I want socialism, and i’ll [sic] not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding.”

Then again, his expression of support for Warren seems pretty immaterial in assessing his character compared to this:

Dayton 24/7 Now spoke with other classmates of [the shooter] who said he was expelled from school after officials found a notebook where he reportedly wrote a list of people who he wanted to rape, kill and skin their bodies. The classmate we spoke with said Betts was supposed to write a letter of apology to the people on the list. After being expelled, Betts was allowed back to school, according to the classmate.

(Really? This is how schools are handling a student who threatens to rape, kill, and skin the bodies of other students? Readmittance after a letter of apology? How safe would you feel sending your children to that school knowing they handled this kind of a threat this way?)

The ideological leanings of the shooters don’t matter nearly as much as their conclusion that they are justified in trying to kill lots and lots of people. You’re free to believe whatever kooky stuff you want; you’re not allowed to conclude that your kooky beliefs justify violence to others.

Over the weekend, Twitter commentator Kilgore Trout offered an extreme option: Authorities can determine who posts on boards that celebrate mass shootings or troll about them, and they should charge them as accessories to the crime. (Profanity warning at the link; the term for posting memes and other messages celebrating, promoting, and encouraging mass shooters is a four-letter word.) Cleaning up his language a bit, his recommendation is. . .

You’re not going to fix the problem one white nationalist ****poster at a time. their networks need to be destroyed by putting them in constant fear that their next ****post body count meme is going to be the one that sends the feds to their door. Yes, this is a government action deliberately designed to suppress speech, and no, slyly conspiring to commit acts of terror in broad daylight on 8chan is not protected speech after the acts of terror are no longer hypotheticals. This is what we’d advocate for if ISIS set up shop in America and created a bunch of one-man splinter cells ready to activate at any moment. No one would bat an eye at arresting the accomplices – it’s just less recognizable as white nationalist ****posting. if you want to share ****posts about shooting the [offensive term for Latinos] and gassing the Jews, go right ahead, no one’s stopping you. But if one of your ****post buddies you go back and forth with on 8chan then goes out and does it, yeah, you should be good and[in deep trouble].

Earlier this year, Michelle Carter was sentenced to 15 months in jail for involuntary manslaughter charges, brought after she sent “hundreds” of texts to her boyfriend encouraging him to kill himself. She was 17 when her 18-year-old boyfriend killed himself through carbon monoxide poisoning.

In this particular case, an effort to shut down the message boards may be moot: “A San Francisco-based Web company announced Sunday it would no longer provide services to 8chan, a website notorious for hosting lawless message boards where manifestos have appeared before mass shootings.” Those who want to post and read these sorts of messages will probably find some other one.

I find the idea of pressing charges against those who encourage mass shootings uncomfortably appealing, even though it amounts to the government arresting people and charging them with crimes for what they write on the Internet. Maybe this just reflects an exhaustion with “trolling” culture. If you spend a significant amount of time online — particularly on Twitter — you’ve probably put up with more abuse than your ever imagined, often racist or anti-Semitic and more than vaguely threatening. The vast majority of us think of ourselves as a First Amendment supporters, but perhaps you can only be sent “Trump’s gonna put you in the ovens” memes so many times before you start thinking, “to hell with this, if this guy sending me this message is such a big fan of fascism, let’s have the government throw his butt in jail for what he posts and see if he likes it so much then.”

The editors call for a broad national effort to “crush this evil.”

President Trump, a man who is comfortable using his bully pulpit for the most frivolous of reasons, should take the time to condemn these actions repeatedly and unambiguously, in both general and specific terms. Simultaneously, the president should work with Congress to devote more resources to infiltrating, tracking, and foiling nascent plots (during the 1940s, the KKK was partly destroyed by a radio show that weaponized insider information against it), and he should instruct the federal government to initiate an information campaign against white-supremacist violence in much the same way as it has conducted crusades against drunk driving, human trafficking, and domestic violence. Just as the government must not react to these incidents by abridging the Second Amendment or the Fourth Amendment, obviously the First Amendment’s crucial protections must also remain intact. But where action is consistent with the law — there is no prohibition on monitoring hotbeds of radicalism, nor against punishing those who plan or incite violence — it must be vigorously taken.

Some folks hoped that after these stomach-turning abominable terrorist acts, President Trump would “call out white supremacist terrorism by name. He needs to take a break from Twitter trolling for several days at least. We need unifying, determined, presidential leadership from him.”

This morning, Trump offered to support universal background checks if they’re attached to immigration reform.

The president also contended that the shooters were driven by outrage over news coverage, and that it was the responsibility of the media to watch what it says, lest it drive someone to commit mass murder in the name of stopping an invasion by immigrants: “The Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country. Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years. News coverage has got to start being fair, balanced and unbiased, or these terrible problems will only get worse!”

It is August 2019. I think it’s long overdue for people to give up on the hope that Donald Trump is going to become a different person or act differently than he has before.

As the president attempts to negotiate his preferred immigration policies in exchange for “background checks,” it is worth recalling that neither of these shooters had a criminal record that barred them from purchasing firearms. We can fairly ask whether one of the shooter’s threats to rape, kill, and wear the skin of his high school classmates should have generated some sort of criminal charge or an involuntary stay at a mental health facility that would have barred him from legally purchasing a firearm.

ADDENDA: Sorry, no jokes today. Let’s get through today with no more jaw-dropping tragedies and we’ll try again tomorrow.

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