I woke up this morning to the horrific news of the terrorist shooting in Charleston. Following the story today, I have seen yet again how the killer/terrorist is presented as an "isolated case" detached from larger society. This is the way it tends to be with white men when they commit these acts. The folks at Fox News are even spinning this as some kind of anti-Christian thing, despite the fact that the terrorist liked to sport apartheid symbols and justified his attack to one of the victims with noxious racism. Many white people in this country are so afraid to admit the persistence of racism even when it has manifested itself in the most violent way possible. If this is not an act of racist terrorism, what on earth is?
In the aftermath of the horror of the Newtown shooting I wrote about how America needed to confront the pathologies of white masculinity, and returned to the topic multiple times afterward. A Slate article today provides a list of the many, many terrorist acts committed by racist white men in the last twenty years, a truly scary litany of murder and hate that most white people refuse to see as anything more than a set of unconnected "isolated incidents" with "lone wolf" perpetrators. They will also likely blame "mental illness." as if someone cannot be both mentally disturbed and a terrorist. Furthermore, they will not wonder why mentally ill white men often respond to their illness by murdering other people (often people of color) in large numbers, when other types of people don't.
For an illustration, take a foreign example, that of the xenophobic Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik (the president exaggerated today a little about the uniquely American nature of mass shootings.) He murdered 77 people in a highly planned bombing and shooting spree all on political grounds as an enemy of the Left. (He targeted a social democratic youth camp for reasons similar to Roof's targeting of a prominent and politically powerful African American church.) Beyond his politics, Breivik fit the stereotype of the maladjusted, aggrieved loner. The American media does not have a problem characterizing Breivik as a politically motivated actor. Why then the reluctance to do so with Dylann Roof? The answer is pretty simple, namely that it would raise all kinds of uncomfortable questions.
The fact that Roof presented himself online wearing patches of the apartheid regime flags of Rhodesia and South Africa is telling. He was obviously "radicalized" at some point, since knowledge of those regimes' symbols isn't common among most American 21 year olds. He didn't commit his act in just any predominately African American church, either. He chose the church founded by black freedom fighter Denmark Vesey and pastored by Clementa Pinckney, an elected official who had called for mandatory police body cameras. It is the first AME church founded in the south, and due to its history is a national landmark, official or not. I can't imagine that a person who was aware of Rhodesia's history would not have been aware of the significance of this particular church.
Will the government start entrapping fellow white supremacists to pre-emptively get them in prison, just as they have with followers of radical Islam? Will the government be committing psy-ops on white supremacist web pages and forums, as they do with Islamist ones? Don't hold your breath. The hatred Roof expressed to justify his shooting is very extreme, but sadly it is not rare. Go to practically any traditional white barber shop in large swaths of this country for a day and you will likely hear a variation of it. God knows I have. It is an everyday hatred that is not taken seriously by many whites, just listen to Roof's roommate. But don't worry folks, it's just an isolated incident by a quiet loner. Move along, move along, and don't forget to keep buying stuff.
Here's what I wrote in 2012, most of it still sadly relevant:
Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework. Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools. We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things. There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons. However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.
Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student. That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men. I hardly think the connection is coincidental. Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings. I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.
Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control. I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal. That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America. Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.
Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are. When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront, they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide. Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did.
The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well. Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill. We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill. They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in. Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home. While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.
We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives. These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed. When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst. We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions. We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks. Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.