“Lock the door, and throw away the key;
there’s someone in my head, and it’s not me.”
— Pink Floyd.
— “Dark Side of the Moon.”
Whenever a mass shooting occurs, it seems, there is always an immediate scramble to place it in some context.
Thus, Robert Long killed eight people in Atlanta last week because he hated Asians — or, alternatively, because he was a sex addict. Either way, it’s pretty much a moot point for the families of his victims.
Similarly, it seemed obvious that Dylann Roof murdered nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, because he hated black people. Omar Mateen shot up the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people because he hated gay people. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ambushed fellow students at Columbine High School because they had been bullied.
I have a theory about this, for what it’s worth.
In one sense, I think many of us find such motivations for violence somehow comforting. I’m not black, so Dylann Roof would not have shot me. I’m not gay, so Omar Mateen would have left me alone. Beyond that, the media often takes one of these awful events and tries to plug it into a larger social or political issue.
If Donald Trump didn’t make negative comments about Asians, non-Asian Americans wouldn’t have blamed China for COVID-19 and thus wouldn’t feel hostility toward Asians in general. Hence, an avenging Robert Long.
The thing is, the alternative to these logical assumptions is even scarier. What if there really is no context? What if being shot by one of these assailants from out of nowhere is simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
This is not to say that Dylann Roof didn’t really hate black people, or that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t having a bad high school experience. When you think about it, many people in this country are nursing a strong animosity toward some other group, and many of them have guns. Some of them have lots of guns. Nevertheless, we don’t have mass shootings every day.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not letting the NRA and our pervasive gun culture off the hook here. There’s no question that assault weapons are impractical for either home defense or deer hunting. Rather, they are essentially battlefield accessories, developed as an efficient way of killing other people. Whatever pleasure some assault rifle owners may get by blasting shooting-range targets with a hail of bullets should, logically, be trumped by the number of times these lethal machines have been wielded against innocent human targets.
Again, though, we may be kidding ourselves. As bad as they are, assault rifles have escaped the boundaries of common sense and proliferated. Even worse, there will always be gun dealers willing to sell them to anyone with a legitimate credit card.
Better background checks might help. Maybe. A little. Certainly, most of what we have now seems inadequate, to say the least. Many mass shooters have never been arrested for a violent crime and have never been proclaimed mentally ill in a clinical sense. So Ahmad Al Allwi Alissa, the presumed triggerman in yet another recent nightmare scene, this one at a supermarket in Boulder, CO, slipped right past the bureaucratic gatekeepers and bought an AR-15 just days before using it.
A clean record can be deceiving. Whatever that record may say, or not say, about them, any debate as to the sanity of someone who has perpetrated one of these crimes is ludicrous. I’m no psychiatrist, but walking into a public place and gunning down a group of random strangers is about as crazy as crazy gets.
We in the media don’t help, either. I wonder if it was just a coincidence that the Boulder shooter chose to express his homicidal anger only a week after all the blaring headlines about Atlanta. Some individuals are enticed and seduced by the opportunity to become nationally famous.
Easy-to-get assault weapons, over-the-top media attention, and a lack of political will on the part of our legislative bodies do, indeed, make for an unholy trinity.
So maybe we should forget about looking for context and meaning and focus on the randomness. The next victim list might include your child, your spouse, or yourself. We are told to take all sorts of precautions when out in public to protect ourselves from the COVID-19 virus, but how do you protect yourself against a maniac in the next supermarket aisle? The point is, this doesn’t always happen somewhere else, or in a big city. It is everybody’s problem, and it’s time we realize that it transcends politics.
Perhaps tornados would make a good analogy. These can be spawned by thunderstorms, which come and go all the time. Every so often, though, these normal spring and summer disturbances spit out something vicious and deadly. Unlike hurricanes, which have the decency to give us several days warning before their arrival, tornadoes usually emerge suddenly, often at night when everyone is sleeping.
The overwhelming odds say you will never be killed by a tornado — or by a mass shooter — but the possibility is still disquieting. To me, the creepiest of all mass shootings was the one in Las Vegas when a man named Stephen Paddock strafed a country music concert crowd with automatic weapons fire from a hotel window, killing 61. Where was the context there? Did he hate country music? Where were the so-called “red flags? He had none.
Killing someone out of anger — as in most workplace shootings — is perhaps understandable on some level. Opening fire on large groups of strangers isn’t.
And yet, there seems to be a commonality among these perpetrators. Most are described as “loners” and “kind of quiet.” A surprising number of them lived by themselves and, upon further examination, had led lives that left them feeling frustrated and defeated. Often, they found solace in the ravings of on-line cranks.
For this can be a cruel, highly competitive society we live in. It begins as soon as they start recording our school grades and comparing them to others. Later, we are often harshly judged by how we look (including skin color), how we talk, or where we live.
Bruce Springsteen put it well in his song “Atlantic City”: “It’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.”
Mass shooters tend to come from the wrong side, and maybe what truly motivates them is that desperate need for power. I’ve read quotes from convicted serial killers who say they became addicted to the godlike feeling of deciding who would live and who would die.
I hasten to add here that schizophrenia is a treatable condition, and most people who have it are not dangerous. In a few cases, however, it triggers a need to blame some other person or group for why they feel put down and threatened. Who they blame may simply depend upon the outside ideas to which they happen to be exposed.
So what’s the solution? Being nicer to each other?
That wouldn’t hurt, but more early intervention might be even more useful.
The “loners” and “quiet people” among us tend to fester off in corners, largely ignored. Perhaps we need to start paying more attention.
For our own good.
Darrell Laurant is a veteran journalist who previously worked at the News & Advance (Lynchburg). He published over 7,000 pieces in three decades. Darrell has covered papal visits, the Olympics, American sports, and political issues in Virginia. He has also written a variety of books, including "Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks that Helped Change America."