We express our deepest condolences to the families of those who have perished in the latest instances of mass slaughter in our public square, this time in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. We further pray that all of those wounded recover from their injuries. This violence, which can increasingly be described as American as apple pie, is a tragic example of a society wrestling with a debilitating spiritual disease.
Just as tragic as the violence are the narrow, mutually exclusive frames that seem to trap our pundits, polemicists, and politicians when attempting to meaningfully analyze what is happening. Liberals declare the problem is rooted in racism, aided and abetted in part by the President’s rhetoric and actions, along with a lack of any meaningful gun control. Conservatives say it is an issue whose root cause is found in mental health, video games, and the erosion of the family. Each side dismisses the arguments of the other. If we are fair, we must admit that all of the above-mentioned factors, and perhaps others, contribute to the problem.
Anyone who dismisses the rhetoric and actions of President Trump as a factor contributing to the climate of racial and anti-immigrant animosity growing in this country cannot be taken seriously. Certainly not all of the now 251 mass shootings that have occurred in the country this year were racially motivated. For those that were, it is clear from the screeds left by the perpetrators of these atrocities, their online activity, the groups and individuals they identify with, as well as the warped ideology they espouse that there is an overlap between their words and ideas and many of those expressed by the President. That overlap is owed to a conscious policy pursued by President Trump.
The President understands that there are large numbers of radical White nationalists who, like many on the extreme left, have become disenchanted with mainstream politics as well as the two mainstream parties. He knows that they can be encouraged to become supporters of the Republican Party if the Republican Party supports them. Encouraged by the likes of Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, Trump sends messages to this growing constituency to ensure that issues concerning them will be represented by his administration. Hence, rhetoric and policy prescriptions formerly confined to the dark dungeons of the internet have become mainstreamed under the current administration.
It is not the least ironic that the very day of the El Paso shooting, President Trump retweeted a message from the fear-mongering, hate-inspiring, British anti-Muslim bigot, Katie Hopkins. Among other things, Hopkins, has called for a “final solution” for Muslims in the aftermath of the suicide bombing of a Manchester pop concert in 2017. This past May, when an audience member at one of his rallies shouted, “shoot them” in response to Trump’s question as to how to stop migrants from entering the country, the President joked approvingly. His effort to end birth right citizenship and his staunch support of voter suppression, both designed to undermine the growing political strength of expanding minority populations, can only be described as racially motivated.
Such actions, coupled with the President’s words decrying immigrant populations as rapists, murderers, and invaders, calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country, his praise and support for white nationalists, both nationally and globally, his describing countries the US has historically helped to under-develop, such as Haiti, as s—t hole countries and a long list of other open and “dog-whistle” racist statements send a clear message to racists that bigoted hatred is not only fine, it has an ally in the White House.
Many failed to grasp Trump’s racism because they do not fully realize its nature. The brilliant African American novelist, Toni Morrison, who passed away earlier this week, captured the essence of racism when she said, “Racism is not a goal it is a path, a path to power and money, a manipulation and a tool…” Throughout his career and now as President this is exactly what Trump’s racism is and has been.
While it would certainly be a stretch to claim that Trump’s words are directly responsible for the actions of white supremacist terrorists, it is increasingly incredulous to claim that the President’s rhetoric is not a factor in massacres such as the recent one in El Paso. Words convey meanings and those meanings matter. Consider this recent excerpt from a letter penned by the leaders of the National Cathedral:
Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous. These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.
It is similarly incredulous to claim that significantly tighter gun control policies, such as strict background checks, bans on assault rifles and large-capacity magazines, would do nothing to stem the growing frequency of deadly mass shootings in America. In response to a shooting that left 35 people dead in Tasmania in 1996, Australia overhauled its gun laws, significantly tightening them. Since then, there has only been one mass shooting in that country, in June of this year. That incident resulted in four fatalities.
Critics of more stringent gun laws will argue that states here in America with tight gun laws do not necessarily experience fewer gun-related fatalities than those with lax laws. I would counter that a uniform national plan would yield significantly different results. What does it mean for California to have tough gun laws when a potential killer can go to Nevada and purchase a weapon banned in California–as happened last month with the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooter.
A seldom-discussed issue is the fact that there was an assault rifle ban in the United States for ten years, from 1994-2004. During that period, overall gun-related homicides were not significantly reduced; however, a recent study (DiMaggio, et al. 2019) concludes that mass shooting fatalities, 86% of which involve assault rifles, were down 70%. That percentage would likely have been much higher had it been accompanied by an effort to get rifles purchased before the ban off the street. It is time for more conservatives to listen to the voices of those on the left who advocate such policies.
So too would those on the left do well to listen to conservatives who are arguing that video games are a major factor in desensitizing young people to killing. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read Lt. David Grossman’s insightful book, On Killing. During World War II, only fifteen to twenty percent of American soldiers engaged in combat would fire their weapons at the enemy. Grossman shows how insights from behavioral psychology, derived primarily from the work of B. F. Skinner and I.P. Pavlov, were employed by the military to raise the firing rate to over 90% in Vietnam. Video game manufacturers employ those same techniques to create in our children the potential to likewise become desensitized killers.
Grossman writes these chilling words, words which should cause us to drop our polarizing political posturing and come together for the sake of our children:
Through operative conditioning B.F. Skinner held that he could turn any child into anything he wanted to. In Vietnam the U.S. armed forces demonstrated that Skinner was at least partially correct by successfully using operant conditioning to turn adolescents into the most effective fighting force the world has ever seen. And America seems intent on using Skinner’s methodology to turn us into an extraordinarily violent society (Grossman, On Killing, p. 316).
We should note that the same psychological techniques employed by the military to turn passive civilians into mindless killers are employed by the makers of video games. While it is certainly true that not all video gamers become mass murderers many if not most of our recent mass shooters have been video game addicts. More research has to been done to establish if there is a direct causal link between video games and mass killings, however, there is enough evidence to suggest that this is an issue not to be glibly dismissed when we examine the causes of the epidemic of mass killings sweeping this nation.
As for mental illness, studies show that the majority of mass shooters, for a wide variety of reasons, suffer from some form of mental illness, the most common being depression, suicidality, and various thought disorders. This is a sensitive issue; however, it is one that must be actively countenanced for this is the area where we find the most easily detectible “red flags” which alert us to the descent of a person into the dark states that give birth to the kinds of atrocities we have been witnessing all too often. Saying this is not to deny the fact that a person suffering from a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator.
Concerning the breakdown of the family, this factor is oftentimes neglected in the intensifying debate around mass shootings. The most worrying consequence of that breakdown is the eradication of the societal forces that civilize males. Those forces are eroding in the face of a withering assault on the traditional family. One of the justifications for that assault is that the traditional family is currently being blamed for fostering the qualities associated with “toxic masculinity.” Therefore, it has to be destroyed. In fact, masculine toxicity, as defined by those advocating its eradication, can be viewed as a direct result of the unrelenting assault on the traditional family.
That assault is being pushed by those whose stated goal is the destruction of society as we know it. Consider these words by the pioneering feminist activist, Betty Friedan:
The changes necessary to bring about equality were, and still are, very revolutionary indeed. They involve a sex-role revolution for men and women which will restructure all our institutions: child rearing, education, marriage, the family, medicine, work, politics, the economy, religion, psychological theory, human sexuality, morality and the very evolution of the race. (quoted from, New York Times Magazine, March 4, 1973)
In the almost forty years since Friedan issued this declaration of war on the traditional family and society, the forces she helped to lead have wreaked havoc in all of the areas she identified. Perhaps the most worrying reality concerning the war she declared is that those who have assumed leadership after her generation ceded command are exponentially more radical and reckless in their vision for society and gender relations.
The greatest casualty in this war, by design, has been the properly socialized male. By removing the male from his traditional role of a protector and maintainer of women, a role codified in the Qur’an (4:34), we open the door to the uncivilized, barbaric, “toxic” male, adding another factor to the many conditions which make mass shootings possible.
In the prescient words of George Gilder:
Such single males–and married ones whose socialization fails–constitute our major social problem. They are the murderers, the rapists, the burglars, the suicides, the assailants, the psychopaths… (George Gilder, Sexual Suicide, p. 105)
Hence, we find that virtually all of our recent mass shooters have been males who were unable to affirm their sexuality in normal ways through normal relationships. Like all of the other factors mentioned above, as a society, we will have to address this factor also, no matter how unpopular or controversial.
In conclusion, let me repeat, all of the above factors contribute to the uniquely American problem of mass shootings. To effectively begin to work towards eliminating them, we will need to remove ourselves from the left/right false dichotomy that limits our creativity, civility, and intellectual honesty. That should be easy for members of the “Middle Community.” Our primary objective in how we approach the vexing issues of today should be finding credible solutions and not confirming dead end political orthodoxies. Those solutions do not belong exclusively to the political party advocating them. Let us put aside the stultifying partisan nonsense tearing us apart, claim what is rightfully ours, and put it to work for the betterment of our society.
“The word of truth, wisdom, is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds them he has more right to them.”
Imam Zaid Shakir