Copyright © 2019 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Wednesday, August 14 was going to be the evening I finished writing an article I’d begun the previous weekend after America’s three most recent mass shooting events: the July 28 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in northern California, killing three people; the massacre of 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas on August 3 and, just a day later, nine more in a bar district in Dayton, Ohio. That was before 1:30 p.m. Pacific time — 4:30 p.m. East Coast time — there was yet another mass shooting with the AK-47, a military-grade assault rifle which, along with the similar AR-15, has become the weapon of choice for mass murderers everywhere. This time it was in Philadelphia, near Temple University, and the gunman was attempting to block police enforcement of a drug-related search order.
According to news reports during the day, the suspect barricaded himself inside the house that was the target of the search warrant and shot at least six police officers during a standoff lasting over an hour. The officers were wounded, but mercifully none were killed. Eventually the cops got their own people out as well as the other three civilians in the house. According to sources, the suspect live-streamed part of the incident, as if part of the sickness that was making him do this was to get himself behaving bestially on TV — as if this were something to be proud of.
I had settled on the title “Mass Shootings and the National Rorschach” to make the point that every time there’s a major incident in the U.S. involving guns being used to shoot large numbers of people in a very short time, the bare facts serve like the ink blots in the famous psychological test. People see whatever images they want to see in the ink blots, and the psychologists giving the tests use those responses to gauge how these people think and what, if anything, might be wrong with them from the standpoint of mental health. Likewise, mass shootings evoke Rorschach-like responses from people on both sides of America’s ever more divided politics.
Progressives and Leftists hear about them and say we need more regulation about who in this country can own guns, and what sort of guns they can own. Rightists, ranging from America’s dwindling number of thoughtful, intelligent conservatives to the radical reactionary revolutionaries that have largely taken their place, say that the real causes are a climate of moral “permissiveness,” a legacy of the 1960’s counterculture; limits we’ve placed on the ability of the police to protect us without being second-guessed; the abandonment of “traditional moral values” by the urban intelligentsia; and the decline of faith in God (one former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee argued seriously: see https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-09/op-ed-guns-and-god-disproving-the-huckabee-hypothesis for a withering rebuttal).
I got a good dose of the national Rorschach the mass shootings have become when the Philadelphia hostage situation was being discussed earlier tonight on Fox News. I was watching Fox News because at least they were talking about it — CNN and MS-NBC were doing their usual stale programming about the Trump Administration scandals and the political dead and rotting horse that is the Robert Mueller report. I was in the middle of the Sean Hannity show and I heard Hannity and Geraldo Rivera (whom I can remember from the early 1970’s when he was a self-proclaimed progressive hanging out with people like John Lennon) insist that because the Philadelphia shooter had been a criminal, he had almost certainly not bought his AR-15 legally and therefore a background check of the kind being described in Washington, D.C. wouldn’t have stopped him from acquiring the weapon. (But then how did the person who sold it to him — or whom he stole it from — get it?)
Hannity played a couple of clips from other networks, including Senators (and Democratic Presidential candidates) Kamala Harris from CNN and Cory Booker from MS-NBC, demanding sane restrictions on Americans’ ability to obtain guns. Then he and Rivera lampooned the comments, saying that it was the height of irresponsibility to use the Philadelphia incident to make a political point when the suspect was still barricaded inside the house and the brave, courageous police were still trying to get him out, hopefully alive to stand trial instead of on a stretcher with a sheet over his head. (Rivera sounded particularly bloodthirsty when he said he’d want to kill the suspect personally.)
Then, after criticizing two vaguely Leftist Democratic Senators for trying to make political points off the Philadelphia shooting, Hannity and Rivera proceeded to make political points off the Philadelphia shooting. They said that it was all the fault of Democratic politicians and African-American “Black Lives Matter” for mounting campaigns against police officers in places like Ferguson, Missouri and thereby leaving police officers gun-shy and unable to do their jobs properly for fear that they’ll be second-guessed by investigating committees and review boards, and maybe even prosecuted.
They trotted out former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who served while Rudolph Giuliani was Mayor, to defend the constitutionally dubious anti-crime measures they implemented during Giuliani’s mayoralty. Kerik’s message seemed to be that if you want a low crime rate in a major city, you have to treat all African-Americans and Latinos as potential criminals subject to “stop-and-frisk” policies whereby they could be pulled over and searched on the street at a police officer’s whim, never mind all that wimpy stuff in the Constitution about “probable cause.” And they also leveled a few racist attacks, obviously inspired by President Donald Trump’s vicious tweets about Chicago and Baltimore, about how Black mayors and city governments have ruined one great American city after another and left them rat-, rodent- and crime-infested hellholes now that the great auto and steel factories that once gave them thriving economies have closed.
Never mind that America’s auto and steel companies have closed because the CEO’s of the corporations that owned them decided, purely to make more profits, that they’d be better off making their stuff in low-wage countries like Mexico or China (or, increasingly, even lower-wage countries like Bangladesh or Viet Nam). And never mind, also, that Bernard Kerik, presented on Fox News as the very model of a modern aggressive crime-fighter, is himself a criminal. In 2010 he accepted a plea bargain in a case accusing him of eight federal felonies, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials.
“Federal prosecutors had denounced Mr. Kerik, a former police detective who rose to the upper echelons of power, as a corrupt official who sought to trade his authority for lavish benefits,” wrote New York Times reporter Sam Dolnick in a story published February 19, 2010 (https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/19/nyregion/19kerik.html). “He pleaded guilty on the eve of his trial in November.” But, apparently willing to let bygones be bygones, Sean Hannity and his producers at Fox News nonetheless presented this convicted criminal as an authority on fighting crime in general and keeping our cities safe from mad gunmen in particular.
Government Inaction Gives Shooters Permission
I’ve got the sense that every time one of these incidents happens I’ve thought, and often written, the same thoughts all too many times before after similar mass shootings — Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado; a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut; a military academy in Virginia Beach, Virginia; a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina; a Gay disco in Orlando, Florida; a country-music festival in Las Vegas; a Congressional baseball-game practice in Washington, D.C.; a high school in Parkland, Florida; a Jewish synagogue (with an elderly congregation that included survivors of the Nazi Holocaust) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and no doubt others I’m not recalling at the moment — and I’m wondering what there is left to say.
Oh sure, there’s the obvious: we’re sorry these things happen. We’re sorry for the people killed and what they had done, or could have done, with their lives if they hadn’t been struck down before nature (or God, if you will) was ready to take them. We’re sorry for the wounded people and we hope they have good enough medical insurance to cover the costs of their ongoing health-care needs from having been shot. We’re sorry for the victims’ relatives and their significant others who will be left behind and face ongoing sorrow from the absence of a loved one who should still be there, and won’t be.
When I wrote about the Pittsburgh shooting I structured my piece as a series of diatribes dismissing all the fashionable explanations, excuses and pretexts for this sort of violence and cut to what I thought — and still think — is the core issue: too many guns. I wrote a piece in sheer visceral anger in which every other paragraph read, in italics, “We need to get rid of the goddamned guns.” We can argue all we want to about what the motives of each individual shooter in each individual case — including their politics, if they had any, or if the internal demons that shaped their actions included allegiance to a political cause, Right or Left. But that doesn’t take away from the central issue.
The central issue is this: We, the citizens of the United States of America, have given official permission for individuals to commit mass shootings. That doesn’t mean that we won’t punish these people, either by arresting them or killing them ourselves through our representatives in law enforcement. But by our abject failure to legislate any sensible regulations on who can own guns in this country — including allowing just about anyone to have military-grade assault weapons or high-capacity magazines when there is absolutely no legitimate sporting or self-defense reason for individuals outside the military or law enforcement to own them — and our subcontracting our nation’s firearms policy to the National Rifle Association (NRA), we have essentially given a whole bunch of crazies not only incredibly easy access to guns but also a kind of social permission that says, “Mass shootings are a price we have to pay for our Second Amendment freedoms.”
As I’ve said in these pages when previous mass shootings have occurred in the U.S., a country that refuses to protect its citizens and residents (documented or otherwise) from mass shootings — i.e., from domestic terrorism — is a country that has forfeited its right to call itself “civilized.” The U.S. at all political levels has so totally abdicated its responsibility to protect its people from gun violence that those of us interested in ensuring the survival of ourselves and our loved ones are in the pathetic position of having to plead with the powers-that-be at the NRA and the politicians they have bought and paid for to let us have some little scrap of attention, like background checks on gun purchasers and so-called “red-flag” laws allowing police to take guns away from the mentally ill.
President Trump, elected with the staunch political and financial support ($30 million) of the NRA, timidly proposed “meaningful background checks” in the wake of El Paso and Dayton. And, like a Roman emperor of old deciding which gladiators got to live or die, NRA executive director Wayne La Pierre put his thumbs down and thereby condemned us to more years of inaction that gives people blanket permission to commit mass shootings.
Living in a War Zone 24/7
The scariest thing I saw on TV in the wake of the El Paso shooting (when this segment was shown the Dayton shooting hadn’t happened yet) was a CNN interview with a retired FBI officer, James Hamilton, who now works for the Gavin de Becker private security firm and has apparently recently published a book on how you can avoid being the victim of a mass shooting if you’re unlucky enough to be where one is taking place. The basic advice he was giving is the sensible “Run, Hide, Fight” — in that order — warning already given as policy by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Usually you’re supposed to “Run, Hide, Fight” in that order — run if you can, hide if you have to, fight only as a last resort — but, as Hamilton explained to Zahra Barnes of the Self.com Web site in a March 2018 interview (https://www.self.com/story/what-to-do-mass-shooting), mass shootings aren’t predictable, so your response can’t be either. “It happens so quickly and with such fluidity,” Hamilton told Barnes. “You need to make the choice based on what you’re seeing and where you are.”
Hamilton continued, “What can really help people to not freeze is going through mental rehearsal. If I hear gunfire or what I believe to be gunfire, where is my nearest exit? Plan it out in your mind. The one resource you will not have any of [in a mass shooting] is time. You have to not waste it.” He’s right — especially about time being the one resource you won’t have any of; it’s well established that most of the people who get killed or wounded in a mass shooting are struck down in the first five to 10 minutes, before people have had the chance to call the police and the cops have had the chance to get there.
But it’s also a sad commentary on what modern life has become, especially with the NRA basically in control of U.S. policy towards guns. that Hamilton and other experts with law-enforcement experience are basically telling Americans they need to learn to live in a war zone 24/7. They’re saying that the attack could come any time, so you’d better be psyched for it the next time you go to a restaurant, bar, movie theatre, public park or shopping mall. You need to do “mental rehearsal” much the way a soldier has to do when faced with an enemy shooting at him or her — and you have to do it for a situation that has a lot more surprise elements than a battle.
James Hamilton and his colleagues are basically telling Americans that they are in an urban street battle 24/7, and that every time they go out they need to be aware of that and be ready to respond in ways that will save their lives. The nation isn’t going to protect you, he says, so you’d better be ready to protect themselves. Law enforcement officers across the country have acted heroically when mass shootings have occurred, and sometimes at great risk to themselves they’ve been able to capture the shooters alive instead of killing them or letting them kill themselves. But they’ve also complained that at times they feel “outgunned” because the service revolvers they patrol the streets with — or even the rifles they can be issued when they have to respond to a mass shooting — aren’t a match for the military-grade assault weapons the shooters have.
Ideological Battles Over the Shooters’ Minds
Few aspects of the mass shooting stories have illustrated the Rorschach-like aspects of the events more than the public discussions of the shooters’ political or ideological motivations. Progressives and Leftists seized on the online manifesto published on a far-Right Web site 27 minutes before the attack, which police are “reasonably confident” was written by the alleged shooter, 21-year-old Patrick Wood Crusius. Not that we were allowed actually to read the manifesto ourselves: with a prissy self-censorship that forbade mention of Crusius’s name on the ground that it would only give him what he presumably wanted — publicity for himself and his ideas — the mainstream media have refused to link to Crusius’s manifesto and even challenged his right to call it that, on the ground that almost no one had heard of him when he published it online. (But then almost no one had heard of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels when they published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, either.)
The Wikipedia page on the El Paso shooting (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2019_El_Paso_shooting) discusses the manifesto and offers brief quotes from it which certainly make it sound like the work of a writer either convinced by President Trump’s slashing attacks on immigrants and U.S. people of color to target Hispanics or having similar convictions that, as the manifesto writer him/herself claims, “predate Trump.” Crusius is reported to have driven all the way across the east-west expanse of Texas from his home in Allen at the east end of the state to El Paso in its southwest to target a town on the U.S.-Mexico border, and he reportedly admitted to police when they arrested him that he was the shooter and he was specifically targeting “Mexicans.” Here’s what Wikipedia had to say about the manifesto:
The manifesto promotes the white nationalist and far-right conspiracy theory of The Great Replacement [the idea that, by having more children than whites Jews and people of color are seeking to “replace” whites as the dominant voices in the political system]. The New York Times characterized the manifesto as racially extremist, noting the passage: “Hispanics will take control of the local and state government of my beloved Texas, changing policy to better suit their needs.” It states that Hispanics and their intermarriage with whites would cause the loss of purity of race. It criticizes strict gun control laws in Europe, arguing these would make them unable to “repel” immigrants.
It criticizes both the Democratic Party and Republican Party, saying that their politicians are either complacent or involved in the “takeover of the United States government by unchecked corporations.” However, the manifesto states that “at least with Republicans, the process of mass immigration and citizenship can be greatly reduced.” It warns that “heavy Hispanic population in Texas will make us a Democrat stronghold.” It also states that the Democratic Party’s appeal to an increasing number of Hispanics in the country would ultimately ensure Democratic Party dominance in the United States, a theory that has been promoted on right-wing radio shows. According to the document, the attack was meant to provide an “incentive” for Hispanics to “return to their home countries”, thus dissolving “the Hispanic voting bloc” in the United States.
Much of the racism in general and attacks on Hispanics in particular sounds like Trump, particularly the President’s repeated references in his speeches and tweets to the influx of Latino immigrants into the U.S. as an “invasion” and his demands for severe restrictions on the number of legal immigrants to the U.S. and a switch to a so-called “merit-based” immigration system that would benefit whites and Asians and disadvantage Blacks and Latinos. But on least one key point — the human race’s relationship to the environment — the manifesto’s author takes a position almost diametrically opposed to Trump’s.
Not only is the manifesto called The Inconvenient Truth — a ripoff of An Inconvenient Truth, former vice-president Al Gore’s book and documentary film warning of the threat human-caused climate change (which Trump has famously denied is happening at all) poses to human survival — but it contains some very strongly worded environmentalist passages, which were referenced in this passage from an earlier version of the Wikipedia page on the El Paso shootings that doesn’t appear on the current one:
The manifesto also promotes environmentalism, attacking corporatism and imperialism. It states that “our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country. … Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources.” It cites The Lorax by Dr. Seuss as a “brilliant” portrayal of this.
The document attacks corporations not only in the context of the environment, but in general, including a claim that they like immigration. The reason the government is unwilling to fix the various problems outlines is that they’re owned by the corporations, the document states. It claims that they should be forced to see that Americans will not tolerate their excesses. It also attacks imperialistic wars. It does laud automation, though, as a means of replacing immigrant jobs.
Assuming that the manifesto is the work of the El Paso shooter and it honestly portrays his motives, he was inspired not only by Right-wing causes like racism and white supremacism but also by Left-wing causes like environmentalism and anti-corporatism. Indeed, Left-wing environmentalist writer Natasha Lennard was moved enough by the environmentalist passages in the manifesto that she wrote her own response on the Web site The Intercept (https://theintercept.com/2019/08/05/el-paso-shooting-eco-fascism-migration/), noting that the man who shot up a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand — whom the manifesto cited as an inspiration — called himself an “eco-fascist” and wrote in his own manifesto that “there is no nationalism without environmentalism.” Lennard continued:
Against the perilous climate change denialism typical of U.S. conservatives, environmental decimation is broadly seen as a liberal and left concern. But eco-fascism has seen a notable re-emergence among far-right groups and festering corners online in the U.S. and Europe. While campaigning for the European elections, Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally party promised to make the “first ecological civilization” of a “Europe of nations,” claiming that “nomadic” people with “no homeland” do not care about the environment. Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer wrote in a 2017 manifesto, “We have the potential to become nature’s steward or its destroyer.”
And if the El Paso shooter’s stated motives were a mix of Right and Left causes, the shooter in Dayton, Connor Betts — who didn’t leave behind a manifesto and died in the massacre — left behind social-media posts that suggested his motives were Leftist politics. He retweeted someone else’s nasty post about former vice-president and current Democratic Presidential front-runner Joseph Biden, saying, “Millennials have a message for the Joe Biden generation: hurry up and die.” Betts also retweeted messages supporting Biden’s two most Left-wing rivals for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (It apparently didn’t occur to him that Sanders, Warren, Biden and Trump are all part of the same generation.)
Though the Dayton shooter’s Left-leaning retweets were reported August 8 by CNN (https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/05/us/connor-betts-dayton-shooting-profile/index.html), that hasn’t stopped Right-wing media outlets from attacking the so-called “liberal media” from covering them up in an attempt to create a master narrative that the current mass shootings are all motivated by white supremacy and inspired by Trump.
There’s certainly evidence to argue that Trump’s election has motivated white-supremacist political activism, including violence. While white-supremacist hate crimes usually go up when a Democrat is President and down when a Republican is President, they’ve risen under Trump. But it’s clear the mass murderers in El Paso and Dayton, if they had political motivations at all, were inspired by a rag-bag of causes that don’t fit neatly into the usual “Rlght” and “Left” categories.
Go Into People’s Homes and Take Away Their Guns!
And, as I argued after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, it really doesn’t matter what the motivations for each individual shooting are. Even when it’s obvious what a shooter’s motives are — as it was in Pittsburgh, where the killer showed his colors by targeting a synagogue with a largely elderly congregation, including Holocaust survivors — it’s less important to determine the individual shooter’s reasons for acting than to address the real problem: there are too many guns in the U.S.
Not only are there too many guns in the U.S., there is also a history of this country’s politics and culture endorsing the idea that the way to solve political and social problems is to kill people. While it’s almost never possible to say a specific shooter was motivated by a specific movie, TV show or video game, American culture in general promotes the idea that violence is the way issues get resolved. The El Paso and Dayton shootings took place on a weekend in which one of the most popular movies in American theatres was Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, an historical fantasy in which [spoiler alert!] two over-the-hill movie cowboys slaughter Charles Manson and his gang of crazies before they have a chance to murder Sharon Tate and her friends.
America has sold the world the idea that violence is the ultimate solution to any social evil. We’ve not only created the mass shooting incident but we’ve exported it, like many of our most violent movies, TV shows and video games, to the rest of the world — including countries like Norway and New Zealand whose citizens never thought that someday they’d have to deal with this kind of shit.
America puts its governmental money where its cultural mouth is by spending more on its military than the next 25 countries in the world combined, and by maintaining a network of military bases throughout the world, always protected by the doctrine of “extraterritoriality.” That means that if a U.S. servicemember commits a crime while stationed in a foreign country, that country has no jurisdiction and therefore no right to punish the U.S. servicemember for that crime.
We have a lot to do if we want to put an end to the scourge of mass shootings America’s lax policy towards firearms and cultural glorification of violence has loosed on our country — and, increasingly, on the entire world. First, there needs to be an outright, permanent, total ban on AR-15’s, AK-47’s and other weapons of mass slaughter. If that means going into people’s homes and forcibly taking their guns away, so be it.
These weapons have only one purpose — the killing of large numbers of humans in a short period of time — and there is no earthly reason any private citizen should be allowed to own one. We banned private ownership of machine guns in the 1920’s; we can ban assault weapons now if we can summon the political courage to do so and the determination to outvote the NRA and their zombie minions.
There also needs to be a sweeping change in America’s culture industry. Many of the people who run or work in it claim to be “liberals,” but they’re putting out movie after movie, TV show after TV show, and video game after video game, that sells the world the message that the way you solve social problems is with guns and bullets. It’s time for our culture-makers to start telling stories that exalt peace and diplomacy, not war and violence.
America is a nation that began with a hard heart. For all our noble, shimmering ideals of liberty and equality, we built our country on a genocidal war against its Native population and on the forced labor of Africans kidnapped and owned as slaves. Indeed, activist and professor Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argued in a Monthly Review article and her 2018 book Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment that the purposes of those “well-regulated militias” referenced in the Second Amendment was to resist any attempts by Native Americans to reconquer their land, and to recapture fugitive slaves and return them to their bondmasters.
The history of our country is one torn between our nobly expressed ideals of freedom and justice for all and the dirty, disgusting ways we’ve oppressed and exploited people. Our ongoing national affair with guns is an example of our oppressive side, a souvenir of the dirty work we felt we “had” to do to secure this country for a white majority.
Now that demographics — particularly the rising percentages of Americans who are people of color, either via immigration or differences in birth rates — are jeopardizing white Americans’ status as the majority population, we’re seeing Americans react in various toxic ways. The less violent among them acted by electing Donald Trump on a quite explicitly stated platform to “Make America Great Again” by making America majority-white again.
While not all the mass shooters recently active in the U.S. have expressed a white supremacist ideology — or, indeed, any particular ideology at all — the ease with which they can get high-powered firearms with which to commit their massacres is a legacy of white America’s historical determination to retain its dominance. Just as you can’t treat a disease successfully if you only treat its symptoms and don’t address its underlying cause, so you can’t treat the social disease of mass shootings without addressing the pathology of America’s relationship with firearms and its generations of glorification of their use.