Tragedies to question, tragedies to ignore

When a white male shoots people, we ask why, but no explanations are needed when the killers are Muslim.

[Justin Sullivan/Getty]
Recent statistics show that there have been more than 350 mass shootings in the US this year alone [Reuters]

In December 2012, my three-year-old was enrolled in preschool, my eight-year-old at a neighbouring elementary school. I’d spent the autumn dropping them off in the morning against the brilliant backdrop of falling leaves, and with winter then upon us, the trees stood lined with enough frost to make it seem like it snowed overnight. The Indiana skies were the kind of grey that, when the sun tried to shine through, my older daughter would called it “the end of time”.

December 14 was the last day of school before the winter break. Like most American children, mine were terribly excited – they’d have a holiday party, eat cookies, and do little to no actual schoolwork. Like most parents, I was just as excited: I’d have my children at home for two weeks. I’d spoil them; I would sleep in late.

Except that isn’t quite what happened – certainly not for all of us parents and children in the United States, and in the end, not for any of us. On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza, a white 20-year-old with a history of mental illness, took his Bushmaster AR-15 rifle and killed 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. By mid-morning, every parent in the US was watching, reading and listening to the news in abject horror. We cried. We worried. When we went to pick up our children that afternoon, we did not tell them – not immediately – about these horrific murders. But we hugged them as though we would never let go.

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Charlotte Bacon, Daniel Barden, Rachel D’Avino, Olivia Engel, Josephine Gay, Ana Marquez-Greene, Dawn Hochsprung, Dylan Hockley, Madeleine Hsu, Catherine Hubbard, Chase Kowalski, Jesse Lewis, James Mattioli, Grace McDonnell, Anne Marie Murphy, Emilie Parker, Jack Pinto, Caroline Previdi, Noah Pozner, Avielle Richman, Jessica Rekos, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, Victoria Soto, Benjamin Wheeler, Allison Wyatt. Jack Pinto played baseball. Olivia Engel’s favourite stuffed animal was a lamb. Dylan Hockley loved jumping on the trampoline. Avielle Richman giggled when she was on horseback. Those shot were male and female. Black. White. Asian. Jewish. Italian.

The attacker, like 64 percent of mass shooters in the US, was a white male. So when our children went back to school, even as our districts and our school boards installed comprehensive security systems, even as our small children rehearsed extensive shooting drills, the country asked why. We walled ourselves off from tragedy, but we felt that it might also be explicable. We examined every part of Lanza’s life. We humanised this attacker. We recognised his now-dead mother’s exhaustive attempts to fix her broken child. We felt empathy – even sympathy – for both of them.

Even when we try to put tragedy in a neat little racial, ethnic box that would explain it, tragedy itself makes no distinctions.


In the years since, of course, my country has continued to stack up its grim, exhausting body count. There have been 161 school shootings since Sandy Hook. This year, though there have been only 338 days, there have been more than 350 mass shootings (with “mass shooting” defined as an attack in which four or more people are wounded). This week’s workplace shooting in San Bernardino, which claimed 14 lives and injured another 17, was the deadliest mass shooting since Sandy Hook. In fact, there were two other shootings that day, but you won’t hear much about them: It turns out a mass shooting no longer even makes the news here in the US unless there are more than a dozen people involved or a camera-ready police chase. 

But while we asked why when Adam Lanza shot 20 children under the age of eight; while we asked why when James Holmes fired on a theatre full of unsuspecting moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado; while we asked why even when Dylann Roof killed nine African American worshippers in their church as they prepared to have evening services, we did not ask the same kind of why when we found out the names – Tashfeen Malik, Syed Rizwan Farook – of the suspects in the San Bernardino shooters. 

Instead, we – the American consumers and producers of mainstream media, the denizens of Facebook and Twitter and our local editorial pages – asked other questions. We dehumanise shooters when they are not white. Even before we learned that Malik and Farook had 12 pipe bombs in their home and more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition, we made assumptions. We asked how long they had been in this country; whether they were, in fact, citizens; whether they had any “terrorist” ties.

We ignored the fact that James Holmes, the white male who sprayed gunfire in the Aurora theatre, also had more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition, an urban assault vest, a trip-wired, booby-trapped apartment full of explosives, and spike strips to thwart a possible police chase. We ignored the fact that so many signs pointed to this being a workplace dispute, and we jumped to the conclusion that this was terrorism. Not the garden-variety terrorism we Americans have inflicted upon ourselves over 300 times this year, but the sort of terrorism we tie to Muslim extremists; the sort of terrorism that has somehow come to define the word “terrorism”.

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Dylann Roof actually told us why he shot and killed nine people in a 2,444-word manifesto that he posted on his website. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet,” Roof wrote before the shooting. “Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that someone has to be me.”

Unlike the San Bernardino shooters, Roof was apprehended alive. The police took him to Burger King before they took him to jail. And still, Americans asked why. Where had this white male fallen off the deep end? How had his parents failed in raising him? How might we have averted the tragedy of this oh-so-human person gone wrong? 

The whiteness of this tragedy, we think, makes it ponderable. Unfathomable. Uncategorisable. The white male shooter, according to our racial cosmos, is humanised and, therefore, cannot be neatly tucked away into a box.

Meanwhile, the statistics themselves are questioned. Victims of colour are wholly discounted. Do we count gang violence in these mass shooting numbers? We ask: do we count shootings tied to domestic violence? Do we count all the murders in Chicago? We ask these questions as if they matter to the victims of these killings, and we virtually ignore the mass shootings that happen in minority communities, as if these populations do not deserve the same outrage. There have been six shootings at historically black colleges and universities this year, but these affairs, in the media, have been quiet ones – wholly, in our minds, explicable.

My family and I were in Morocco in June, but we saw on television the aftermath of the June 17 shootings that killed nine African American churchgoers and the June 26 shootings at the Tunisian Sousse resort that killed 38 tourists on holiday. By the time of the Sousse shootings, we had travelled to Agadir, a beachfront town often visited by foreigners, and the reality of Sousse became most vivid to us when we noticed increased security at the marina. I asked my older daughter whether she wasn’t made just a touch nervous by the sight of the gendarmes with their large firearms. She shrugged her shoulders, my weary 11-year-old. “I could be at home and be shot at school,” she said. “I could go to church and get killed.” She skipped off into the ocean, as if it were either a care she didn’t have or a care she had already considered and relegated to the inevitability of living.

The violence marches on. Isaac Amanios was killed in San Bernardino on Wednesday. So was Bennetta Betbadal. So were Harry Bowman, Aurora Godoy, Shannon Johnson, and Larry Kaufman. Robert Adams, Sierra Clayborn, Juan Espinoza, Damian Meins, Tin Nguyen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Michael Wetzel, and Yvette Velasco. Fourteen people of all ages, races, religions and ethnicities, gone – while we serve up questions based on the ethnic identities of the attackers.

We are American human beings, living in a racially coded society in which we try to create psychological and intellectual shortcuts where, in reality, none exist. Because even when we try to put tragedy in a neat little racial, ethnic box that would explain it, tragedy itself makes no distinctions.

Jacinda Townsend is the author of Saint Monkey (Norton, 2014), which is set in 1950’s Eastern Kentucky and won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. It was also the 2015 Honor Book of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, and was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and shortlisted for the Crook’s Corner Book Prize. She recently finished a novel called Kif.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera