On November 5th, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Devin Patrick Kelley, a young man with a history of abusive behavior towards women, children, and animals, killed seven percent of the town that had gathered in a church to pray to their god. It was one of many mass killings in the United States in the post-Vietnam War period.
In the aftermath, many on the left immediately exploited Kelley’s actions to push a perception—now several years in the making, continually reinforced with each illustrative case—that mass shooting by white men is the “real problem” but alas that the real problem is rationalized by the mainstream media and its audience as “mental illness” because “white privilege.”
At the same time, unfairly in their eyes, mass shooting by nonwhites, typically rendered as “Muslim,” is uniformly defined as “terrorism.” Their complaint is that perceptions of the perpetrators of mass shootings are driven by a racist double standard. Murder by whites is rationalized while non-white killers are held accountable with motives revealed.
Consider the following headlines, mostly written before Sutherland Springs: The Huffington Post (6.23.2017), “Most of America’s Terrorists are White, and Not Muslim”; Vox (10.2.2017), “White American men are a bigger domestic terrorist threat than Muslim foreigners”; Salon (11.1.2013), “Why is it always a white guy? The roots of modern, violent rage”; Newsweek (10.2.2017): “White Men Have Committed More Mass Shootings Than Any Other Group.” Even Teen Vogue (5.9.2017) joined the chorus of headlines: “White Male Terrorists are an Issue We Should Discuss” (except, of course, if the white male terrorist is Muslim).
Take the Salon piece, excerpted from Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. All is not well, Kimmel opines: “There’s a mounting anger underneath those perfectly manicured lawns, and it erupts like small volcanoes in our homes, in our corporate offices, and on those peaceful suburban streets themselves.” The threat is not from Muslims, a downtrodden racial minority, but from white Christian males. The message to the majority white population: a mass murder could be living in your idyllic white-bread neighborhood.
This line of thinking has generated a seemingly endless stream of memes, epitomized, for example, by the image of a hand holding a paint chip sampler to Kelley’s face, with the light end of the chips indicating mental illness and the darker end of the chips indicating terrorism. “Guess which one Kelley’s is?” we’re to ask ourselves. The meme is reusable. Here’s the meme using Stephen Paddock as the embodiment of white male threat:
We’re being invited to view mass shootings through the lens of race, but not in the expected way. First, the goal is to put in the population a reflex that sees coverage of violence as intrinsically racist. The campaign racializes a religion (Islam) to cover the range of mass killing in order to deny its ideological character at one end. You’re not to notice that Muslim terrorists kill for religiously-inspired political reasons. That might lead the public to worry about the spread of Islam in society. You are to worry about white non-Muslim males (remember, by their definition, Muslims are not white).
The epitome of this approach is Naaz Modan’s “How America has Silently Accepted the Rage of White Men,” an op-ed, published by CNN, written on the occasion of the Las Vegas massacre perpetrated by Stephen Paddock, who, on October 1, 2017, killed 58 people and wounded 422 others.
Modan writes: “Mass shootings are a violent epidemic that have been met with fatal passivity for far too long. If mass shootings were perpetrated mostly by brown bodies, this would quickly be reframed and reformed as an immigration issue. If thousands died at the hands of black men, it would be used to excuse police brutality, minimize the Black Lives Matter movement and exacerbate the ‘raging black man’ stereotype. If mass shooters identified as Muslim, it would quickly become terrorism and catalyze defense and security expenditures. But because the shooter is white, it is downplayed, ignored, and nothing is done about it.”
The facts disprove Modan’s claim.
Let’s define mass shooting as a perpetrator, using a gun, killing four or more victims at a public location during a 24-hour period. This is a standard definition.
Consider that the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in the US population is 63 percent. With white Hispanics included, it’s 72 percent. Populations are approximately equal dividing between male and female. Non-Hispanic white men make up between 54 and 63 percent of mass shootings. It follows that whites males overall are either underrepresented in mass shootings or their representation in mass shootings excluding white Hispanics is proportional to their demographic numbers. The claim that whites are overrepresented in mass shootings is false.
Consider also that 30 percent of Muslims in the US are white, a group comprising the largest plurality of Muslims in the country. That means that among the non-Hispanic whites, there are a significant number of Muslims, and it is, in fact, these white Muslims who have committed some of the worst mass murders. Yet when explanations are sought in Muslim-perpetrated mass shootings, one risks being smears as a racist or an Islamophobe. (Ironically, those who want to make white people out to be the bad guys miss an opportunity by excluding Muslims from the white demographic statistics.)
Moreover, the claim that whites are falsely excused by mental illness is betrayed by research conducted by Grant Duwe who compiled an exhaustive set of numbers for mass public shootings, identifying 160 cases between 1915-2013. Of those, 97 involved shooters who had either been diagnosed with a serious mental illness or showed signs of one. “The 61% is actually a minimum estimate,” writes Duwe. (See Mass Murder in the United States: A History.)
* * *
When Maas Modan writes, “If thousands died at the hands of black men, it would be used to excuse police brutality, minimize the Black Lives Matter movement and exacerbate the ‘raging black man’ stereotype,” one has to wonder on what planet she lives on and whether facts matter on that planet.
In 2015, there was an estimated 15,696 murders in the United States. Half of them were perpetrated by black men. The fact is that thousands do die at the hands of black men. Does Modan believe their blackness had anything to do with it? (For the record, I don’t. Structural inequality and a culture of violence are responsible for the plight of major cities, such as Baltimore, St. Louis, and New Orleans.)
On May 31, 2019, DeWayne Craddock killed twelve people at a Virginia Beach municipal building. Nothing was made of Craddock’s race in the media. There was no onslaught of articles suggesting a lack of caution in previous explanations of mass shootings. Craddock’s actions quickly faded from public view.
“If mass shooters identified as Muslim, it would quickly become terrorism and catalyze defense and security expenditures.” Muslims have killed scores of Americans (and Europeans) while screaming “God is great!” and pledging allegiance to terrorist organizations. Are we supposed to pretend that Islamic terrorism isn’t a problem? That we shouldn’t do something about it? That we should change the subject? Why do leftwingers like Modan want to change the subject or confuse the public?
Despite being factually wrong, the ideological effort to make a despised demographic category responsible for mass murder distracts the public from focusing on the real cause of mass murder.
One major source of mass murder is the desire for patriarchal violence generated by faith in the Abrahamic tradition, primary Christianity and Islam, which, globally, comprise 3.8 billion people (more than half of the world’s population). Christianity and Islam are drivers in a culture of masculinity and attendant heterosexism that engenders the subordination of women to men, advocates the use of violence against women, and fuels the persecution of gays.
Although the vast majority of men who assault their wives and families do not perpetrate mass shootings or terrorist actions, nor do all mass shooters and terrorists have a history of assaulting their wives and families, an association between the two is highly probable and there is empirical support for the relationship between worldview and violence. Patriarchal religions tend to sanction child abuse. Both Christianity and Islam advocate beating children. Islam advocates the strict subordination of women to men. In Islam, this includes formal instruction to beat disobedience wives.
A worldview condoning violence against women and children lies behind blowing up women and girls at a concert (Abedi) and massacring gays at a nightclub (Mateen), shooting children at a school (Lanza), and a church (Kelley). Moreover, in a culture of violence, where guns are fetishized and tied to masculinity, violence and abuse are more likely.
These factors do not exhaust the constellation of sources that make mass shootings more likely. Nonetheless, there is a need to step up criticism of patriarchal worldviews, as well as advocacy for strict control over the distribution and possession of guns, in order to save lives. Crucially, it’s not just mass shootings that result from patriarchal worldview and violent gun culture; most killings of women and children lie outside the scope of mass shootings and terrorist events.
We must admit that there is a problem of violence where religious fundamentalism has a purchase. We have to stop enabling this culture by apologizing for it.
Smashing it would be a much better strategy.