Column: Treating mass shootings as political discourse only gives killers more influence
A series of shootings over the weekend have once again left us all reeling and searching for answers in the aftermath.
Ten people died in what authorities are calling a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., on Saturday. The shooter targeted a Black neighborhood and left a trail of white supremacist statements for investigators online, according to police.
On Sunday, a 68-year-old Asian man chained the doors shut and opened fire at worshipers inside Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, killing one and wounding five others. Orange County investigators found scribbled notes in the shooter’s car saying that his actions were motivated by anger over Taiwanese independence.
I grieve for the victims, some of whom remind me painfully of my own family. And I’m girding myself for the highly politicized aftermath, which often becomes another, more lasting source of pain for shooting victims.
Mass shootings often spark a wide-ranging search for meaning, with entirely understandable motivations. Many mass shooters leave manifestos, hoping to cloak their violent actions in noble speech. Victims and survivors of these shootings, seeking to give the deaths of their loved ones meaning, sacrifice time and sanity campaigning against gun violence. And inevitably, these highly individual instances of loss and grief become faceless pawns in various political causes.
We react this way because the senseless taking of human lives deserves a satisfying explanation; because we believe that America is not a place where something like this should be happening.
But this is that kind of country. Ours is the only democratic country on Earth in which regular mass killings are tolerated. This weekend was brutal, but it must be said that it was not particularly out of the ordinary. There have been about 198 mass shootings so far this year, an average of about 10 mass shooting incidents a week, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
After covering the aftermath of many mass shootings, I’m increasingly ambivalent about participating in this outcry for meaning. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that the coverage and attention paid to mass shooters offers notoriety that motivates more shooters.
And it just seems wrong to allow someone who shot a bunch of unsuspecting people to dictate public discourse. Engaging in the debate that the shooter was hoping to spark seems to treat gun violence as an acceptable political expression.
For example, the Laguna Woods church shooter told Orange County authorities that he was upset about his treatment growing up in Taiwan, and indicated that he wanted to strike back against the Taiwanese independence movement. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department labeled it a hate crime.
Taiwanese independence is indeed a critically important and influential issue. It is the central issue in most elections and the main point of contention separating Taiwan’s major political parties. Taiwanese politics are so intense that many Taiwanese Americans maintain dual citizenship and fly back each election to participate.
I have family on both sides of the issue, in both China and Taiwan, so I can personally attest to the fact that the disagreements are fierce. When I visited my family in Taichung a few days after current Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was elected, my younger relatives were barely on speaking terms with my older relatives.
But I reject the idea I am now supposed to discuss Taiwanese politics because one man shot several people and wanted everyone to think it was because of Taiwan. I’m reluctant to lay these deaths at anyone’s feet but the killer’s. Am I to believe that the political disagreement has grown so intense that my uncles and aunts would commit violent acts against their children, or vice versa?
The Buffalo shooter, in a rambling manifesto, wanted to draw attention to American white people who fear being replaced by nonwhite people. I believe strongly that white supremacy and white racism need a loud and frank public discussion. But does that mean I believe the ideologies the shooter admired deserve more attention and thus legitimacy?
It’s not that I don’t believe that shootings raise important issues for public debate, and not every shooting is the same. I just believe that there are only two real issues: In every shooting case, the lack of mental health infrastructure combined with easy access to guns plays a significant role. But gun control and, to a lesser degree, mental health funding debates, exist in a permanent stalemate funded by evenly matched political and corporate interests. And no matter how many people die, that stalemate stands.
If these events — the 198th mass shooting in the U.S. this year and the latest of countless violent incidents involving mentally ill perpetrators — could motivate political change on these issues, then I would gladly participate.
But I am cynical, because I have been participating in these circular debates for almost my entire career.
And I’ve decided that the most meaningful way to respond to these killings is to deny the shooters the attention and legitimacy they sought. To allow their meaningless, senseless actions to mean nothing and make no sense.
All we truly know about shooters is that they wanted to hurt people. The only debate we should have in a shooting’s aftermath should be about how to prevent that.
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