Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Terrorist and the Lone Gunman

Making sense of the past week—the horrors in Boston, of course, but also the vote against gun control and the ongoing debate about immigration—has been difficult. There is a peculiar frustration when rational minds encounter what seem to be irrational events. Our urge to comprehend always outpaces the subtleties of fact and meaning. (That, I suppose, is why history is important.) Ideologues have already used the Boston bombings to peddle their own agendas without real care for responsible readings of the story, a pattern that John Dickerson at Slate has appropriately chastised.

But it is equally irresponsible (and really a form of intellectual cowardice) to dismiss political issues that arise out of tragedy because they arise out of tragedy. Some of the anti-gun control crowd is guilty of this, like Mark Begich, Democratic Senator from Alaska, who explained his vote against the Toomey-Manchin background check amendment with this statement:
It’s dangerous to do any type of policy in an emotional moment. Because human emotions then drive the decision. Everyone’s all worked up.
Had the Congress scrambled to put together a massive gun control bill or for that matter a conceal-and-carry bill in the days right after Sandy Hook, Begich might have a point—might. But the gun debate has been ongoing for four months. By comparison, the Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001, just forty-five days after the September 11th attacks. My memory of October 2001 was that emotions were still running high. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, elected officials have to do their jobs when the electorate is emotional. If Congressmen and Senators feel unprepared to weigh emotional issues, they should let their constituents know and they can vote someone else into office. That's how it rolls in a democratic republic. Besides, as Bill Keller was quick to point out in The New York Times, the "it's too emotional" line, used by many Republicans as well as Begich, was a canard. The pro-gun lobby does everything in its power to inject emotion into gun control debates. That's one of the ways they win. This past week, the NRA convinced these Senators to vote no using emotion, paranoia, and deceit. It sees appropriate to me that gun control advocates respond with fury, activism, and truthAt least 3500 people in America have been killed by guns since Newtown, a death toll higher than the September 11th attacks. Can we imagine a time that the gun debate will not be emotional?

Which brings me back to Boston, another terrible event in which detaching emotion from reason will be nigh impossible for a long time. There is so much fodder in the story of these two brothers and so few facts, a dangerous combination. People have begun to ascribe motive to the criminals when at this time we have little sense of why they did what they did. Congressman Peter King, for instance, has already called for the nation to "stop being politically correct" and acknowledge that "we're at war with Islamic terrorism," I'm not sure why that statement is helpful—it certainly isn't for all the brown-skinned Americans who suffer the mistreatment of nativists and racists charged up by comments like that. Even if it turns out to be true that these brothers were motivated by fanatical Islamism, why not wait to know with greater clarity why they did what they did?

Strange, how we immediately look for political motives after bombings, but quickly imagine that shooting massacres are devoid of political meaning. Bombers must be connected to some larger entity, a web with strands, however tenuous, that stretch to other dark corners of the world where dark people plot against us. Implicit in the term terrorism is the acknowledgment that more of it will come. So, wisely or foolishly, we pass the Patriot Act, and then we renew it, and we prepare, and we become hardened. We struggle (as we should) with the question of safety versus civil liberties. But mass gun violence, we so often conclude, is the domain of madmen. The lone gunman is a different figure, one warped by his isolation moreso than by any ideology. There is no shadowy network of people or ideas behind the shooter, so there is no sustained impetus to respond beyond the routine processes of the criminal justice system. It is a singular consequence of the apolitical identity of mass shooters that the debate over guns and public safety takes place on a radically different spectrum that the debate over terrorism and public safety.

I wonder if these profiles of the Terrorist and the Lone Gunmen are going to be complicated or merged by the information we gather about the Tsarnaev brothers? The 2009 Fort Hood shooting of Nidal Malik Hasan and the 2011 case of Anders Breivek in Oslo, which was a bombing and a mass shooting, have already illustrated the severe limitations of such archetypes. Terrorists are sometimes shooters; social alienation and extremist politics seem to go hand in hand. There appear to be elements of both profiles in what we know of the Tsarnaevs. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo wrote after the photos of the brothers were released that what struck him most was their identity as young men:
But when I did see those pictures and see what looked more like frat kids than jihadis or white supremacists the thought that came to mind to me was Columbine — no clear ideology just the hard underlying precipitate of young male alienation, cockiness and aggression.
I have the same reaction looking at their photos, an association with Adam Lanza and all the others going back to Columbine. That made me recall those voices in the wake of Newtown who were not only calling for gun control, but for a national dialogue about masculinity and violence. Something is not right in our raising of young men.


  1. The massacre at Oak Creek in August also troubled the boundaries between lone gunman and terrorist -- except that was never acknowledged, because the fanatical system the shooter, a white man, identified with and acted through clearly was the very schema of white supremacy that undergirds our notions of livable lives and bodies worth protecting. An article you might be interested in:

  2. One film I've enjoyed discussing with students over the years is "Tough Guise" by Jackson Katz. While it's a bit old at this point (produced in 1999 and refers to then-current examples) his analysis of violent masculinity certainly resonates in the light of what has happened in the past year in America.

    For now, it's on youtube: