Our Futile Obsession With Fitting Mass Shooters’ Motives to Our Politics


After the horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino, California on Wednesday, I tried and failed to resist going home from work and spending the night curled up in front of cable news, worrying. Turns out much of our our nation was doing the same: boosting ratings, watching experts trying their best to fill in time by repeating the same scant facts over and over again.The suspects were dead. Fourteen people were dead. There was no known motive.

Where we differed, of course, was in the narrative we saw — or hoped we’d see — emerging from this confusing, piecemeal story. People began to report back about the disparate, but equally wacky, narratives that were being pushed by different outlets. On Fox News, the talk was about Islamic terrorism, while at MSNBC, the expert declared it likely originated from a workplace dispute. CNN was naturally all over the place with speculation, living up to the reputation they forged during the Malaysia Airlines disappearance.

Today, a number of reporters barged into the apartment where the two suspects lived, searching through their personal belongings and drawing immediate ire and condemnation from viewers:

On live national television, reporters sifted through the remains of the lives of Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. They picked over children’s toys. They held up photos, speculating about whether the woman depicted in one might be Malik. They displayed Social Security cards and driver’s licenses with readily identifiable information—and not just for the deceased suspects:

It’s easy to bash cable news, but the bigger issue in my mind is the desperation, on all sides, to affix a preferred perspective to an act of terror. This wasn’t just “the media,” but all of us. On the left, still upset about the Planned Parenthood shooting last week (yes, that was just last week), it was a moment to talk about domestic terrorism. On the right, still frothed into a xenophobic lather after Paris, the story was different — exemplified by the way the New York Post swiftly switched out its milder cover for a bigoted one once the names and ethnicities of the killers were revealed:

Similarly, a number of prominent right-wing politicians offered no response to the Planned Parenthood shooting, mealy-mouthed “prayers” when the San Bernardino news broke, and then calls to action when the latter terrorists were revealed to be Muslim. Yet the essential acts — the lives lost and ruined, trauma inflicted, guns fired — remained unchanged.

In the hours after the shooting, countless people expressed understandable frustration with the emptiness of rhetoric about “thoughts and prayers” rather than action to protect Americans from gun violence; on the other side, these people were accused of prayer-shaming, and a bill that would have kept guns away from suspected terrorists failed to pass. So some were hoping the killers were white, and some were hoping the killers were brown —but does it really matter, when the killers’ behavior patters are so similar and we’ve all but given up hoping that the killers stop killing?

We’ve seen slaughter in the name of Jesus, as Colorado Springs shooter Robert Dear did; in the name of some sort of ISIS admiration and workplace-grievance mashup, as this latest atrocity appears to be; and then there was the deluded Batman obsession James Holmes appeared to have. All of these are different “motives,” but the crimes resembled each other in other ways. Indeed, angry people (usually but not always men) with a vendetta, an automatic weapon, and the will to use it probably have far more in common with each other than they do with the rest of us — those who want to live our lives without getting shot or shooting others.

When these crimes happen, we’re desperate for a motive, and it’s indeed human nature to try to understand — but fanaticism and rage of various stripes are parts of all society. What many other societies lack that America possesses in excess are the tools — guns designed to kill many people — to easily make furious fantasies into realities. It took the Post‘s rival tabloid, The Daily News, to offer perspective, reminding readers with its own cover, which (despite its sensational language) became even more profound when juxtaposed with the The New Yorker‘s somber statement on our attachment to guns.

No matter which side we claim to be on when these tragedies happen, the American population is united in being under siege by gun violence. Many of us want to act, but remain unable to because of a lack of political will. In that sense, we’re all being held hostage.