It’s been nearly two weeks since the horrific movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, that left 12 dead and 58 others wounded. In that time, horrified onlookers around the country have been grappling with the most unanswerable question: what caused a seemingly intelligent, moderately successful young white man to meticulously plan and carry out such a gruesome massacre?
There cannot be and will not be any satisfying answers. There simply aren’t any excuses for walking into a crowded theater and indiscriminately killing innocent strangers, some as young as six years old. The answer is going to boil down to the fact that an individual made a selfish and cowardly decision to act out in a way that resulted in mass murder.
Unsurprisingly, the conclusion that many have already drawn is that the shooter is certainly “sick” and “needs help.” And while that may be a contributing factor, the overwhelming majority of people who are mentally ill do not go out and commit horrific crimes. For that to happen, a number of factors need to be at play, including – and probably most importantly – privilege and power.
The first ingredient for this disaster that seems to have been swept under the rug is that in order to be able to plan out and prepare for such an attack, one must be above suspicion, at least to some degree. James Holmes, the Colorado shooter, was a PhD student who kept to himself and had no previous history of violence or trouble with the law. According to law enforcement, there were no obvious red flags about Holmes beyond the arsenal that he bought online and had delivered to his house.
And that’s precisely the problem; by allowing white people – and white men in particular – the constant benefit of the doubt, law enforcement at large is not only unduly harassing people of color, but allowing dangerous would-be killers to slip through the cracks. Had Holmes had a Muslim name, there is no doubt that federal intelligence agencies and law enforcement would have been immediately alerted to the unusual activity. Take for instance, Najibullah Zazi, a Muslim immigrant and Afghan national also living in Aurora. In 2009, Zazi emailed a contact in Pakistan about a baking recipe for an upcoming marriage. The FBI had discovered that marriage was a code word for terrorist plot, so they tailed, investigated, phone-tapped, and eventually arrested Zazi with zero casualties. Zazi has since admitted to masterminding a foiled terror attack on the New York City subway system.
That was a correct use of intelligence to avert disaster. In New York and New Jersey, it has been discovered that the NYPD was operating well outside of its jurisdiction. The police were infiltrating Muslim mosques, student groups, and community organizations as far away from the city as Rutgers, profiling “suspects” in ways which were not only racist but that appear to have been fruitless. New York City law enforcement is also coming under fire for racial profiling in their “Stop and Frisk” crime prevention initiative. Of the nearly 700,000 New Yorkers who were stopped and frisked, 87% were Black or Hispanic, despite the fact that the majority of New York’s population is white.
Is there any doubt that it’s easier for white people to commit violent crimes?
It seems likely that if Holmes had been a person of color, law enforcement (or at the very least his neighbors) would have paid more attention to the odd behavior and package deliveries that seem sinister in retrospect. Perhaps they would have even heeded the “If you see something, say something” dictum that followed the 9/11 attacks.
Rampage Killers: Disproportionately White and Male
While the majority of all violent crimes are perpetuated by men, American mass murders in particular seem to be the territory of white men. The Encyclopedia of Murder and Violent Crime writes that, “Compared with assailants who kill but one victim, mass murderers are overwhelmingly likely to be male, [and] are far more likely to be white,” and the numbers prove it. According to Wikipedia, 75% of the rampage killings on US record were perpetrated by white males, as were 71% of massacres in schools, and 60% of workplace rampages – a seriously disproportionate number for the number of white males that make up the general population. Clearly, there is more at play here than the advantage of opportunity.
Historically, the focus on serial killers and mass murderers has been on the individual motives for the crimes, and little on the overarching trend. It’s plausible that the elevated social status of white males combined with isolation, desperation, opportunity, and mental illness has led the white men who have gone on rampages to make their pain felt by those around them in a very violent way.
Of course, it isn’t just male privilege that makes men more prone to violent crime than their female counterparts. From the time they are toddlers, men are socialized to express their emotions through violence. Western culture – and especially American culture – teaches boys that emotional intelligence and expression is worthless and effeminate, and that the acceptable masculine response to anger, sadness, and/or frustration is to act out physically. If this mentality is particularly deeply rooted in an individual man, he may find it incredibly difficult to form an emotional support system, leading to more self-inflicted and outwardly motivated violence among men.
What Can We Learn?
Fortunately, rampage killings are as rare as they are horrific. Unfortunately, it makes them incredibly hard to predict, especially if law enforcement and news outlets refuse to acknowledge the patterns and systemic roots of such violence. Until more people are willing to enter into an honest conversation about the deadly side effects of white male privilege, more James Holmes’s are not just a scary thought, they’re inevitable.