By Elif Batuman
November 27, 2017
By all accounts, mass shootings are now claiming more American lives than at any other point in the past thirty-five years. The most recent, on the morning of November 14th, in Rancho Tehama, California, left five victims and the shooter dead and twelve wounded, including six children. Data indicates that mass shootings are contagious and predictable, and that many killers share certain features—notably, as in the case of the shooting earlier this month at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a history of domestic violence. The Journal of the American Medical Association has repeatedly described gun violence as an epidemic, and gun-rights groups have repeatedly fought to undermine this view. In 1996, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied the Republican Congress to limit funding for gun-related research by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Jama recently estimated that research into gun violence receives just 1.6 per cent of the funding that one would expect, given the annual death toll.
The government’s failure to enact gun-reform legislation and to allocate appropriate public-health funding is symptomatic of a broader failure to conceive of these mass killings as an epidemic: that is, as a single problem affecting our country. This failure is particularly apparent in the way we talk about motive. On November 5th, after Devin Patrick Kelley killed twenty-six people in Sutherland Springs, a news alert on my phone notified me that officials were “searching for motive.” It was immediately clear to me that this search would end in one of a few ways. If the shooter had mentioned isis, the motive would be deemed political; if he were non-white, it would be racial. If he were white and hadn’t mentioned isis, there might be a domestic or family-related motive, or mental illness, or a bizarre, mysterious lack of motive. Each motive would, in effect, limit the number of people whose problem the killing was. Yet it is impossible to imagine a political terrorist act that is free of personal motives or domestic implications, just as it’s impossible to imagine a domestic crime that doesn’t reflect ideology. And it’s a tautology that every mass shooting involves some degree of mental illness: we would surely count as worthless any definition of mental wellness that was compatible with murdering civilians.
The deficiency of the current categories of motive is particularly evident in the case of Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year-old Afghan-American who is said to have abused his widow and a former wife, to have made homophobic remarks, and who, on June 12, 2016, called 911 and claimed affiliation with isis, before shooting to death forty-nine people at a gay night club in Orlando that he himself may have frequented. Was Mateen’s crime personal or political? As the Times put it, “Was the killer truly acting under orders from the Islamic State, or just seeking publicity and the group’s approval for a personal act of hate?” The phrasing is problematic, because it implies an essential difference between personal opportunists and “real” terrorists—as if real terrorists were motivated not by things that happened to them in their own lives but by disinterested ideology, hatred of freedom, or membership in an “axis of evil.”
In Sutherland Springs, the question of motive was resolved more speedily: Kelley’s reason for killing twenty-six people was determined to be a dispute with his mother-in-law. As the regional director for the Texas Department of Public Safety put it, “This was not racially motivated, it wasn’t over religious beliefs. There was a domestic situation going on within the family and the in-laws.” (The mother-in-law wasn’t at the service that day, though her own mother was and died there. Kelley, an Air Force veteran, had previously been court-martialled for assaulting his wife and his stepson.)
Yet it is odd to describe a church shooting as a “domestic situation.” It is odd to consider a “domestic” motive as proof against a political or ideological agenda. What ideological group, least of all isis, has been silent on the subject of domestic life and the role of women? A logical error is built into the very term “domestic violence,” which suggests that murderous rage directed at female relatives is a household affair, private, apolitical, not useful as a predictor of public violence. To view the murder of women as “domestic” is itself ideological, and surely some strain is placed on such a view by the case of a man shooting at a church full of strangers along with his grandmother-in-law. (Among the Rancho Tehama shooter’s first victims were his wife and a female neighbour.)
With Stephen Paddock, who shot and killed fifty-eight people in Las Vegas, in early October, authorities have found no motive. In the weeks and years before the crime, Paddock apparently exhibited no signs of political or religious extremism, no symptoms of mental illness (though the fact that he had stockpiled semiautomatic weapons for decades might be viewed, in retrospect, as a symptom). Paddock was accordingly classified, as a Muslim or a black shooter would not have been, as a sort of human enigma. A CNN headline alluded to “The unknowable Stephen Paddock and the ultimate mystery: Why?” Another article—“One month later, Las Vegas massacre is still a mystery”—placed the shooting “in stark contrast” to the subsequent “deadly truck attack in New York City, where there were clear ideological or religious motives.”
The “clear ideological or religious” case was that of Sayfullo Saipov, a twenty-nine-year-old Uzbek national who drove onto a bike path in lower Manhattan on Halloween, killing eight pedestrians, came out of the truck shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and was shot by the police. Saipov’s ideological tendencies, like Mateen’s, were a recent development. In his home city of Tashkent, Saipov was a law-abiding citizen with a hospitality degree from a well-known university, working at a large hotel catering to foreigners. In 2010, he won the green-card lottery and came to the United States on a diversity visa. He married another Uzbek immigrant, started a family, and, unable to find hotel work, moved from city to city, driving trucks.
Over the years, the Times reported, Saipov had racked up a series of traffic tickets, “the closest thing to snapshots of how Mr. Saipov lived.” In Iowa, in 2011, he waited for thirty-five minutes for officers to check his truck; in 2014, he was “stopped for more than an hour for having a cracked windshield and for missing a reflective device.” On multiple occasions, he was stopped at a Nebraska weigh station, where he got tickets for “driving too long without required rest and for carrying a load just slightly more than allowed.” In October of last year, Saipov was briefly jailed in Missouri for an unpaid traffic ticket. That was around the time that he started planning an attack. Repeated bureaucratic experiences with traffic fines is a familiar American story. But Saipov shouted “Allahu Akbar,” and he had downloaded isis videos, so his motive was religious and ideological. Since his motive was religious and ideological, it was not personal or economic or a mystery.
Of the mass killings in Orlando, Las Vegas, New York, Sutherland Springs, and Rancho Tehama, the two committed by isis-invoking Muslims are categorized as terrorist acts; the three committed by white men are “domestic,” a “mystery,” or, in the case of the Rancho Tehama shooter, Kevin Neal, “bizarre.” Donald Trump has used these categories to justify a double standard of responses: terrorist acts are justification for an immigration crackdown, but for a “domestic issue,” mental illness, or “pure evil,” as the President classified the Las Vegas shooting, there is no remedy. As the Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, tweeted, in response to calls for gun regulations after Las Vegas: “You can’t regulate evil.”
The mass-shooting epidemic is, without question, an urgent call for gun control. It’s also an invitation to think about why so many Americans are trying to shoot up night clubs, churches, and schools in the first place. (Research suggests that a lack of gun regulation is the major, but not the only, determining factor in gun-related deaths: the average American is three hundred times more likely than the average Japanese to die by gun homicide or by accidental shooting—but only a hundred and fifty times more likely to own a gun.) It’s an invitation to tell one story about a shared problem that affects every American.
Thinking about the different ruptures that prevent this story from being told, I was reminded of a line from James Baldwin’s “No Name in the Street,” from 1972: “I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.” For Baldwin, this disconnect originates in Americans’ need “to safeguard their purity” at all costs—to go to any cognitive length in order to deny that they have profited, and continue to profit, from the suffering of others. How, Baldwin asks, can white Americans live normal lives among the descendants of the slaves who built their wealth? How, for that matter, can men live normal lives alongside women, whose sacrifices and labor were invisible for so many years? How can immigrants from poor and war-torn countries live normal lives as Americans? What Baldwin calls “the failure, in most American lives, of the most elementary and crucial connections” is reflected in the stories we tell, and in the larger stories we don’t tell.
Given our predilection for isolated issues and personal pathologies, it is no surprise that the brain of the Las Vegas shooter has been sent to the Stanford University Medical Centre for forensic examination. “I think everybody is pretty doubtful that we’re going to come up with something,” Hannes Vogel, Stanford’s chief of neuropathology, told the Times. “The possibilities, neuropathologically, for explaining this kind of behaviour are very few.” The initial autopsy by the Clark County coroner turned up no visible abnormalities, contrary to hopes expressed by the gunman’s brother. “I hope to hell that they find when they do the autopsy that there’s a tumor in his head or something,” Eric Paddock told reporters, “because if they don’t, we’re all in trouble.”
Elif Batuman has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2010.