Whenever something happens like this week’s mass shooting in a Charleston, SC, church, it is usually described as “unthinkable.” Then we spend a lot of time thinking about it.
Undoubtedly, this is an effort to provide some sort of context. The latest horrific event is — must be — the outgrowth of one group hating another group. Or the result of a society awash in guns. Or the myriad evil thoughts leaking out on the Internet.
For if there are plausible reasons for these occasional outbursts of violence, perhaps they can be eliminated. Get the warring groups to reconcile. Scale back the weaponry. Get a handle on the dark side of the Web.
Such thoughts are comforting, because the alternative — that mass killers are simply a random fact of life, like tornados and plane crashes and great white sharks — is scarier.
But what if there was no real context to the Charleston shootings? What if it can be explained in three short words: “He was crazy”?
Whatever the trigger happens to be in such cases, it is almost a moot point. There will always be a trigger. In this case, it was a hatred of black people by a white person. On other occasions, the perpetrator has been a black person who hated white people. Or a Muslim hating Christians. Or a Christian hating Muslims. In the case of the 2007 Virginia Tech school shootings, the gunman was a young Asian who seemed to hate everybody.
If a person is psychotic, schizophrenic or sociopathic, he or she is prone to attach their feelings of rage and frustration and fear to a convenient scapegoat. My life is torture for me, and it’s all because of …. them.
True, the identity of “them” may depend on the cultural environment surrounding that person. And it is also true that the vast majority of those with mental illness never act on these feelings.
Moreover, in a democratic society, it isn’t against the law to be weird, as long as that weirdness doesn’t directly affect others. Therefore, in case after case, news reporters post-massacre always roust out some relative or friend who will say of a mass shooter: “Well, he was always kind of odd, but we didn’t think anything of it. He usually kept to himself.”
In the case of Christopher Speight, who shot and killed five members of his family and three innocent bystanders in Appomattox, VA in 2010, he had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication and began shooting at a target behind his house for hours.
So there are often warning signs. But sometimes not.
The point is, the fact that a young white man walked into a black church and killed nine people does not necessarily mean that race relations in America just took a giant step backward. Rather, I think it is safe to say that anyone who randomly kills nine strangers who have done nothing to him is, by definition, insane. (Unless it happens during wartime, in which case the shooter is usually applauded).
The good news is, the chances that any of our lives will be shortened by an encounter with a mass shooter — or a serial killer, for that matter, are infinitesimal. They exist, just as tornados and man-eating sharks exist, but they are relatively rare.
Maybe that should be comfort enough for us.