In the last several weeks alone, Chattanooga and Charleston happened, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced, and James Holmes was found guilty in the Aurora, Colo. movie theater killings.
As a society, we are so deeply pained and impassioned about these instances of hate that we tend to lump them together into one mass degradation of American life. As members of the media like the Jewish Light, we tend to develop narratives that purport to weave such stories together, as though there is one unifying explanation for such hateful acts.
In this particular year, as a major political campaign gears up, some loud voices will want to hijack the underlying tragedies and the public reactions to them in ways that best suit their electoral needs. Public figures will pound their fists and orate with bellicosity, insisting their takes on these awful things are the true and correct ones.
But the atrocities we’ve witnessed are far more substantial than some random media narrative allows, or than their role in election cycle rhetoric, and their causes are varied and complex. It’s not helpful to derive easy answers to hard questions, at least answers that provide thoughtful direction, though many will no doubt try to bend the discussion to their various agendas.
What we can and should do, though, is talk about some of the root causes of these and other tragic multiple killings in recent years, and have that conversation in a nuanced and thoughtful way. By doing so, we heighten the prospect for lasting and meaningful discussions, rather than ones that fall by the wayside with the daily headlines.
In Chattanooga, for instance, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a Naval petty officer at a Navy reserve center and was himself killed in response.
We know that Abdulazeez was from Kuwait, visited Jordan recently and his behavior seemed to change on his return. Some reports cited his anti-U.S. sentiments. Others inquired of connections to ISIS but he also apparently called ISIS a “stupid group” when speaking to a friend.
We know, at least from reports, that he was a drug abuser. And that he reportedly suffered from depression and/or bipolar disorder.
We know that he was not, at least as reported, in any terror databases administered by the United States. Or known for any terror activities.
And we know he obtained access to weapons.
These facts are all over the board, and on their face don’t really give us a coherent picture of the killer, his life or his motives. Were they based in radical Islamism? Maybe. In mental illness? Almost certainly. In a combination of the two? Very possibly. In a terrorist conspiracy? Not enough to say yet. In accessibility to weaponry? No doubt.
So many of these dreadful acts contains a different set of circumstances, but ones that seem to so commonly include layers of mental illness (depression, bipolar, antisocial), hate toward some objectified group (blacks, Jews, immigrants), and an ability to acquire guns, bombs or other murderous devices (legally or illegally). How those elements get put together and contribute varies significantly from one episode to the next.
CNN cited a report that showed Newtown shooter Adam Lanza “was an isolated young man with deteriorating mental health and a fascination for mass violence whose problems were not ignored but misunderstood and mistreated.”
Dylann Roof’s murders in Charleston apparently derived from the vile racism of the Ku Klux Klan and other remnants of South Carolina’s Jim Crow past.
These instances cannot be lumped together simply to serve a political, media or social narrative. We can’t duck them with political correctness anymore than we can with our own prejudices. So for instance, Abdulazeez’s name and nationality don’t give us license to pronounce him part of a conspiracy against America without facts to support it. By the same token, however, if the evidence takes us in that direction, and the killer is linked to terror-based groups, we cannot stand by and ignore it either.
In other words, to have the best chance of addressing these social ills, we have to play the causes straight, based on the facts and the causes underlying the killer’s actions. If there’s anti-Semitism or racism, we must talk about it, make sure people understand it, and explain its evils. If there are semiautomatic weapons, we must explain why they don’t belong in everyone’s hands. If there are issues of mental illness, we must have discourse about the ways such a condition can lead susceptible candidates toward very dark, very painful places.
We can’t let the headlines and the rancor of the day tell us how to make our society safer, more secure and a healthier place to live. If we do, we only risk scaring more people without solving the problems. Only true and honest public scrutiny, based on the facts and knowledge we possess, will move us in the right direction.