On the 15th of February, 2018, a day after 19-year old Nikolas Cruz gunned down 17 of his schoolmates, US President Donald Trump made a tweet describing the shooter as mentally disturbed and having exhibited erratic behavior. He hinted that having been witnesses to the steady progression of his madness, the shooter’s neighbors and classmates shared some blame by failing to report his case to the authorities.
This tweet came in the midst of the familiar storm that followed the shooting. Many Americans were still reeling from the carnage of 14th February and wanted to make sense of yet another senseless, preventable killing. Words describing the event – especially those uttered by persons with some hold on public perception – were scrutinized. The term “thoughts and prayers” had been exhausted and nobody wanted to hear it anymore. They wanted the event and the shooter specifically described because to everyone directly affected, it made sense that this was the first step to true healing.
There was a strange yet typical sequence to the thousands of reactions to Donald Trump’s tweet. Nobody called the shooter Nikolas, a terrorist. They called him lonely, odd, friendless, disturbed but apparently he wasn’t intentionally erratic enough to qualify as a terrorist. This was also reflected in the media’s reporting of the event.
This, though, is a familiar pattern. White people are never terrorists. When they commit widespread massacres, they are disturbed cases with troubled childhoods. There is a baffling need to understand the minds of criminals who bear names like Nicholas and Pete. The media investigates the killer’s growing up. They talk to his friends, parents and workplace colleagues. There is so much empathy finely clothed in faux outrage that before long you see the charade for what it is – a note to the world that we in the US refuse to believe that a sane white man can conceive crime of this magnitude, plan it out and execute it to devastating efficiency, especially when he is not Muslim.
Americans suffer from a fear of the “other” and maintain an obsession with the evil in their enemies. It is a fear glaring through Donald Trump’s eyes when he announces executive orders banning certain countries from entering the US and vibrates about building a wall on the US Mexican border. It is a fear which was evident in 19th and 20th century legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917 as well as the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, all laws that were meant to keep the bad guys away from the peaceful people of America.
Most recently it shows itself in the persistent efforts of US media to demonize unfriendly foreign regimes, inventing Japanese internment camps and Iraqi nuclear programs. Americans do not hide their prejudices very well – irrespective of the romantic ideals of freedom that litter their laws – and in the hands of a leader like Donald Trump, their fears are heavily fed and given life.
The reverse of this fear is an implacable belief in the goodness of America. If you spend so much time labeling certain religions and countries as having the inherent potential for terrorism, it becomes heavy for the same lips to admit that your own country and people have a similar potential, even when there is an abundance of evidence in contrary support. A study published by New America, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank revealed that between 2001 and 2015, right-wing homegrown US extremists had taken more American lives than Islamist terrorists. In June 2017, there was a similar discovery made by the Reveal Center for Investigative Reporting.
Studies have shown that even when attackers are ‘radical Islamic terrorists’ – motivated by religious reasons – they are almost always US citizens. Contrary to what Donald Trump has led many of his followers to believe, the real threats to US lives do not come from outside America.
I guess the most telling factor about killings in the US is the official reactions that follow. When a mass murder is committed by a brown person, there is a frantic desperation to change things, to overhaul immigration policies and immediately profile groups of persons that fit the killer’s description. Following the November 1st attack by a 29-year-old immigrant in New York last year, Trump was in a hurry to inform Americans that he had ordered the Homeland Security to step up the nation’s already Extreme Vetting Program. He said “being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”
However, where the case is that a white male shot up dozens of people with an AR-15, nobody is in a hurry to change anything. ‘Thoughts and prayers’ are deemed enough to prevent a repeat and essentially American politicians tell you “when a crazy white guy does something like this, what really can you do?”
We shall reproduce here two tweets made by Donald Trump in response to shootings by white males last year.
October 2nd, 2017 – “My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you”
Nov 5, 2017 – “May God be with the people of Sutherland Springs, Texas. The FBI & law enforcement are on the scene. I am monitoring the situation from Japan.”
Apparently, the definition of terrorism has become dependent on the skin pigment of the ‘terrorist.’ The very act of terrorism in itself is no longer enough to qualify a person as a terrorist.
The real danger with this double standard is in how it makes it impossible for white terrorism to be tackled. When you make the killings by white males an issue of mental health, you alienate the politics and legislation from the problem. It is possible with ‘Islamic terrorists’ to change the system to address the problem. But on the other hand, you essentially say that there is nothing we can do legislatively or politically to stop the systematic killing of citizens by white males.
We can only, like Donald Trump, hope that neighbors and classmates do their jobs and report all mental health patients to the authorities. This is a depressing reality.