I went to bed last night as the news about Las Vegas was breaking. People were posting videos on social media of crowds scattering and people hitting the ground as rounds of gunfire rippled through the air like popcorn. My sister sent me a message from a conference she was attending in London. She was in a meeting but she said she couldn’t keep her eyes off her phone. Meanwhile, here in Vancouver, I couldn’t sleep. In our world, these tragedies have become commonplace. A certain inurement is expected, even in the case of nightmarish tragedy, and especially when such tragedy is experienced from a lucky distance. We have grown used to the ways these tragedies unfold, to the rhetoric, to the frightening images of bloody twisted bodies littering sidewalks, but the horror still does not fail to penetrate. Tragedy has become a routine of sorts, one we watch play out over social media and CNN (when we are lucky enough to not be directly implicated)-and this routine muffles the rage, the grief, and the disbelief, but it does not obliterate them entirely.
Last night on social media, the world had already begun to decry social media’s failure to label this man a terrorist. They expressed themselves empathically. This man is a terrorist. This is part of the aforesaid routine rhetoric that has recently become part of our (inter) national dialogue following such events. Last night, I stepped (only slightly) outside of this routine of terror, and asked myself: what do we mean when we call someone a terrorist? What is a terrorist?
If a terrorist is a person who intentionally inspires terror, then there is no doubt that the Las Vegas shooter is a terrorist of the most extreme and quintessential variety. However, I am beginning to wonder if the labelling we do in the wake of such tragedy has more to do with the human ability to process and contain emotions, than it does with any categorical accuracy.
After incomprehensible events like those that occurred in Las Vegas, we are left to wonder why. For the thousands of family members and friends who have lost loved ones, why will not change the nightmare of today and why will not bring back brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, friends. They are senselessly gone, with a thudding finality. But for the rest of us, why lets us know who is to blame and if we know who to blame, this suggests a chain of causality. And a chain of causality allows us to feel the world is logical and that these tragedies are meaningful and have a clear source. If we can find a source, it stands to reason, we can stop this at its’ source.
This morning CNN tells me that 58+ people are dead, 500+ are injured, and 12 are in critical condition. They say that thus far it seems that the gunman ‘acted alone’, is a ‘lone wolf’, and has ‘no international ties to terrorism’. The shooter’s brother is being interviewed on TV. His bafflement is evident. “My brother has never drawn his gun, my brother doesn’t even have a parking ticket, he sends boxes of cookies to our ninety year old mother!” He is breathless. He is incredulous. His disbelief seems utterly sincere. “An asteroid has fallen to the earth”, he says. A statement that is perhaps adequate to describe not only the brother’s level of surprise, but the level of devastation that has been wrought by this one man.
In the face of utter senselessness, it is natural to search for a why. People would like to immediately foreclose on a motive. “He was a psychopath”, “this is pure evil”, “he is a terrorist”-these are among the pronouncements of pundits and citizens over social media. People are incensed by the media’s suggestion that this man was not a terrorist, but rather was mentally ill. Attempts to frame such crimes in the context of mental illness are seen as morally suspect and I can understand why. There is a fear that framing them thus would exonerate them. And when 58+ people die, someone has to carry the blame.
In the wake of this calamity, I cannot help but think of Charles Whitman, who in 1966 climbed a tower at the University of Texas and opened fire, killing fifteen people-including an unborn child-and injuring 31 others. Prior to opening fire at the University of Texas, Charles Whitman killed both his wife and his mother. He wrote a note asking that following his death his brain be autopsied. He had been experiencing terrible headaches, not to mention a host of other symptoms associated with organic damage to the brain, such as irrational thinking and violent impulses. An autopsy revealed a ‘walnut-sized’ tumour pressing on areas in the brain responsible for impulse and emotion regulation, aggression, and fear. More recently, I think of Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots tight end convicted for the 2015 murder of Odin Llyod who ultimately hung himself with a bed sheet in his prison cell. He was an easy person to label a monster, until recent details from his autopsy uncovered Stage 3 Advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease found in veterans, athletes, victims of domestic violence and anyone exposed to repeated concussive and (more critically) sub-concussive injuries. Aaron Hernandez’s brain trauma likely began in late childhood, when, like many ‘red-blooded’ American boys, he began to play football.
Information found in brain scans and autopsies does not necessarily absolve these individuals of responsibilities, nor are any of these clear cut cases. Additional pieces of information, such as those found in Charles Whitman and Aaron Hernandez’s autopsies complicate the picture of blame to an intolerable level. We like to think that terrorist, psychopath, and mentally ill are distinct categories with no overlap and no spillover. Believing in this distinctness allows us to feel we can ascertain something about who to be mad at. It also helps us to feel we can grasp something about the potential of our own future victimization. But I think it bears saying, that a person who would unload ten assault rifles of bullets from a 32nd floor onto a crowd of unsuspecting people, is not mentally well. They are creating terror and they are not mentally well. Mentally well people do not seek to inspire terror on such a scale. These two things are not mutually exclusive and thus they do not provide us with easy answers about who to blame.
People worry that invoking ideas about mental illness or instability will ‘excuse’ the actions of these mass murderers, killers, terrorists. There is also the warranted concern that ascribing mental illness to the aforementioned criminals characterizes the mentally ill in an unjust way-the mentally ill, who are by and large not violent, not dangerous, of no threat to others. This is real concern for me.
This picture is complicated because this one tragedy in Las Vegas in undergirded by various crises–here I am talking about America specifically, but by and large Canada is not exempt from these crises either. There is the crisis of economic marginalization-a world of have and have nots, where contrary to the American Dream that is peddled to the mainstream imagination, the possibility of upward mobility is largely reserved for the white, the lucky, the male, the physically able. There is a dire and critical lack of access to mental health services and social services in general. There is the issue of gun control, which is the one thing that seems to me so incredibly obvious and ludicrously UNcomplicated. Social problems such as lack of affordable housing, lack of access to essential health services, the continued domination of white supremacist and patriarchal ideals and systems , and largely unfettered access to guns, combine to create a breeding ground for so-called evil, terrorism, mental illness. These labels are inextricably linked. Where one begins and another ends is not so clear at all.
My husband is Muslim, has an Iranian name, and has a Middle Eastern face. I have witnessed racial profiling first-hand, by law enforcement, by the public, even my members of my own family. This is where people are coming from when they condemn the media’s failure to label this white man a terrorist. This bias is real and it is disturbing. I am not suggesting otherwise. What I am suggesting is that the labels we ascribe, while they may help us feel we are understanding an event, do little to address its causes. Causes which are complex and to which there are no quick and easy fixes.
I think of Hannah Arendt, a writer who covered Adolf Eichmann’s trial and wrote extensively on the nature of evil. Though her ultimate thesis was more specific in it’s scope, she ultimately dismissed easy explanations that suggested great acts of evil were ‘simply’ the work of monsters. Primo Levi, the Pullitzer Prize winning writer and Auschwitz concentration camp survivor wrote, to much the same effect: “Monsters exist, but they are true few in number to be truly dangerous.” He also eschews simple proclamations of ‘monster-hood’, in favour of more complex explanations. Nobody is just a monster. Nobody is ‘just’ anything.
I have no complex explanations to offer, apart from the feeling that such explanations are and must necessarily be complex. I have even, no more words. The world is crying today. Sadness and fear and anger are labels we can each understand.