For most of America, waking up to the grisly news on Oct. 2, 2017, that a gunman had opened fire into a crowd of concert-goers in Las Vegas was extremely difficult. It was pegged as the biggest mass shooting in American history, and although that moniker is a bit problematic, it’s true for a single shooter. And as with other instances in our history, we obsessively look to the details. It’s no more true than with Stephen Paddock, who committed suicide before we could extract any answers.
While finding out motives can be helpful for victims and those that mourn, while allowing them to somewhat make sense of what happened, the media saturation can be extremely harmful too. We took a look at all the reasons why it’s important not to over-expose the criminals that commit these heinous acts of mass murder. That includes one pretty big reason.
Why we feel compelled to know
The biggest reason people take such a strong interest in finding out the why of a mass shooting is so that we can put them in a box that makes us feel better about our own views. According to psychologist Seth J. Gillihan, who researched Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at the University of Pennsylvania, there are a few things people look for immediately.
“There’s an urge to hope to identify the shooter with the political party that one is opposed to — hoping the shooter is a liberal or a conservative — and some would take comfort or even joy in that fact, and I don’t think we should do either,” Gillihan said. “In neither case would this person be representative of those groups.”
Because of the lack of immediate knowledge of his motive, the speculation has run rampant. False flags popped up that Paddock was anti-Trump, or that he was a part of Antifa. ISIS took credit for the killing spree as well, although there is little evidence that suggests Paddock was involved with the terrorist group. Far-right conspiracy theorist and “entertainer” Alex Jones has also suggested that Paddock was involved in some sort of radical, left-wing ideology.
Trying to paint Paddock – or any mass shooter – as a member of an opposing group or political party makes many of us feel more secure in our own belief systems, and drives a twisted need to know. This only works to further divide us.
Inside the coverage of Paddock
The hardest part about the coverage of Paddock is that, to date, there have been no motives released. He didn’t leave a note describing reasons for his actions, and no Facebook rants about illegal immigrants, or angry, racist epithets. What we’re left with are interviews with anybody that has spent any reasonable amount of time with him, giving their opinions on why they do or don’t think he could’ve committed this atrocity.
One neighbor describes Paddock simply as “weird.” Another describes him in a way that normalizes Paddock, mentioning that he would send his mother cookies. He had no criminal history, and despite having collected 33 guns in the previous year, the mainstream media have labeled him as not having any red flag behavior.
So while the search for a reason continues, more and more information about Paddock’s private life will come to light. And people will obsessively consume that information, even when it provides no real comfort.
When you find out too much
There can be instances where we simply find out too much, or what we learn about shooters only causes further pain. Take, for instance, the case of Adam Lanza – the Sandy Hook shooter that took the lives of 20 children. Unlike Paddock, Lanza left quite the online footprint for us to dig through. And dig, we did. According to an article in Newsweek, even some of his online ranting was found and it provided a sinister peak into his state of mind:
But just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers and beyond these fans are countless more people who can sympathize with them; and beyond these are millions more who never think of relating the circumstances of their lives to anyone else but instead just go through the motions of life incessantly dissatisfied with their environment.
What’s more, Lanza’s posts give us a glimpse into why he targeted children.
Enculturing human children is already terrifying enough, but enculturing other apes is something out of the cruelest nightmare. I don’t know of anything more worthy of crying over.
It’s this sort of stuff that knowing only leads to torturing our own minds. Lanza spoke openly about, among other things, those who are isolated worshiping others that committed mass murders. That opens up a whole other can of worms, but the point here is that often when we go searching for knowledge and understanding, we find a whole lot that we really don’t want to know.
Glorification and inspiring copycats
Back to the point about glorification of mass shooters, these events unfortunately tend to bring out copycats. No doubt, there are probably some individuals in the United States that found a sort of sick inspiration from what Paddock did, which was to murder 58 people, injure hundreds more, and instill fear into countless citizens. The biggest reason they feel particularly inspired? Like Lanza, many of them are extremely isolated, and possibly even mentally ill. Seeing the degree to which Paddock receives attention can be inviting for them.
Just days before the shooting in Las Vegas, there was a smaller-scale shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. A shooter killed nine people and injured several others, but his name was never released to the media. Sheriff John Hanlin said:”I will not name the shooter. I will not give him the credit he probably sought.”
Not naming shooters, especially in a case like Las Vegas, could be difficult for some. “Why is the government covering this up?” people would ask. But there is a very real notion that giving these people the attention that they crave only makes things worse, even spurring others into deadly action.
How we incorrectly characterize shooters
There are a lot of wrong ways to characterize shooters, and it can often be because of political views or their individual upbringing. Bringing up the fact that Adam Lanza had mental health issues often is done in such a way that demonizes mental health problems, not the systematic isolation that creates a person so twisted that they live in a false reality.
In general, white male shooters – regardless of motive or intent – are too often classified under the “mentally ill” label — even when it’s much more likely that they’ve been radicalized. Very rarely are they hit with the “terrorism” label, which is much more political in how it’s applied. Speaking about the events in Las Vegas, President Trump referred to Paddock with the following statement:
He was a sick man, a demented man with a lot of problems, I guess, and we are looking into him very, very seriously. We are dealing with a very, very sick individual.
A “very, very sick individual?” A “demented man with a lot of problems?” Without a ton of information at that point as to what, exactly, drove Paddock to commit a mass murder, those are nothing more than white-gunman-cliché talking points.
‘Don’t politicize this!’
In the wake of these mass murders, we also tend to see two factions of people: One group that points to the senseless crime and the complete inaction of the American government to protect us from such an event, and one that tells the other group not to politicize gun violence. But the problem with the second group is that gun violence in America is inherently political.
Thanks to lobbyists with the NRA, the United States Congress is largely bought and paid for. Anyone in government that legitimately wanted to take all the guns away and turn the USA into Australia – although, that sounds kind of nice given their relative lack of gun violence – would be flailing in vain. Every sensible person knows that America will never be a gun-free zone. But even common sense legislation that a majority of Americans agree with, such as making it more difficult for those with mental illness to purchase guns, is blocked by powerful lobbying dollars.
You could argue that the level of attention on what happened in Las Vegas and Stephen Paddock does more to draw our attention to a real problem that needs solutions, but in reality it doesn’t get us any closer to a fix. Arguing over the politicization of mass shootings only works to harder people into their extreme views, and changes few minds. We’re no closer to a safer America now, in 2017, than we were after Columbine in 1999.
What we can learn from the Vegas shooting coverage
It’s clear that there area few things that we, as a country, need to do to be better when dealing with mass shootings. A short list would include not reporting the shooter’s name when possible, and therefore leaving the shooter’s family out of the spotlight and not uncovering every single minute detail of their lives. While it would probably uncover more “what are they hiding from us” crazies, the net effect would be positive. Less minds that become warped by what they see as an easy road to a very loud platform for their twisted world-views.
Another thing we need to do is open up to the idea of common sense laws. What, exactly, that might mean is not something we can tell you. Limiting the sale of guns to people with mental health disorders? Outlawing silencers and bump stocks? Allowing real research to be done on gun violence? All could be steps in the right direction, but first we have to accept that the status quo for how we treat mass shootings is not good enough.
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