Can we all just for a moment stop talking about the Oregon shooting as if it’s a vacuous and isolated problem that can be cured through gun control and/or mental health screening? That’s an essentialized refusal to see it for what it is–a symptom of something much worse. Mass killings are not a phenomenon that happens at random; it has gotten to the point where it is aggregable, and should rightly be treated as a structural phenomenon. That isn’t to say that it is in any way predictable, but rather that the frequency and severity is following a statistical trajectory, and one that is terrifyingly accelerating. What that tells us, or at least tells sociologists, is that it is socially determined–that it is the symptom of something else, which is itself changing.
In Emile Durkheim’s 1897 work Suicide, he describes the concept of anomie as the “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals,” which is often accompanied by the fragmentation of social identity. While looking then at categorizations of another social phenomenon which was (and still is) commonly treated as individualized–suicide–he noted that rates and types fluctuate with societal changes. That is happening here.
It is certainly tempting to disaggregate these senseless killings, and try to define particular linkages between the shooter and sociostructural change, but to do so would be unhelpful. We can certainly look at a number of high-profile cases–Umpqua, Charleston, Santa Barbara–where there was a stated social motive, but focusing myopically on those cases may also be a mistake. Whereas Columbine and Oklahoma City were vocalized as underdog struggles–a “war of the flea” type attack on the powerful and oppressive, what we are seeing increasingly is quite the opposite: the aggrieved elite, those with power attacking the powerless with the intent of reestablishing the existing social hierarchy. And identifying this trend is the only real use for looking at the particularity of the attacks–in Santa Barbara, it was over aggrieved masculinity; Charleston was about aggrieved whiteness; we are still learning about the circumstances of Umpqua, but it is clear that he had White supremacist idealization, and, despite the apparently contradictory nature of an attack on Christians, one need not look long to realize that neo-fascist groupings have a complicated relationship with Christianity, and may rely on more libertarian or Dawkinsian strands of atheism to support their genocidal intentions. However, those earlier attacks also had White supremacist leanings–McVeigh was a White separatist/survivalist, and the Columbine shooters planned their attack for Hitler’s birthday–albeit couched in more populist rhetoric. Now, the supremacist rhetoric is explicit.
So, what’s causing this? Perhaps that’s a question better left for future generations of social scientists, but that isn’t exactly reassuring for those of us alive now. I can wager a few guesses–White supremacy and capitalism.
The White supremacist argument can actually go a long way to, on its own, undermining the gun control and mental health questions. Mental health is the obvious excuse for these shooters, and applied only to certain classes of killers. Black killers–while even more greatly socially determined and limiting attacks to a smaller number of victims–get jail and are afforded full agency (which is not otherwise allowed to Black folks), while White people are absolved of their agency and personal responsibility under the color of mental illness, despite killing more and more egregiously. While mental health is a major issue affecting all of our communities, blaming mental health is to both affirm White supremacy and stigmatize those with mental health problems (itself, in a way, socially determined or socially constructed, as per Foucault, Deleuze, etc.), and we need only look at disparities in mental health access and resources between Black and White communities.
Gun control is also inherently racialized; while these attacks build the case for gun control, it will be disparately enforced against communities of color rather than White people. Black communities already experience a level of gun control that would give the NRA wet dreams, a level that greatly exceeds even the hyperbolic fear-mongering of libertarians and conservatives. With well over half of Black folks in this country under some sort of intensive supervision–incarceration, probation/parole, school zero-tolerance/SRO/metal detector schemes, familial ties which still expose the unconvicted to random searches, pretextual traffic stops and Terry stops–Black folks can barely buy a gun without having the full weight of the law dropped on them, yet White folks can pass background checks and amass a considerable arsenal.
And those arsenals are being amassed for the same reason that these killings are happening–white people who are disconnected from the White Capitalist power structure, who lack the insulation from social change and economic hardship, who fear having to personally face the type of oppression that has been confronting people of color for centuries. These attacks, then, can be seen as the means of less-powerful yet decidedly still privileged Whites to simultaneously call out to the white power structure for aid along racial solidarity lines, while also taking matters into their own hands because of the ineffectiveness of White liberal/moderate political and economic elites to toe the racial line to their satisfaction. Thus, these killings can be linked directly to the (perceived) changing racial-economic nature of the country. While it is clear that Whites as a whole are even better situated relative to people of color than several decades ago, or even several years ago, there is some superficial powershifting that worries these aggrieved poor Whites. Whether by increased prominence in the media, to selective ascension and glass-ceiling shattering, to demands made upon the White power structure by organized Black social movements, Whites are afraid of any relative shift in power. This plays out not only in mass killings, but also in police and vigilante murders of people of color (and of course elsewhere).
Capitalism also plays a central role in all of this. With the economic collapse a few years ago, Blacks were hardest hit, but poor Whites were also hit hard. This meant massive job loss, loss of economic security, and general decrease in status. Because of decades of work to undermine class solidarity in favor of racial solidarity, poor Whites continued to see Blacks as economic competitors, rather than seeing them as allies and turning opposition toward those rich Whites that tanked the economy and raided their pensions to enrich themselves. The fundamental nature of Capitalism depends on this inter-class division along racial lines to maintain the power of the Capitalist class.
It’s easy to ignore the social foundations of this crisis and look to easy fixes like gun control and mental health, but it won’t really address the problem, and will only play into the advancement of the problems that are driving these mass killings. Instead, we have to look to those social theories–those of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber–that have stood the test of time and explain the phenomenon occurring today with the same precision that they explained the phenomena of their own times. We have to look at the policies being implemented by our elected leaders and the widespread collateral consequences they have. And we have to look at the inequities in our society first and foremost to both understand the causes and implement effective, radical solutions.