The Mass Shooting as a Medium for Extremists and the Disaffected

Lavinia Zapata embraces her son, Jorge, after a mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, 2018. At least 17 people were killed Wednesday at this school about an hour northwest of Miami, law enforcement officials said. A suspect, a former student, is in custody. (Saul Martinez/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

Yesterday all too familiar news broke about another mass shooting. This time at a high school in Florida. This morning the alleged shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

We may learn more in the coming weeks about why Cruz did this. It’s unlikely, given that he’s still alive, that Cruz’s motives will be as inaccessible as those of Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock. They could be as inscrutable as those of Tucson shooter Jared Loughner.

We splash the carnage of each new shooting across our screens, we drape the perpetrators in infamy, and along the way we inspire more of the same.

What’s very likely is that Cruz’s motivations will be pretty unique to Cruz, and that’s an important thing to remember as we talk about these mass shootings as an issue plaguing America.

The debate around these incidents turns, inevitably and fruitlessly, to gun control. But access to guns in America is hardly a modern phenomena. The frequency of this type of carnage is.

There is no common theme to the motivations of these shooters. Some are mentally ill. Some are racists. Some are political or religious extremists.

Which means that the mass shooting is a medium. A blank canvass onto which murderous extremists and the dangerously disaffected can paint their brutality.

Sadly, we’re the ones who are providing the canvass. Our intense interest in these incidents drives intense media coverage. Intense media coverage spreads the mass shooting bug like a disease.

“These things are clustering in time, and one is causing the next one to be more likely,” said Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told the Washington Post in 2016. “That’s definitional of a contagious disease. Flu is a risk factor for more flu. Mass shootings are a risk factor for mass shootings.”

Not everyone agrees with that theory, but it’s a compelling one to this observer.

We splash the carnage of each new shooting across our screens, we drape the perpetrators in infamy, and along the way we inspire more of the same.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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