Stop Lowering the Flags

Flags fly at half-staff at Hector International Airport in Fargo in honor of the Colorado shooting victims. David Samson / The Forum

“It’s never just guns. It’s never just mental health. It’s never just radical ideology. It’s never just sad manhood. It’s almost always a toxic combination.”

That’s what New York Daily News opinion editor Josh Greenman wrote on Twitter in the time after the mass shooting in El Paso, but before the one in Dayton. His statement highlights the confounding reality of these mass-shooting attacks. They are, each of them, an expression of malcontent perpetrated on a mass of people with a weapon.

Outside of that, there is little in the way of commonality. It’s not even always a gun that’s used to maim and kill. Sometimes it’s a car. Sometimes it’s propane tanks.

Every time these horrors happen we are inundated by loudmouths touting some solution – gun bans! video game bans! mental health crackdown! – they see as a supposed silver bullet for preventing future horrors.

We need to realize that the mass shooting has become a medium. A vehicle for expressing the rage of its perpetrator.

The Washington Post has an interesting article in this vein – talking about the viral nature of these attacks and how they inspire others – albeit one which contains this passage demonstrating a palpable lack of self-awareness: “Showing up outside a popular bar around 1 a.m. wearing body armor and carrying a high-capacity rifle and extra magazines, the Dayton shooter instantly joined the ranks of gunmen who have learned online, in video games and in countless movies and TV shows how to escalate personal beefs into community-shattering events.”

Do you know where else these shooters learn about about mass shootings? News outlets like the Washington Post and countless others, both national and local. Just about every time one happens it turns into a moment, with our divided country retreating to its ideological corners to shout at one another.

As if there was a point to any of that. These two most recent shootings show how futile it is to try and find a unifying motivation for them. The El Paso shooter’s manifesto described his attack as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

The Dayton shooter, an Elizabeth Warren supporter, wrote: “I want socialism, and i’ll [sic] not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding.”

Neither socialism, nor the political stylings of Elizabeth Warren, are to blame for the Dayton shooting. Opposition to illegal immigration is not to blame for the El Paso attack.

Mass attacks have become a way for malvolent extremists to get the nation’s attention, even if just for a while.

Maybe we should stop giving them the attention.

On Twitter (though he has subsequently been bullied into a kinda-sorta apology for it) celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson made the statistical argument for this:

“Often our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data,” is spot-on accurate, but beyond that, the one common theme in all of these attacks is that the attackers are trying to get our attention.

The causes aren’t uniform – they range from Islamic extremism to extreme partisanship to white supremacy – but the desire notoriety is.

What if we didn’t give it to them?

What if we stopped talking about their motivations and manifestos?

What if we stopped lowering the flags?

What if the news media stopped treating every new attack as national breaking news?

What if the politicians stopped trying to shoehorn each new attack into their preferred political agenda?

That’s a lot to ask for, especially when so much of what politicians and journalists and pundits talk about is driven by what’s popular on social media. Plus, how are we going to get the click-hungry news media to ignore such bloody stories?

But I’m not sure there’s any other way to take the wind out of the sails of these attackers than to ignore them, and their stupid justificaitons, as best we can.

I’ve made this argument before, but it’s one worth making again and again until we start reacting differently.

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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