Growing up, I spent every summer at my dad’s place in the middle of nowhere, and could blast away in any direction with a variety of rifles without fear of hitting anything other than trees or ponds.
Regarding gun control, I was born and raised in Canada; I appreciate the restrictions we have. This piece isn’t intended to debate gun control in the United States. If Sandy Hook under a competent president didn’t make a difference, I don’t see any significant change happening soon. I’ll save my breath in that regard.
As far as terrorism is concerned, I should establish my bona fides.
I have a master’s degree in military history. My focus was on U.S. strategic containment of communism. Specifically, their counterinsurgency strategies for preventing large portions of Latin America following suit in the wake of the Cuban revolution.
I studied rebellion, insurgency, and terrorism under some of the best history professors in the land.
In the wake of the horror of the Las Vegas shooting, one of the many debates is whether this qualifies as “terrorism.” The words “lone wolf” get thrown around by one group, while others assert what he did—I won’t publish his name—instilled terror, and therefore is terrorism. He was a terrorist.
A statement from the FBI says violence is a “terrorist incident” when it is “in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
There is a problem with rightwing terrorism in the U.S. In fact, a recent study by Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting showed how, in the last decade, homegrown, rightwing terror is a greater threat to Americans than Islamic terror is.
In July 2016, Donald Trump said during a speech in Philadelphia “We now have an administration and a former secretary of state who refuse to say ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’” And yet, despite there being greater incidence of rightwing terrorism in the U.S., Trump doesn’t use the term “rightwing terror.”
But these rightwing groups do meet the FBI definitions for terrorism. Violence is being used against civilians in the pursuit of political and social aims. Whether it’s Islam or Christianity or something else, religion can be weaponized to bolster commitment to acts of terror, but it’s not a requirement. But what about the Las Vegas shooter? Or the Sandy Hook shooter? Or one of many other mass murderers in recent U.S. history? Are they “terrorists”?
At first, I wondered if it mattered to label them so. Did it make a difference if we used the term “lone wolf” or “terrorist”?
I saw the lone wolf term as having merit. Yes, what these men do instills terror, but it didn’t seem to meet the FBI definition. And I wondered at the value of labeling them terrorists; what would that accomplish?
Then I took a close look at the statistics regarding the perpetrators, along with some supporting research, and it made me realize the so-called “lone wolf” mass murderer is indeed a terrorist, and it’s important to label him such.
A statistical analysis of mass shootings (three or more fatalities, not including the shooter), since 1982 reveals some surprising facts. In this data set, there were 92 such attacks. Of those, 54% of the time the shooter was white. This is actually less than the U.S. population average. Looking across the same period of time, in 1980, whites made up 80% of the U.S. population. In 2000, that dropped to 69%. As of 2013, it’s dropped further to 63%. Across those 35 years, the average percentage of the U.S. population being white is approximately 70%, whereas the mass shooters were 54% white.
I also looked at the mass shootings for just the last ten years, and there was little change. I increased the fatality count to more than five, and still little change. I increased the fatality numbers again, and made it for only the last decade. In the last ten years, where a mass shooting took more than ten lives, there were eight such events. My gut would tell me that most of the killers were white, but my gut was wrong. It’s only three; less than half.
At a per capita level, whites are slightly underrepresented as mass shooters in the U.S. Which doesn’t mean that such killings by whites aren’t often racially motivated. Far from it.
TMZ wrote of the Las Vegas murderer that he “Doesn’t fit the mass shooter profile.” Comedy writer Megan Amram replied on Twitter: “White man? Sure does.” This is bolstered by headlines on Newsweek that say “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.”
It’s technically true, but the per capita data requires analysis to show that in a country that is mostly white, most of the shooters are also going to be white.
This is not a popular thing to write, and I’m not defending white men. (I’ve written before about how privileged we white men are.) I’m just revealing what the data show.
I found the racial analysis surprising. Now for the part that was not surprising. Of the 92 mass shootings, only two were carried out by women. One shooting was a man and a woman. Of the two carried out by solo women, one resulted in four fatalities, the other, eight.
Overwhelmingly, regardless of race, it’s men who kill.
A 2014 study of mass murderers has the title “Triple entitlement and homicidal anger.” Those three types of entitlement are: “(1) white entitlement, (2) middle-class instability and downward mobility in the postindustrial economy, and (3) heterosexual masculinity and its relationship to violence.”
The first one, the data reveal, only applies to 54% of events perpetrated since 1982. But across the races, these are men angered by a perceived loss of status in society.
There is a clear trend of motivation, and it is politically and socially inclined. These aren’t cases of a “lone wolf” who made a random decision to commit an evil act. For decades, there has been a shift in American society. As previously mentioned, the percentage of whites relative to other races is shrinking. For some white men, that generates anger, because seeing non-whites play a larger role in society impacts their sense of racial entitlement. Beyond that, there is frustration in terms of the loss of the “masculine male provider.”
The middle class is shrinking, traditionally male jobs are becoming fewer due to automation, as well as becoming more open to being done by women. Advances in women’s rights, education, and access to the workforce has reduced the need for the traditional male provider.
This reality hits a lot of guys right in the nut sack.
I’m not saying masculinity is inherently bad. It’s toxic masculinity that’s evil and prompts evil deeds. When masculinity is fragile, when it feels threatened due to political and societal change, it can result in violence against innocents that intends to make a socio-political statement about their frustration with how things aren’t the way they want them to be. That’s terrorism. It clearly meets the FBI definition of it. Sometimes it’s white male terrorism. Sometimes it’s just male terrorism. The key factor here is: maleness.
And due to societal changes, men are shifting from “provider mindset” to a “protector mindset” in order to retain their sense of masculinity, and this is driving gun sales. What’s more, research shows masculinity is associated with anger and authoritarian values.
Is there value in labeling it terrorism? I believe there is, because it allows us to better understand it and hopefully reduce the incidence in the future.
As stated, terrorists want to effect socio-political change. The fragile men who commit these horrible acts imagine a dream world of yore when they were on top; when the world was set up to serve them, hand them opportunities. They feel entitled to it, and when those entitled feelings aren’t realized, they sometimes fight back. Add easy access to lethal weaponry, and the results can be devastating.
Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker that we shouldn’t label the Las Vegas shooter a terrorist because there was no clear political motivation. But as I’ve shown, there is both political and social motivation, as per the FBI definition. It’s just subtler than belonging to ISIS or a white power group. It’s toxic masculinity battling back against socio-political change that hits them right in the entitlement and tarnishes their self-image as a “real man.” These types of terrorists are still trying to make a statement, manifesto or no. And the statements they make always get the mass media coverage they desire.
Most such killers have a history of domestic violence; I expect that many of these male shooters would be anti-feminist, seeing it as a threat to their male entitlement. Feminism is a social and political movement, and being in opposition to it—viewing feminism and the growing influence of women in society as a threat to their masculinity—adds additional weight to labeling such mass murderers as terrorists.
What’s the solution to battling such terror? Gun control aside, I think it’s important to have better dialogues with men to communicate they are valued and do have a place in modern society, and to help them find it. They don’t need to fulfill some antiquated idea of masculinity to lead happy and successful lives.
There is more to this story that requires elucidation. Of the 92 incidents studied since 1982, 77 had either diagnosed or an otherwise indicated history of mental health problems. Again, this is not a popular thing to write, but the data is there. It’s worth noting the data that reveal these unpopular facts—white men are underrepresented per capita and mental health problems are overrepresented—was compiled by a left leaning news organization. It’s not from Breitbart.
According to MentalHealth.gov, “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.”
I don’t doubt those numbers. However, it is possible for the above statement to be true and for it to also be true that most mass shooters in the U.S. in the last 35 years had some form of mental health problem. This is not intended to vilify, but to understand that there may be a relationship between the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity and how it can impel a very small portion of those with mental health problems to act out violently.
When 98% of such terrorists are men, that’s the data point to focus on as a root cause, not mental health. We must address the very roots of toxic masculinity, along with white entitlement in those 54% of cases where it likely played a role, and find ways to increase understanding, improve opportunities, and reduce anger and improve the mental health of these men.
Again, at the population level, those with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than those without. Toxic masculinity and white entitlement, however, can become a cancerous growth in the minds of men, some of whom do have mental health problems, resulting in violence.
Solutions to situations such as these are often multi-factorial. It’s not just addressing toxic masculinity, but reducing stigma for being open about mental health problems. That’s another aspect of traditional maleness that needs addressing: the perceived need to be stoic, to not seek help. And the government has a critical role to play in ensuring such help is easily accessible. Sound economic policy that strengthens the middle class can also be of benefit.
And yes, if there was less easy access to high-capacity weaponry, that would certainly help too.
James S. Fell, MBA, writes for the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Women’s Health, Men’s Health, AskMen, the Guardian, TIME Magazine and many other fine publications. His first book was published by Random House Canada in 2014. He is currently working on his next book, which is about life-changing moments.