How our president and our mass shooters are connected to the same dark psychic forces.
What links Donald Trump to the men who massacred innocents in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend? Note that I said both men: the one with the white-nationalist manifesto and the one with some kind of atheist-socialist politics; the one whose ranting about a “Hispanic invasion” echoed Trump’s own rhetoric and the one who was anti-Trump and also apparently the lead singer in a “pornogrind” band.
Bringing up their differing worldviews can be a way for Trump-supporting or anti-anti-Trump conservatives to diminish or dismiss the president’s connection to these shootings. That’s not what I’m doing. I think Trump is deeply connected to what happened last weekend, deeply connected to both massacres. Not because his immigration rhetoric drove the El Paso shooter to mass murder in some direct and simple way; life and radicalism and violence are all more complicated than that. But because Trump participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters, and having a participant as president makes the problem worse.
The president’s bigoted rhetoric is obviously part of this. Marianne Williamson put it best, in the last Democratic debate: There really is a dark psychic force generated by Trump’s political approach, which from its birther beginnings has consistently encouraged and fed on a fevered and paranoid form of right-wing politics, and dissolved quarantines around toxic and dehumanizing ideas. And the possibility that Trump’s zest for demonization can feed a demonic element in the wider culture is something the many religious people who voted for the president should be especially willing to consider.
But the connection between the president and the young men with guns extends beyond Trump’s race-baiting to encompass a more essential feature of his public self — which is not the rhetoric or ideology that he deploys, but the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career.
Here I would dissent, mildly, from the desire to tell a mostly ideological story in the aftermath of El Paso, and declare war on “white nationalism” — a war the left wants because it has decided that all conservatism can be reduced to white supremacy, and the right wants as a way of rebutting and rejecting that reductionism.
By all means disable 8Chan and give the F.B.I. new marching orders; by all means condemn racism more vigorously than this compromised president can do. But recognize we’re dealing with a pattern of mass shootings, encompassing both the weekend’s horrors, where the personal commonalities between the shooters are clearly more important than the political ones. Which suggests that the white nationalism of internet failsons is like the allegiance to an imaginary caliphate that motivated the terrorists whose depredations helped get Trump elected in the first place. It’s often just a carapace, a flag of convenience, a performance for the vast TV-and-online audience that now attends these grisly spectacles, with a malignant narcissism and nihilism underneath.
And this is what really links Trump to all these empty male killers, white nationalists and pornogrind singers alike. Like them he is a creature of our late-modern anti-culture, our internet-accelerated dissolution of normal human bonds. Like them he plainly believes in nothing but his ego, his vanity, his sense of spite and grievance, and the self he sees reflected in the mirror of television, mass media, online.
Because he is rich and famous and powerful, he can get that attention with a tweet about his enemies, and then experience the rush of a cable-news segment about him. He doesn’t need to plot some great crime to lead the news; he just has to run for president. But having him as president — having him as a political exemplar for his party, and a cultural exemplar of manhood for his supporters and opponents both — is a constant ratification of the idea that we exist as celebrities or influencers or we don’t exist at all, and that our common life is essentially a form of reality television where it doesn’t matter if you’re the heel or hero so long as you’re the star.
One recurring question taken up in this column is whether something good might come out of the Trump era. I keep returning to this issue because unlike many conservatives who opposed him in 2016, I actually agree with, or am sympathetic toward, versions of ideas that Trump has championed — the idea of a
- more populist and worker-friendly conservative economics, the idea of a
- foreign policy with a more realpolitik and anti-interventionist spirit, the idea that
- decelerating low-skilled immigration would benefit the common good, the idea that
- our meritocratic, faux-cosmopolitan elite has badly misgoverned the republic.
But to take this view, and to reject the liberal claim that any adaptation to populism only does the devil’s work, imposes a special obligation to recognize the profound emptiness at the heart of Trump himself. It’s not as if you could carve away his race-baiting and discover a healthier populism instead, or analyze him the way you might analyze his more complex antecedents, a Richard Nixon or a Ross Perot. To analyze Trump is to discover only bottomless appetite and need, and to carve at him is like carving at an online troll: The only thing to discover is the void.
So in trying to construct a new conservatism on the ideological outline of Trumpism, you have to be aware that you’re building around a sinkhole and that your building might fall in.
The same goes for any conservative response to the specific riddle of mass shootings. Cultural conservatives get a lot of grief when they respond to these massacres by citing moral and spiritual issues, rather than leaping straight to gun policy (or in this case, racist ideology). But to look at the trend in these massacres, the spikes of narcissistic acting-out in a time of generally-declining violence, the shared bravado and nihilism driving shooters of many different ideological persuasions, is to necessarily encounter a moral and spiritual problem, not just a technocratic one.
But the dilemma that conservatives have to confront is that you can chase this cultural problem all the way down to its source in lonely egomania and alienated narcissism, and you’ll still find Donald Trump’s face staring back to you.
What ends lives? Gunfire.
What saves lives? The sound of gunfire.
The Virginia Beach shooting on Friday, when an employee of the city government killed 12 people — 11 of whom were his co-workers — is notable only for its familiarity. Another mass shooting. In fact, it was the worst mass-casualty event anyone can remember since … November 2018, at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
But details of the rampage include one fact unique to the growing list of active-shooter cases: the assailant used a .45-caliber handgun with extended magazines and a barrel suppressor. This small detail — that the loaded gun was fitted with simple, and lawful, “silencing” equipment — threatens to upend how we understand and train for active-shooter cases in the future.
Gun violence in America is unique not simply because of our culture but also because we have lawful weaponry that can kill many people very quickly. In terms of death-to-time ratio, single-shot weapons are preferable to multi-round handguns and handguns are preferable to the semiautomatic, and the favorite of mass shooters, the AR-15. It’s a simple calculation of time.
But the Virginia Beach killer seemed to want the anonymity of silence, a tool of the coward, not one seeking fame or a blaze of glory. None of the videos or manifestos we’ve seen from New Zealand to Las Vegas appear to be part of the Virginia Beach story. The killer wanted silence.
Silence is the enemy of time. An entire “run, hide, fight” policy that governs every school, workforce and the first-responder community in active-shooter cases is conditioned on an important premise: that there is situational awareness that shots have been fired, bullets are flying and it’s always best to run the other way. Once you know where the bullets are coming from, you can — as I tell my own kids — “sprint if you can; duck if you can’t; and fight only if you must. I only have one of each of you.”
Bystanders can run from the gunfire only if they know where it is coming from. This is why the best active-shooter training focuses on access to building or school exits and open, but protected, spaces so that potential victims can get out of the way.
For first responders, in a world that has adapted to lessons learned in school shootings, they no longer assume a potential hostage situation and now are trained to run toward the gunfire — assuming, of course, they know where it is. As Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent, told me, this “is a major shift in the attack methodology. Now, absent having the situational awareness that an attack is taking place due to the sound of recognizable gunfire, we must reconfigure our ability to identify the immediate threat along with the corresponding response.”
Survival is all about sound.
In a society with no movement toward sensible gun-control measures, the flight-and/or-fight reaction is one of the few elements in an attack that citizens can control. In some instances, flight is not possible; in other instances, potential victims engage. Recently, for example, in North Carolina and Colorado, brave bystanders have decided they had no choice but to “fight if you must,” delaying the killer’s spree; both young men saved the lives of others but died as a result.
It is true that suppressors do not quiet guns; industry experts often cringe at the popular reference to “silencers.” Instead, suppressors act like a car muffler — both devices were pioneered by the same inventor, Hiram Percy Maxim — by cooling and dissipating the gases that emanate from the chamber as the trigger is being pulled. That alters the sound enough that the gunshot’s normal sound — a suppressed gunshot can sound like a chair scraping on the floor — is difficult to identify.
Suppressors are legal in 42 states, though they are regulated under the National Firearms Act and therefore are treated like other specialty gun accessories, including requiring a background check and a $200 tax. Recently, making suppressors more easily accessible has become a focal point of gun rights activists who want to increase dwindling gun sales and hunting groups who argue that suppressors are actually a health necessity in that they reduce hearing loss. As recently as June 2017, the then-Republican-majority House was considering a law to make the regulation of suppressors less onerous. You know, for the sake of the auditory sensitivities of shooters.
One mass shooting with a suppressor does not make a trend, nor does it require us to alter how we train for or respond to them. But, it does mean we must continue to vigorously regulate and even eventually ban these devices as essential steps in adopting common-sense gun-control measures.
Gun rights advocates are correct when they say that laws will not end all gun violence. But they never finish that thought. Our gun safety goal, and homeland security goal, must be to minimize the increasing likelihood that lots of people can be killed in a matter of minutes, with no capacity for escape or rescue.
To protect life, time is of the essence. And sound adds precious seconds.
I’ll never forget April 20th, 1999.
James Shaw Jr. and his best friend had just sat down in a Waffle House outside Nashville early Sunday when a loud crashing sound rang out in the restaurant. At first, Mr. Shaw said Monday, he thought a dishwasher had knocked over some plates.
It quickly became clear what was happening. Bullets pierced the restaurant’s windows. A man collapsed onto the floor. Waiters ran.
Mr. Shaw and his friend raced to the hallway outside the restrooms, taking cover behind a swinging door. As the gunman entered the Waffle House to continue shooting, Mr. Shaw recounted on Monday, he looked for a moment to fight back.
“There is kind of no running from this,” Mr. Shaw, in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday, said when asked about what he was thinking. “I’m going to have to try to find some kind of flaw or a point in time where I could make it work for myself.”
During a sudden break in the firing, Mr. Shaw sprinted through the door as fast as he could, slamming into the gunman and knocking him to the ground. He grabbed the rifle and tossed it over the restaurant counter.
The gunman, Travis Reinking, 29, then ran away, the authorities said, but not before he had killed four people and injured at least four more
.. Mr. Shaw said he eventually found out that the pause in the gunman’s firing came when he was trying to reload the rifle. It was a brief enough break, Mr. Shaw said, for him to make a move.
After Mr. Shaw wrested the weapon away, he said, the gunman left on foot at a jogging pace. Officials said the gunman shed his green jacket shortly thereafter. It was found with two loaded magazines in the pockets.
The three types of weapons used by the man accused of killing 12 people in a Colorado movie theater — a semiautomatic variation of the military’s M-16 rifle, a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun and at least one .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol — are among the most popular guns available in the multibillion-dollar American firearms market.
.. It appears, the police say, that James E. Holmes, the man accused in the Aurora shootings, used all three types of weapons inside the theater as well, first firing the shotgun, then using the semiautomatic rifle until its 100-round barrel magazine jammed, and finishing off with a pistol. (A second .40-caliber pistol was also found at the scene, though it was unclear whether it had been used in the theater.)
.. Many other details about the rampage also remain unclear, like whether the gunman used soft-point or full-metal-jacket ammunition, or whether any of the firearms had been modified with scopes or night-vision devices.
.. the M-16, the signature weapon of the Vietnam War
.. If anything, the experts said, a shotgun in that situation might have been the most lethal, since every shell can spray a half-dozen or more pellets, each capable of killing or maiming a person. Twelve-gauge shotguns often fire five shells, and sometimes more
.. “Shotguns are a very good antipersonnel weapon at close range,” said John C. Cerar, the former commander of the firearms and tactics section for the New York Police Department.
.. AR-15, marketing more than a dozen models that range in price from about $700 to $2,000.
.. it is easy to handle and can be modified in numerous ways. Some soldiers call it “a Barbie doll for men” because it has a wide range of accessories and replacement parts, including different styles of barrels, stocks, magazines and scopes.
.. The M&P15 also comes in a variety of models that fire different sizes of ammunition, from .22-caliber to .30-caliber rounds.
The rifle used in Aurora fired .223-caliber ammunition, law enforcement officials said.
.. Those rounds — similar to the ammunition used in American M-16 and M-4 rifles — are smaller than the rounds fired by Afghan insurgents wielding Kalashnikov rifles, but pack far more power than .22-caliber rounds, even though they are only a hair’s-width larger in circumference.
.. Law enforcement officials said the 12-gauge shotgun used by Mr. Holmes was a Remington 870. The gun, which can be purchased for around $400, requires the user to pump a handle underneath the barrel to chamber new cartridges after each shot.
.. The handgun was a Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol, the officials said. The weapon is similar to the 9-millimeter handgun made famous in gangster films and rap music. The 9-millimeter has also been adopted by many police forces that had used .38-caliber revolvers and felt that they were being outgunned by criminals.
.. The .40-caliber Glock, versions of which sell for about $400, has become increasingly popular partly because its larger round makes it potentially more deadly than a 9-millimeter
.. Yet it has less recoil and is thus easier to handle than a .45-caliber handgun.
.. The pistols typically come with magazines capable of holding 13 to 17 cartridges.
.. Pistols are less accurate than rifles at longer distances and are widely considered harder to use because they cannot be braced against the shoulder. But in close quarters, they are plenty lethal.
But Granovetter thought it was a mistake to focus on the decision-making processes of each rioter in isolation. In his view, a riot was not a collection of individuals, each of whom arrived independently at the decision to break windows. A riot was a social process, in which people did things in reaction to and in combination with those around them. Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which he defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.
.. riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two.
.. Next to him is someone with a threshold of three, who would never break windows and loot stores unless there were three people right in front of him who were already doing that—and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyonearound him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
Granovetter was most taken by the situations in which people did things for social reasons that went against everything they believed as individuals. “Most did not think it ‘right’ to commit illegal acts or even particularly want to do so,” he wrote, about the findings of a study of delinquent boys. “But group interaction was such that none could admit this without loss of status; in our terms, their threshold for stealing cars is low because daring masculine acts bring status, and reluctance to join, once others have, carries the high cost of being labeled a sissy.” You can’t just look at an individual’s norms and motives. You need to look at the group.
.. the way to explain the school-shooting epidemic
.. think of it as a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot, in which each new participant’s action makes sense in reaction to and in combination with those who came before?
.. Then came Columbine. The sociologist Ralph Larkin argues that Harris and Klebold laid down the “cultural script” for the next generation of shooters.
.. Harris said he wanted to “kick-start a revolution.”
.. Larkin looked at the twelve major school shootings in the United States in the eight years after Columbine, and he found that in eight of those subsequent cases the shooters made explicit reference to Harris and Klebold.
.. Larkin says six were plainly versions of Columbine; of the eleven cases of thwarted shootings in the same period, Larkin says all were Columbine-inspired.
.. The kid who wants to be a chef and hears “non-specific, non-violent” voices requires a finely elaborated script in order to carry out his attack. That’s what Paton and Larkin mean: the effect of Harris and Klebold’s example was to make it possible for people with far higher thresholds—boys who would ordinarily never think of firing a weapon at their classmates—to join in the riot.
- Aguilar dressed up like Eric Harris.
- He used the same weapons as Harris.
- He wore a backpack like Harris’s.
- He hid in the changing room of the store until 11:14 a.m.—the precise time when the Columbine incident began—and then came out shooting.
.. Between Columbine and Aaron Ybarra, the riot changed: it became more and more self-referential, more ritualized, more and more about identification with the school-shooting tradition.
- Eric Harris wanted to start a revolution.
- Aguilar and Ybarra wanted to join one.
- Harris saw himself as a hero. Aguilar and Ybarra were hero-worshippers.
.. “My number one idol is Eric Harris. . . . I think I just see myself in him. Like he would be the kind of guy I’d want to be with. Like, if I knew him, I just thought he was cool.”
..“He appears to lack typical relational capacity for family members. . . .He indicates that he would have completed the actions, but he doesn’t demonstrate any concern or empathy for the impact that that could have had on others.” The conclusion of all three of the psychologists who spoke at the hearing was that LaDue had a mild-to-moderate case of autism: he had an autism-spectrum disorder (A.S.D.), or what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.
.. When should he attack? April made the best sense, “because that’s the month that all the really bad tragedies happened like . . . Titanic, Columbine, Oklahoma City bombing, Boston bombing.”
.. He was even more scathing about the Boston bombers’ use of pressure-cooker bombs. He thought they made a “crappy design of it.”
.. In the world before Columbine, people like LaDue played with chemistry sets in their basements and dreamed of being astronauts.
.. The idea that people with autism-spectrum disorders can stumble into patterns of serious criminality has a name: counterfeit deviance. It has long been an issue in cases involving A.S.D. teen-agers and child pornography. “They are intellectually intact people, with good computer skills but extraordinary brain-based naïveté, acting in social isolation, compulsively pursuing interests which often unknowingly take them into forbidden territory,”
.. But the riot has now engulfed the boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.