Do you remember in 2013 when “Boston bomber” Jahar Tsarnaev was depicted on a Rolling Stones magazine cover looking like the next teen heartthrob and pop sensation? Do you remember how appalled conservative white America was to see a Muslim terrorist, who set off two homemade bombs outside the annual Boston Marathon, killing 3 and injuring hundreds, portrayed glamorously in what looked like a composite photo of Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars. Remember how disgusted they were to read an article that aimed to humanize a monster by boring us with sympathetic tales of his troubled home life and how beloved he was by those who know him best? After all, was this guy a terrorist or the kid next door? Was he an Islamic extremist or the latest contestant on “The Voice”?
I ask because 5 years later I find myself wondering what happened to all that outrage now that news of every white male mass shooter comes with a heaping side of humanizing, white sympathy inducing commentary about their histories of “mental issues” and their troubled pasts.
The latest example of this came Sunday in the form of one David Katz, the shooter who killed two people and wounded 10 others before taking his own life at an esports tournament in Jacksonville, Florida. By Monday, CNN, FOX and other major news networks had made it a point to report that Katz “was in treatment for psychiatric issues at least as early as the age of 12, according to family divorce records.” (Cue tiny violin)
Yes, Mr. Katz had it rough growing up. His parents divorced, he has a history of mental illnesses he took a number of prescribed medicine for and police records show 26 calls to the police from the Katz family home in Columbia, Maryland, from 1993 to 2009, for “issues ranging from “mental illness” to domestic disputes.” And on top of it all, he reeeaaaaally hates losing in Madden tournaments (cut music).
That’s right folks, all of this in depth “let’s get to know this week’s killer on a personal level” reporting comes even after it’s been reported that Katz was, allegedly, upset about losing a game of Madden during the tournament and clearly targeted other gamers. So it’s being speculated that this wasn’t just another murder at random, but likely premeditated murder of purposely selected victims and we’re still getting the same old “disgruntled white boy” sob story attached to reportings of his crimes.
I try to imagine the same kind of profile being done on some younger black man who got pissed playing Madden and hauled off shot a bunch of his peers and I laugh (to keep myself from breaking shit). I can only imagine Fox News and the like running opportunistic stories citing this tragedy as a failing of black American culture (read: “What about ‘black on black crime’”) and “proof” that “Black Lives Matter” is a sham.
But *whew*, to posses the blank slate of whiteness in America, boy.
This is all reminiscent of back in March of this year when Austin bomber, Mark Anthony Conditt, a man who set off 5 bombs (specifically in largely black communities) killing 2 and severely injuring others, and was being touted as a tortured young American who simply snapped after having a hard go of it.
Things I found out that I never asked about Conditt include what various childhood photos of him look like, the fact that he was an unemployed college dropout who was frustrated with his life (I’m not sure if we’re describing a maniac or singing the “Friends” theme song), that he had no criminal record and that he was known, by his loved ones, for his “dry wit” and for being a deep thinker.
It’s as if you need to be a terrorist of color for mainstream media to immediately understand how inappropriate it is to profile a killer this way. But when they’re white, even self described “psychopaths” like Conditt can have media, government and half the internet bending over backwards to explain why he isn’t technically a terrorist at all.
It’s been pointed out on various news outlets and by many on the web, that in order to fit the legal definition for terrorism, a political or ideological motive must be apparent. While this may be true, the label itself is besides the point. Even if you don’t want to call people like David Katz and Mark Conditt terrorists (Conditt was a literal suicide bomber, but whatever), going out of your way to relate to these people is, not only disrespectful to their victims and hurtful to those mourning them, but it sends the message we’d rather humanize white, disgruntled nutcase than take realistic measures to prevent the next one from emerging.
It was the same in February after Nicholas Cruz gunned down 17 classmates and faculty members at Parkland high school in Florida. He was described to us as a deeply troubled teen who was ostracized by his peers and bullied which may have pushed him to committing this horrific act. The killer gained so much sympathy that in response to nationwide student walkouts in protest of lax gun laws and in advocacy for stricter regulation, the “Walk Up, Not Out” movement started trending on social media suggesting that, instead of protesting guns, students should learn to be nicer and more inclusive of less sociable kids to prevent them from becoming murderous lunatics. Not only is this victim blaming and implying that unpopularity causes mass killers, it solicits empathy for white people who have done heinous things in a way that would never be afforded to violent people of color.
Could you imagine the contempt you would draw for suggesting that less islamophobia may prevent the next Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, or that the staff for Charlie Hebdo was responsible for their own slayings having been so mean and rude to Muslims with their use of caricature?
In fact, anytime a person even implies that the U.S. is complicit in all the terrorist plots against us due to our imperialist foreign policy and destabilizing of any foreign government we don’t like, at least half the country gets their star spangled boxers all in a bunch.
White domestic terrorism is the biggest threat to Americans simply because it’s a thing society refuses to call a thing let alone call for preventative measures to be enacted against it. We’ve seen stories like this latest shooting in Jacksonville come up every few months or so consistently over the last couple years and all we seem to do is become more complacent and numb to it.
The problem isn’t so much that we won’t call these acts of violence “terrorism” but that we refuse to treat them as such. And, at the root of the issue, we have killers who look like average, easily humanized, white American and a strong majority of white Americans who will always refuse to see a systemic threat in themselves.