by Michael Kimmel
It’s been four years since James Holmes murdered 12 people and injured 70 more in a mass shooting on July 20, 2012, in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Acting alone, he was immediately declared by pundits and public alike to be mentally ill. A year earlier, in January 2011, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at a political rally in a parking lot in suburban Tucson, killing six and wounding, among others, then U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Again, acting alone. Again, clearly mentally ill. On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza murdered 20 first graders and six adults (and his mother) in Newtown, Connecticut, before taking his own life. Again, acting alone, he was also assumed to have been mentally ill. The next year, in September 2013, military contractor Aaron Alexis killed 12 and injured four at the Washington Navy Yard. Again acting alone, he was said to have been delusional, and heard voices from aliens (the extraterrestrial kind). Even when Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American churchgoers at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, and proclaimed his actions as a call to political revolution, commentators worried about his mental health and wondered why no one had intervened.
This begs a somewhat different question: why are there so many mentally ill people walking around our nation armed with assault weapons in the first place? Hint: one reason is that since the Reagan-era policy to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill, our prisons have become our new mental hospitals. Another reason might be our national allergy toward sensible gun control—for which the National Rifle Association is the chief pollinator.
But it also begs for comparison. In November 2009, Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, murdered 13 and wounded 32 in Fort Hood, Texas. Although he acted alone, commentators worried that this was the act of a terrorist. And in June 2016 when Omar Mateen, acting alone, murdered 49 and wounded 53 more in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, media quickly declared it a terrorist attack before they backpedaled furiously when they realized that it was an anti-gay hate crime with religious overtones and more than a hint of closeted self-loathing. And a month later, when Micah Xavier Thompson, acting alone, murdered five police officers in Dallas, commentators went as far as to announce a coming race war. (Indeed, the New York Post, never a beacon of measured restraint, blared “Civil War!” as its headline the next day.)
This is how racism works. It’s not intentional; it’s just how we are taught to see. When white people, acting alone, commit mass murder, we disaggregate, assuming individual pathology. They must have been crazy. When people of color, acting alone, commit mass murder, we aggregate, assuming that it is part of a larger pattern among “those people.” Those people are declaring war. (Of course, just the fact that we even have so many mass murderers that we are able to see such patterns, surely the only country in the world, should alone be enough to inspire legislators to actually do something.) Micah Johnson’s murderous rampage was disturbed, tragic, horrifying—but it was less a part of a larger pattern than Dylann Roof’s deliberate efforts to ignite a race war.
Even the “pattern” of police officers’ murders of unarmed black men is attributed not to some systematic pattern of a ruthless occupying army, but rather to the bad actions of rogue cops who behaved badly (and have yet to be convicted of any crime). Consider: in 2015, 990 people who were shot dead by the police in the United States—nearly double the entire homicide count in Britain (573).
Sometimes, the deranged actions of lone gunman are correctly perceived as both mental instability and distorted political vision, as in Nidal Hasan’s drift toward jihadism before the Fort Hood massacre. But most often, we see patterns among the marginalized, and random individual psychopathology among the majority.
Whatever their motivations—real or imagined—it is necessary to see these terrible crimes as the product of mental illness. But there are two other commonalities among all these cases, and they may also contribute to the carnage we must confront every week.
First, access to assault weapons. Nowhere on earth are there more weapons of mass assault in so many hands as in the United States. And nowhere is the rate of mass shootings higher. You think there’s a relationship? These aren’t hunting rifles as in Finland or military issue rifles as in Switzerland (where you keep your gun after military service). It’s more that America is increasingly looking like a military installation. The militarization of American culture is more than a bunch of insecure men driving Hummers and dreaming in testosterone; it’s the fact that our local domestic police forces are hard to distinguish from armies, either those attacking or defending our communities. Seeing these militarized police gives the impression that there are enemies within as well as without.
But it cannot just be guns. Guns don’t kill people; men with guns kill people. After all, women have just as much access to those weapons as men do, but they just don’t seem to take out their grievances in the same way that men do. And there are just as many mentally ill women out there, but they don’t seem to become mass murderers, do they? We have to pay attention to gender—to masculinity. White or black, self professed political revolutionaries or deranged mentally ill (or both), they are all male. All the shooters and virtually all the police. About nine in 10 murderers are men and about 98 percent of mass murderers are men. And when the police murder someone it’s close to 100 percent male. Black men’s lives matter.
What does masculinity have to do with these horrific events? Some part might be that violence is the way men are taught to deal with grievances, injuries and humiliation. From boys on a playground, taunting each other, daring the other to “start something” so that we can “finish it,” we are taught that violence is the way to right a wrong, to redress an injury. Real men don’t get mad or ashamed or humiliated—they get even.
In my study of men who murdered their spouses or those men who “went postal” and opened fire in their workplaces, I found that most experienced what I called “aggrieved entitlement.” Being fired, or being disrespected by their spouses was so humiliating that they felt they needed to restore their position by violence.
Some of the mass murderers who have splashed their rage on America’s consciousness may well have felt aggrieved, denied something to which they felt entitled: a job, respect, something else. And perhaps even those rogue police officers may have overreacted when they murdered unarmed black men who dared to disrespect their authority. This toxic brew of entitlement and humiliation is what legitimated redress through violence, and access to guns certainly contributes to our nation’s near-constant state of grieving. This is not to say, of course, that by understanding gender we can “explain” these rampage murders. But along with our reckoning on other crucial factors, we most assuredly cannot fully explain these horrific events without considering it.
Voice Male contributing editor Michael Kimmel is executive director of the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities and Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University in New York and the author or editor of a number of books on men and masculinities, including Angry White Men.