There’s no need for this.
It’s rare, and very sad, to have three mass shootings in the news at the same time. Yesterday in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh temple, killing six congregants and wounding others, including a police officer, before police shot and killed him. It comes just as we are still making sense of the movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, two weekends ago, and as Tucson, Arizona shooter Jared Loughner returns to court tomorrow and is expected to change his plea from “insanity” to “guilty.”
One of the problems I’ve seen with the American public’s analysis and understanding of those who commit mass shootings is that we tend to forget the details over time. Right now, as awful as it is, we have the opportunity to look at three suspects — and coverage of them — side by side: Page, Holmes, and Loughner.
Page: His identity was just revealed this morning, and so far the coverage has focused on three things: his military service, his apparent white-supremacy leanings, and the fact that he played in a hardcore band that expressed those leanings. Early on in the reporting cycle, this is typical; we hear about the surface-level stuff, but deeper issues take time for journalists to tease out. Page was also an army veteran. He was never deployed. It’s unlikely he had PTSD, but possible that other mental issues made him unfit for military service. It’s also possible that his political views took him to a rare and extreme place. We won’t know for a while, yet.
Holmes: At first, there was speculation about whether violent movies or video games inspired him to kill 10 people and injure dozens more. Some also questioned whether the Devil — or demonic possession — was involved. We now know Holmes had deep psychological issues that worried his doctors, and that he was dropping out of grad school — often a sign of worsening mental illness.
Loughner: Again, early reports were way off. Reporters pegged Loughner as a metal fan and an occultist, when in reality it looks like he was deeply disturbed. He has spent the better part of the last year and a half in a psychiatric unit. Now, doctors think they have restored him to a level of competency that would allow him to stand trial. The question remains: was he mentally sound when he fired into that Tucson crowd?
Frequently, psychological issues are core to these men’s struggles. I’m not saying all mentally ill folks are time bombs ready to go off. It isn’t like that. Most people with mental-health struggles, just like most video-game fans, most occultists, most Satanists, most goths, most metalheads, and so on, are not going to hurt anyone. Ever.
What I am saying is, since we know that mental-health issues are central to many mass shootings, what purpose does it serve to call Page a “metal head” on the front page of a major news site — other than to make it sound like his affiliation with metal somehow sparked the killing (it didn’t)? Or even to suggest that metalheads are somehow more likely to fire guns into churches where people are congregating peacefully (they aren’t).
Sure, I know that reporters are also trying to give readers a picture of who this guy was. But the way we dissect these reports, we’re looking for clues — why did he do it? Every piece of information becomes part of the blame game. And when we look in the wrong places, not only does it reinforce negative, incorrect stereotypes about unrelated groups (such as metal fans), but it keeps us from looking in the right places. And that’s the only thing that will help us prevent such tragedies in the future.