America needs to have an uncomfortable dialogue about mass murder

The tragedy in Sandy Hook, Connecticut is so incomprehensible that the inclination is to describe it as shocking. But it’s not. Mother Jones recently documented over sixty instances of mass or spree murders in the last 30 years.

I was in first grade when a woman named Laurie Dann entered a neighboring school and opened fire on a classroom, then fled. Dann had a history of mental instability and had threatened violence, but was able to legally buy guns. Like the Sandy Hook shooter, she grew up in the community on which she wreaked havoc. While law enforcement searched desperately for Dann, nearby schools went on lockdown. We watched as janitors pulled padlocked chains through the door handles and panicked parents escorted their children out of school. Dann killed herself after police surrounded a house where she was holding a family hostage. When my school merged with the one targeted by Dann, I learned how trauma stays with a community. As the survivors from that elementary school, many the same ages as the Sandy Hook victims, made their way through childhood into adulthood, some managed to recover, others, it seems, were permanently scarred. Laurie shot and injured several children, but only one victim died of his injuries, therefore she is not chronicled in the Mother Jones piece.

Years later I attended a predominately white, suburban high school where an awful lot of kids fit the bill of isolated, social outcasts. One of those “loners” was a young man named Benjamin Smith. Over a July fourth weekend in 1999, he went on a shooting rampage that spanned two states, and focused heavily within Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs. He took two lives and injured six others. In a showdown with police, Smith took his own life. He was 21-years-old.

Some said at the time that he simply snapped. But the people close to Smith had a different word to describe the hatred that consumed him: cultivated.

Smith grew up in the same affluent suburban enclave as Dann. He went to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Just a year after enrolling, he was expelled for posting fliers and literature around campus that featured a Nazi SS lightning bolt logo and derivations of the swastika. His problems began years earlier when a charismatic neo-Nazi named Matthew Hale showed up at our school to recruit new members to his organization.

According to a 1999 report by the Center for New Community, “As part of the resettlement initiative, white supremacists from around the country have settled in Illinois. For instance, the New Jersey neo-Nazi outfit, Day of the Rope Productions moved its headquarters to Illinois. The organization, which took its name from the fictional day in The Turner Diaries when Jews, people of color and “race traitors” hang from lampposts, sells neo-Nazi music paraphernalia, such as T-shirts, videos, and CDs.”

Hale was leading this effort as the newly anointed leader of a white supremacist group he re-named World Church of the Creator. The rejection of Hale’s application to practice law in Illinois is believed to have set off Smith’s shooting rampage.

I grew up in a white community, inundated by messages that Black, urban culture was violent and that Latino immigrants were taking over. But the Laurie Danns and Benjamin Smiths taught me to fear my neighbors.

Smith’s attacks were motivated by racial hatred. Dann’s by anger at people who she believed had betrayed or rejected her. I’ve come to understand that there are no absolutes when it comes to distinguishing the motives of spree killers, but the commonalities are overwhelming and can’t be ignored. While many of the perpetrators are troubled, few are insane. They are cowards – routinely targeting children or shooting from a distance. They take their own lives, either to achieve martyrdom or to escape punishment. Most, not all, are white males and come from middle-to-upper income white suburbia (Dann was a rarity in that she was female).

Two themes will dominate the national discourse: mental illness and gun control. Another will figure into the conversation to a far lesser degree: race and national identity.

An article entitled, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” is influencing the post-Sandy Hook dialogue about mental illness. It is a sobering firsthand account of one mother’s struggle to get help for her son, whom she believes has mental health problems similar to Adam Lanza. It’s a brave narrative, but it unintentionally supports the false belief that those who suffer from mental illness are violent. In fact, the mentally ill are no more prone to violence than the sound of mind and are more likely to be victims than to be perpetrators. However, the article’s intended message, that our healthcare system fails those who need it most, is vitally important.

Similarly, the need to address guns in America is urgent, but for reasons that go beyond the events of the past week. Among them, of course, are the 20 children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. But there are also the 24 Chicago Public School children who were fatally shot during the 2011/2012 school year (a total of 319 CPS students were shot), and the 40,000 individuals who used a firearm to commit suicide in 2010-2011.

Josh Marshall makes a succinct point in his article, “In Search of the Guns & Freedom Unicorn”:

“Has private gun ownership helped keep us free? We’ve had two centuries to look at this one. And the results make the very idea laughable. And yet many people now believe this. And it imparts an aura of self-righteousness to their desire to stock up private arsenals, fire off semi-automatic weapons and blow shit up. That sort of ignorance is dangerous.”

I would argue that the motives of most spree killers are rooted in an ethos of white supremacy – gun enthusiasm is just a symptom. Innocent children, movie patrons and turban-wearing temple-goers are their victims because they are punishing society for their inadequacies. It is their privilege to blame others for failing in a society they are supposed to rule. Some, like Benjamin Smith and Wade Michael Page (the Sikh temple shooter), have clearly defined beliefs. Others, like Adam Lanza, may not. But we can’t not talk about what they have in common.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s article, “Nice White Boys Next Door and Mass Murder,” is a good place to start the conversation. She writes:

“The senseless slaughter of children from the “perfect” town may finally prompt serious bipartisan legislation to curb the barbaric gun lobby. But it will not prompt analysis of the violent masculinity at the heart of whiteness.”

The solution or rather the dialogue that leads us to a solution is layered. And that foundational layer has to be about race.