Mass shootings, and the limits of human kindness

I have been thinking about mass shootings, these recent, all too familiar horror shows, and the men who perpetuate them, and something about these shooters and their targets occurred to me. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, but that may just be my own ignorance. It’s quite possible that the phenomenon I describe has been broadly reported, and I just hadn’t previously noticed. I am not a journalist, and I am not a psychologist. But I thought I’d pass it on.

The more we read about the shooting in Orlando, the clearer it becomes that Omar Mateen, the shooter, had been to the Pulse nightclub many times before. At least four Pulse regulars told the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen was at least a semi-regular there. Said one, “Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent.” Another said that he talked with Mateen, about his father and his wife. Pulse was itself more than a regular nightclub. Barbara Poma, the club’s owner, opened it as a place of refuge for the Orlando LGBT community, a place of acceptance and celebration. Mateen also was a regular on local gay dating websites. Was he a self-hating closeted gay? Was he punishing something in himself when he opened fire?Mateen’s home was in Port St. Lucie, some 125 miles from Orlando. He did not, in short, pick a place at random. He drove two hours to get there. He went to a nightclub that was particularly and uniquely accepting of gay people (people like him?), a place he had visited many times before.

It’s been just about a year since the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. Dylan Roof, the 21-year old shooter, went to a Bible study session at the church, and joined in the Bible discussion before opening fire. That’s strange, isn’t it? He sat with a group of Christians, and spent an evening discussing the scriptures. And then he pulled out his gun.

In San Bernardino, California Syed Farook was an employee of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health. A few weeks before he opened fire, his co-workers had thrown a baby shower for Farook, his wife, and their new baby. He shot them at a Christmas party. Again, he knew the people he shot. They were at least co-workers, and could surely have been described as friends.

Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut, targeted his old elementary school. He was an awkward kid, struggling with diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. His struggles, though, began in Jr. High. He liked grade school; it was high school that was a nightmare. But in grade school, he met teachers and administrators who were willing to give him the individual attention he needed. Is it fair to say that he may well have shot up the one place that had treated him with kindness?

When we talk about mass shootings, we talk about them as random events, as unpredictable as tornadoes. But that doesn’t seem to have been true. At least some shooters seem to be attacking places familiar to them, places where they were known. In fact, it seems to me that in at least these cases, the shooters went after places where they were particularly treated with kindness, places where they may have been accepted.

It’s been over fifteen years since the Columbine shooting, but it strikes me as relevant. Harris and Klebold, the two Columbine kids, didn’t attack a random public place; they attacked their high school. And it’s easy to see that in cliched terms–they were outsiders who went after their popular/jock tormentors. But they weren’t friendless losers.

When tragedies occur, it’s easy to jump to conclusions. It’s easy to tie these kinds of horrific events to our own ideologically predilections, or our pet political theories. So Mateen and Farook were both ‘terrorists,’ and much of the subsequent commentary have focused on their possible links to ISIS. And ideology may have played a part in their rampages. Or, we fight over mental illness. ‘You’d have to be crazy to do something like that,’ we say. And we liberals recoil, because ‘they’re mentally ill’ seems like code for ‘we’re not going to agree to any gun control legislation.’

Again, I’m not a psychologist. But consider this. Mass shooters target people they know, or at least some of them do, some of the time. They seem to target people who treated them kindly, or at least where they could have a reasonable expectation of acceptance and compassion. Maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe they grabbed their assault rifles because they were enraged because they expected kindness, and didn’t get it.

But I don’t think so. I think that for damaged people, kindness can be seen as imposing an obligation that cannot be repaid. I think it’s possible that being accepted, and treated warmly, may be resented, may add to an overwhelming burden of guilt and misery and pain. It may lead to the point of crisis.

Some of these killings had an ideological component. Mateen declared his allegiance to ISIS in a 9-1-1 call right before opening fire. Farook and his wife had ISIS connections. Roof was affiliated with white supremacist groups. Surely these radical ideologies were part of the mix. But to say ‘they were terrorists’ is a short-cut to an explanation, and an explanation that fits our existing preconceptions. Yes, Dylan Roof was a racist creep. He was also a human being, and a deeply troubled, damaged one. His racists beliefs may have provided him some tiny, false comfort. But something in his mind led him to violence. Something triggered it. And he didn’t choose a target at random. He chose, as targets, people who were nice to him. And I think it’s possible that their niceness, their humanity, is what drove him to commit acts of violence.

There’s a toxic mix of intentions and compulsions and pain that drives these guys. (And they’re all guys, pretty much all of them are men. Well, aside for Farook’s wife). Obviously, one part of the mix is easy access to weaponry. They shoot because getting guns is easy, and getting ammo, that’s easy, and pulling a trigger is ridiculously easy. The effort-to-mayhem ratio is preposterous. And yes, some mass killings were achieved with box cutters, and others with truckloads of fertilizer. But those sorts of events are rarer, because the effort-to-mayhem ratio is so much more balanced. It takes planning to buy a gun, of course, but shooting it can be much more a matter of impulse and caprice.

And I think kindness may be part of it. Kindness is the ultimate expression of humanity. Kindness requires that we see and acknowledge other people as our brothers and sisters on this planet. For someone in terrible psychic pain, it may impose an obligation they cannot abide. And then ideology provides a convenient, easy rationale for violence.

Or not. I may be completely wrong about all of this. I am not a psychologist; I have no training in this field, no expertise. I do think it’s interesting, though, that the San Bernardino ‘terrorist’ shooters did not target random strangers, but the people who had just thrown them a baby shower, that the Orlando shooter drove 125 miles to shoot up a nightclub built on the values of acceptance and refuge, that Roof shot up people with whom he had spent an evening talking scripture. Damaged, hurting, desperately unhappy people committed acts of terrible violence. Let’s acknowledge that as part of our shared human condition.


One thought on “Mass shootings, and the limits of human kindness

  1. Jonathan Langford

    I’m not a psychologist either, but the writer in me is arrested by the picture you paint. Subject matter for a play, if you could bear to write it.


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