America is sick. And it’s getting sicker.
Sick with hate, sick with rage. Sick with warped masculinity, sick with Internet-fueled radicalization and social isolation. Sick with racism, sick from social media that has breathed new life into old prejudices.
And sick, of course, with guns.
In one sense, the two mass shootings this weekend within 24 hours of each other, which left 20 dead at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and at least another nine dead near a bar in Dayton, Ohio, don’t tell us anything we don’t already know: We’re in the midst of a national outburst of mass gun violence, overwhelmingly at the hands of young, white men.
Just this year, 125 people have died and scores more wounded in 22 mass-fatality events in the United States, and yet the political system remains incapable of delivering any meaningful steps to reduce access to assault weapons, ammunition, and other weapons of war. We need a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, universal background checks, and legislation to remove the gun industry’s special exemption from liability so it can be held accountable for the devastation caused by its products. Yet even a modest effort to tighten background checks for gun-buyers is stuck in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But recent killings also make it clear that while guns remain a mortal threat — and the common denominator in every recent US mass-murder, not to mention countless acts of everyday violence — the social pathologies that America somehow needs to solve cut much deeper.
Mass shootings in the United States are also, increasingly, hate crimes. The shooter in El Paso, for instance, left a 2,300-word, hate-filled manifesto aimed at Hispanic immigrants; it is being investigated as a possible hate crime. The shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue last fall spouted anti-Semitic online rants. The Pulse nightclub killer in 2016 targeted gays. The Charleston, S.C., shooter targeted black churchgoers in 2015. The Isla Vista, Calif., killer in 2014 was steeped in online misogyny and targeted women.
The targets might be different, but the sullen, aggrieved mentality of the perpetrators is the same. These are men who want scapegoats for what they perceive as unfairly diminished socioeconomic status.
In many cases, it appears the killers found affirmation and encouragement from the kind of toxic online subcultures that didn’t exist two or three decades ago. The Internet didn’t invent hate, but it has become a powerful incubator. Algorithms designed to keep users engaged steer them to ever-darker, angrier corners of the web. If you just need somebody to hate, YouTube and Facebook are more than happy to oblige.
After all, it takes more than just a gun to turn churches, shopping malls, or schools into battlefields. It takes a belief that human life is cheap in general, or that people who are different by virtue of skin color, religion, or identity are subhuman. And, for many of these killers, making that leap appears to take an online echo chamber to egg them on.
The alleged shooter in El Paso, for instance, approvingly cited another mass killer in New Zealand; that shooter, in turn, expressed his support for a Norwegian anti-immigrant murderer. The connections map a global network of white supremacist ideology, malcontents who have found one another through message board like 8chan and mainstream social networks like Twitter.
Internet radicalization is a well-studied phenomenon — or at least, it is when it comes to Islamic radicals. But according to the FBI, the biggest terrorist threat to Americans since 9/11 has been other Americans. Christopher Wray, the agency’s director, says white supremacist violence is a “pervasive” problem and that the majority of the agency’s domestic terror arrests since October have been related to white supremacists. The FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, need to give white supremacist violence the priority that it clearly deserves.
Yet the most law enforcement can do is mitigate the problem — by disrupting hate groups when they cross the line into inciting violence, and by enforcing gun laws when and if Congress finally strengthens them.
What America ultimately needs goes well beyond what the FBI can provide. After all, most of what happens on sites like 8chan isn’t illegal — and, with the protection of the First Amendment, never will be. What America needs is a coherent national strategy to disrupt hate, to lower the temperature of our polarized political culture, and to pierce the real or online communities in which hate grows.
An honest discussion of how to cure these ills would raise uncomfortable questions for the nation’s most powerful corporations and politicians. For Silicon Valley, anger is profitable when it translates into clicks. Gun companies profit when Americans feel threatened. Politicians, most prominently President Trump, benefit when hate stays just below the boiling point — when Americans are just mad enough to vote on the basis of anger at immigrants, but not quite mad enough to mow down Hispanics at a mall in El Paso.
But the combination of easy access to guns on the one hand, and easy access to hateful ideologies offering reasons to use them on the other, has become a nightmare.
Sicknesses can be cured. But they can also be fatal. Twenty-nine more Americans died this weekend from hate-fueled gun violence. How many more have to die before we face up to two problems that are, increasingly, different sides of the same bloody coin?