The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When the shooter is white

The racial motivations behind the “lone wolf” label

Stephen Paddock, right, in an undated family photo.

In the hours and days following the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history, politicians and many media outlets reflexively described the shooter, Stephen Paddock, as a solitary madman who planned and carried out the mass killing without apparent connection to any larger network, group or ideology.

President Trump, who is quick to label other global acts of mass violence as “radical Islamic terrorism” well before investigations establish such intentions, described the horrific shooting as the act of “a very sick man” and a “very demented person” without mentioning anything about the shooter’s background or potential political ideology. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo meanwhile depicted Paddock as “an individual” and “a sole actor, lone wolf type actor.”

These descriptions make sense on many levels. Though it’s still very early in the investigation, nothing to this point suggests that Paddock had ties to a larger organization, fake claims from the Islamic State notwithstanding. And turning to the language of mental illness seems entirely apt when describing an act that appears so far beyond the bounds of sanity or civilization.

At the same time, however, there is something telling about the tendency to reflexively describe Paddock as a lone wolf or individual-level madman — a label widely used even though authorities don’t yet know conclusively whether Paddock had help as he amassed his arsenal and planned his unthinkable crime.

When perpetrators of violence are people of color, journalists, politicians and many citizens treat their violence as natural, expected. But when shooters are white men who kill white victims, politicians like Trump, and indeed many other facets of white America, reach for the notion of an unstable, angry, isolated person driven to mass murder.

That description is a relatively new one: the image of a disturbed, gun-obsessed, white male loner who presents a threat to mainstream society emerged alongside the rise of mass shootings over the past two decades. To pick but one example, in the aftermath of Newtown, headlines repeatedly described killer Adam Lanza as a deranged “loner” who “felt no pain.”

We emphasize the mental health of white mass shooters because these men look like “us,” meaning that there is nothing predictive about the ways they look that might foretell their actions, save their awkwardness and isolation when “they” interact with “us.” In other words, they could be anyone — part of what gives these events their terrifying valence.

Opinion | The Washington Post Editorial Board appeals to Trump and Congress to stand up to the gun lobby and prevent mass shootings. (Video: The Washington Post)

As has been widely pointed out, however, American politicians and media outlets, along with any number of citizens, reflexively look to blame larger cultures, politics or ideologies when the perpetrator of a massacre is nonwhite. Put bluntly, the only reason we aren’t referring to mass killers like Paddock as terrorists, even though spectacular events like the Las Vegas shooting meet the textbook definition of terrorism, is because of their race. Underlying that argument is an assumption that race likewise foretells the violence of nonwhite shooters.

Blaming crazed nonwhite “cultures” when guns are involved is a tradition with deep roots in American history. Indeed, the dynamic took shape decades before the current double standard of white “shooters” and Muslim “cultures” emerged, as the very notion of guns for everyday domestic protection entered American consciousness.

In the 1950s and 1960s, for instance, a number of high profile black activists and political leaders advocated for gun rights for African Americans, arguing that the Second Amendment applied to all citizens and that black communities required firearms for self-defense because police offered little protection. Without a single shot fired, police, government officials and mainstream U.S. society labeled these leaders and the larger movements they represented insane.

The FBI diagnosed Malcolm X with “pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia” and membership in the “Muslim Cult of Islam” after he posed with a gun and advocated armed black self-reliance. The FBI then went on to promote the notion that armed “Negroes” under Malcolm X’s direction planned to overthrow the government.

The bureau similarly diagnosed Robert Williams, the controversial head of the Monroe, N.C., chapter of the NAACP, as schizophrenic, armed and dangerous after he advocated for black armed “self-defense” and, later, authored a book titled “Negroes With Guns.” It then utilized these characterizations as an excuse to limit gun rights and take away guns from black populations across the south. Distorted images of Huey Newton and other Black Panther leaders were also used to foment fear in white America after the Panthers advocated for armed self-defense — contributing to a groundswell of support for the Gun Control Act of 1968.

These and other African American leaders were far from mentally ill. But the often reflexive associations between armed nonwhite individuals and mental illness allowed white America to lay blame at the feet of “black culture” or black activist politics — not individuals or lone, disordered brains — for the threats such men purportedly posed, leading to far wider repercussions.

What a sharp contrast to the present day, where the automatic assumption that white shooters are isolated, deranged individuals conveys the subtle message that whiteness in general, and white masculinity specifically, is not connected to any larger cultures, networks or ideologies that might foment violence.

Such framing allows us in white America in particular (and I include myself as a white American male here) to avoid pondering any number of larger narratives that might provide wider contexts in which to understand the trauma of modern-day mass shootings — and that might force us to consider taking charged or controversial actions to prevent them.

As but one of many possible examples, we might ask whether the lone-wolf framing potentially plays off of, and perverts, the same lionization of white male individualism often used to justify gun rights in the United States. Legislative approaches such as the so-called castle doctrine, the notion that “a man’s home is his castle” and he has a right to defend it with a gun, or “stand your ground” legislation that applies outside of the home, often treat firearms as the tools of go-it-alone, white protectors.

Unlike the ideas that drove the pejoratives and suspicion that greeted black activists arguing for armed self-defense, these laws envision a heroic white homeowner fighting off a violent threat. Indeed, these laws were initially written to assure gun rights solely for “white, heterosexual, property-owning men,” and often play into the mythologies surrounding American firearms.

Absent the lone wolf narrative, horrific incidents like Las Vegas might also force us to discuss the ways in which American white masculinity itself may have grown increasingly solitary and guarded, as the types of labor white men produce become less vital to the workforce, increased competition emerges from women and minorities, and demographic changes threaten to reduce white men’s “status and respect.” Or maybe we might take more seriously the cultural reemergence of what gender scholars call toxic masculinity, a threatened, defensive form of manliness that appears to manifest in many mass shooters.

None of this is to suggest that mass shootings are anything but aberrations of American white masculinity — a point made all too clear by the heroic actions of any number of men during and after the Las Vegas shooting. Indeed, over-generalizing after mass shootings to cast blame on entire races or religions is just as wrong when it applies to white males as other groups. Yet our refusal to talk about broader contexts when shooters are white suggests the opposite problem: a narrowed language for self-reflection and a fear of confronting difficult topics.

Such self-reflection seems all the more urgent as we, as a nation, come to terms with yet another senseless act of mass violence carried out against innocent civilians. As we mourn and pray and begin yet again the process of grief segueing to questioning, which so often becomes resignation, it seems high time to advance a richer understanding of the ways that white mass shooters represent both isolated loners cut off from white mainstream society, and also in some ways emerge as pathological extensions of it.

By so doing, we might then begin to use this moment of tragedy as a moment of rupture, and a chance to rethink the racially hierarchical assumptions and mythologies that pull Americans apart when we should be coming together. Doing so would involve applying new frameworks to the epidemic of white mass shootings — frameworks that might better identify and prevent the lethal actions of “them,” but do so while also developing more honest and vulnerable ways of expressing and forming community around the realities, frustrations and everyday tensions of “us.”

After all, perhaps a lone white male protector is not the best way to prevent the actions of a deranged lone white male shooter. Perhaps, at the end of the day, it takes more than individuals working alone: it takes mass mobilization, public policy and a national commitment to curb gun violence.