Blowback and Mass Shootings

Former Texas congressman Ron Paul famously caused an uproar among the Republican faithful during a 2008 primary debate when he suggested that our interventionism in the Middle East was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Former Big Apple mayor Rudy Giuliani excoriated the old country doctor, accusing him of conspiring with Democrats by suggesting America “invited” Al Qaeda’s deadly retribution.

Paul’s simplified -- and, dare I say, reductive -- understanding of the motives behind death-to-America jihadists had some basis: the C.I.A. has long cautioned against blowback as a consequence of foreign policy hubris.

U.S. Air Force bases in Saudi Arabia don’t fully explain radical Islam’s holy war against the West. But they provide understanding. 

I bring up blowback in the aftermath of the El Paso, Texas., and Dayton, Ohio, shootings. White supremacy has been named the ideological culprit behind the Texas Walmart massacre. The shooter admitted he was trying to kill as many Mexicans as possible. The Dayton shooter had a social-media history of promoting left-wing causes. “I want socialism, and i'll not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding,” he once tweeted.

Blog hacks and TV prattlers are holding up the victims as ideograms for their own objectives. The naked propagandizing, which is being made into hay using the El Paso shooter’s völkisch ambitions exclusively, is fomenting a digital agnon, with angry carping in Twitter threads and Facebook comment sections.

Using dead bodies as proxies in an ideological debate isn’t just shameful, it’s also lazy. Far easier to stamp political labels on people and tell ourselves we understand the full multitude of their hopes, dreams, and heart’s desire. Lest we burden ourselves with the hard task of deciphering all the unique lineaments of what Carl Sandburg eulogized as each man’s “one thumb”!

Impetus guessing after mass shootings is a mug’s game. Just ask Stephen Paddock. But, there is at least one through line in both shooters’ history that isn’t being discussed. I suspect it’s because the donnée can’t be used to score partisan points.

Both shooters appear to have had a rough go of it in the social hellscape we call high school. The Texas killer was especially bullied. One classmate revealed that prior to being picked on, the future murderer was a “sweet kid.” Everything changed his last year in high school. “He started getting more depressed and a bit more of a loner in senior year when the bullying was pretty severe.”

The Dayton killer was also outcast in school. He authored a hit list of his fellow students. Some of his classmates reported that he was a bully himself -- an ironic harbinger of danger to come.

The story is way too familiar at this point to be surprising: young men, feeling unwelcome in normal society, take out their frustrations on the innocents around them. 

Their alienation, often set in train by bullying and encouraged by casual drug use and violent video games, perpetuates itself, an endless cycle of ennui. Being obsessive habitués of the internet, they discover wicked ideas that twist their realities; the real, tangible world takes a back seat to digital ersatz communities inhabited by other lost men.

As Matthew Walther points out, we aren’t ready to deal with this violent epiphenomenon because it would mean delimiting modernity’s goods: mastery over technology, free and open internet, relaxed mores about drug use. It’s now conceivable that a young person coming of age today could live in the same one-bedroom apartment for the rest of his or her life, never needing to leave, having every material necessity hand-delivered to them by a low-wage Amazon driver. Almost a quarter of millennials report having “no friends.” With Minecraft, Call of Duty, Uber Eats, and Reddit, who needs them?

The political bickering over what to do about yet another mass shooting elides over the cultural components integral to the violent acts because they, in most cases, lack simple policy solutions. Gun confiscation is no panacea for our woes; firearms were far more present in American society decades ago, without the concomitant randomized shootings.

So Democrat lawmakers target the President’s donors, or journalists gripe about New York Times headlines, or presidential candidates offer gun-grabbing proposals, or cable-news hosts suggest our political leaders enjoy murderous bloodletting. 

The El Paso and Dayton shootings were blowback for an increasingly atomized society unconcerned with purposelessness plaguing so many of its young. On a more individual level, it seems as if the killers affirmed Auden’s immortal words: “What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

Evil beyond white supremacy or socialism inspired the shooters to extinguish over a dozen lives with the simple pull of a trigger. It was an evil American elites are too timid to name: indifference to the losers among us. How many more will suffer before we address apathy blowback in earnest?

Former Texas congressman Ron Paul famously caused an uproar among the Republican faithful during a 2008 primary debate when he suggested that our interventionism in the Middle East was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Former Big Apple mayor Rudy Giuliani excoriated the old country doctor, accusing him of conspiring with Democrats by suggesting America “invited” Al Qaeda’s deadly retribution.

Paul’s simplified -- and, dare I say, reductive -- understanding of the motives behind death-to-America jihadists had some basis: the C.I.A. has long cautioned against blowback as a consequence of foreign policy hubris.

U.S. Air Force bases in Saudi Arabia don’t fully explain radical Islam’s holy war against the West. But they provide understanding. 

I bring up blowback in the aftermath of the El Paso, Texas., and Dayton, Ohio, shootings. White supremacy has been named the ideological culprit behind the Texas Walmart massacre. The shooter admitted he was trying to kill as many Mexicans as possible. The Dayton shooter had a social-media history of promoting left-wing causes. “I want socialism, and i'll not wait for the idiots to finally come round to understanding,” he once tweeted.

Blog hacks and TV prattlers are holding up the victims as ideograms for their own objectives. The naked propagandizing, which is being made into hay using the El Paso shooter’s völkisch ambitions exclusively, is fomenting a digital agnon, with angry carping in Twitter threads and Facebook comment sections.

Using dead bodies as proxies in an ideological debate isn’t just shameful, it’s also lazy. Far easier to stamp political labels on people and tell ourselves we understand the full multitude of their hopes, dreams, and heart’s desire. Lest we burden ourselves with the hard task of deciphering all the unique lineaments of what Carl Sandburg eulogized as each man’s “one thumb”!

Impetus guessing after mass shootings is a mug’s game. Just ask Stephen Paddock. But, there is at least one through line in both shooters’ history that isn’t being discussed. I suspect it’s because the donnée can’t be used to score partisan points.

Both shooters appear to have had a rough go of it in the social hellscape we call high school. The Texas killer was especially bullied. One classmate revealed that prior to being picked on, the future murderer was a “sweet kid.” Everything changed his last year in high school. “He started getting more depressed and a bit more of a loner in senior year when the bullying was pretty severe.”

The Dayton killer was also outcast in school. He authored a hit list of his fellow students. Some of his classmates reported that he was a bully himself -- an ironic harbinger of danger to come.

The story is way too familiar at this point to be surprising: young men, feeling unwelcome in normal society, take out their frustrations on the innocents around them. 

Their alienation, often set in train by bullying and encouraged by casual drug use and violent video games, perpetuates itself, an endless cycle of ennui. Being obsessive habitués of the internet, they discover wicked ideas that twist their realities; the real, tangible world takes a back seat to digital ersatz communities inhabited by other lost men.

As Matthew Walther points out, we aren’t ready to deal with this violent epiphenomenon because it would mean delimiting modernity’s goods: mastery over technology, free and open internet, relaxed mores about drug use. It’s now conceivable that a young person coming of age today could live in the same one-bedroom apartment for the rest of his or her life, never needing to leave, having every material necessity hand-delivered to them by a low-wage Amazon driver. Almost a quarter of millennials report having “no friends.” With Minecraft, Call of Duty, Uber Eats, and Reddit, who needs them?

The political bickering over what to do about yet another mass shooting elides over the cultural components integral to the violent acts because they, in most cases, lack simple policy solutions. Gun confiscation is no panacea for our woes; firearms were far more present in American society decades ago, without the concomitant randomized shootings.

So Democrat lawmakers target the President’s donors, or journalists gripe about New York Times headlines, or presidential candidates offer gun-grabbing proposals, or cable-news hosts suggest our political leaders enjoy murderous bloodletting. 

The El Paso and Dayton shootings were blowback for an increasingly atomized society unconcerned with purposelessness plaguing so many of its young. On a more individual level, it seems as if the killers affirmed Auden’s immortal words: “What all schoolchildren learn,/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return.”

Evil beyond white supremacy or socialism inspired the shooters to extinguish over a dozen lives with the simple pull of a trigger. It was an evil American elites are too timid to name: indifference to the losers among us. How many more will suffer before we address apathy blowback in earnest?