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Consider the following mass shooting scenarios: 1.) The Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas, 2.) The Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado, 3.) The Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina, 4.) The Inland Community Center in California and 5.)The Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In each of the 5 cases, multiple shots were fired with multiple fatalities. The identity of each shooter was not immediately known but authorities quickly made a determination and in some cases the perpetrator was captured and their backgrounds well established shortly afterward. The motive was not immediately clear in any of the cases but seemed obvious to most observers, especially to those who opine on television for a living.
Now let’s look a little closer. We will refer to the shooters as a singular “gunman” for argument’s sake and each shooting to be an “incident” or “engagement”.
A gunman at any Jewish center, regardless of ethnic background or religion, is going to be assumed to have anti-Semitic views. If the gunman is white, those views will be presumed to be neo-Nazi. The same is true with the incident at a Planned Parenthood. Any gunman will be presumed to have strong anti-abortion rights views and probably an evangelical or other Pentecostal Christian; possibly Roman Catholic. A white gunman opened fire at a predominately black church in the South. The logical conclusion is the motive is neo-Confederate, white-supremacist in nature. The incident at the Inland Community Center is presumed to be international terrorism because the gunman is Middle-Eastern in heritage and had made a trip to Saudi Arabia. The gunman in Oregon is reported to have had anti-religious or anti-government views in general but was also reported to have had long-term mental health issues. This makes it the only case where the justice system actually seemed to have a mass shooter with no discernible political, religious or ethnic axe to grind. Perhaps this was the only one of the 5 incidents listed above whom observers on the right quickly classify the perpetrator as “mentally ill”.
Setting aside incidents that are obviously criminal, such as a bank robbery or a narcotics related firefight, most Americans feel the inclination to see any mass shooting as “terrorism”. The FBI defines “mass shooting” as one where 4 or more people have been shot in one incident. Terrorism by definition is the use of violence to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, and as such, try and effect changes in government policy. This presents us with an unsettling dilemma. Which, if any, of the incidents noted above, are “terrorism”, “hate crimes” or just “crime”? The answer is obvious. Who do you perceive the gunman to be? Your own ideology and worldview will shape how you view such incidents. You will be certain you know what really happened long before any hard facts arrive, long before the press conferences stop and the cable news talking heads fall silent.
Again, consider your perceptions if the following occurred:
What if the Overland Park Center incident was committed by an anti-religious gunman?
What if a Middle-Eastern man had engaged the Planned Parenthood in Colorado?
What if the gunman at the Emmanuel AME Church was black?
What if the Inland Community Center had been engaged by one gunman? Or multiple gunmen but all white?
What if the Community College in Oregon gunman had been devoutly and fervently religious but Jewish?
Suddenly, the line between what we define as “crime” and “terrorism” becomes blurred. Who is a completely sane yet dedicated fanatic and who is just “mentally ill” changes, does it not? What we want to see in huge red print on our online news feed or used as material for our particular political candidate is generally shaped not by facts, but by perceptions, which may turn out to be false and often do. We as Americans often like to say that someone is innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law. But we all know that is never the case in mass shootings. Definitions of who the gunman (or gunmen) are will always advance our pre-determined agenda. Events will be perceived in a way that suits our purposes for television and social media and will tend to prop up what we already know is going on.
Even if we actually have no idea.