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Understanding The Statements Of Mass Shooters


The FBI is opening a domestic terrorist investigation into the shooting last week at California's Gilroy Garlic Festival. They say the gunman was exploring violent ideologies, though he left no manifesto. However, the man responsible for the El Paso shooting does seem to have posted a lengthy manifesto online. Turns out, that's typical for mass shooters. And often, these so-called manifestos use similar racist language. And they're posted to the same Internet communities. I talked with Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and asked him what we can learn from these.

PATRICK BLANCHFIELD: There is a point at which what these acts are speak for themselves. The body count, the people who were targeted, that is in many ways far more expressive and politically (ph) urgent, just as a transaction of power, than things people write and do.

MARTIN: Then why do they write them? Then why do these mass murderers feel compelled to leave a statement?

BLANCHFIELD: It's definitely the case that many of these people are seeking a sort of ephemeral notoriety and longer term memorialization in fetid subcultures on the Internet. But another thing - and this is, I think, the thing we have to keep in mind when we talk about these acts and the speech that's sort of attached to them - is that our discourse has a way of laundering away the obviousness of what these things are. We try to ask these ultimately unknowable questions, right? What was this person's ultimate intentions? Where did they go wrong, right? And that has a way of centering not just their own individual, unknowable black box interiority but our own position as spectators and consumers of information. And again, that is understandable. Believe me, I read these all the time. And you feel the existential tug where you want to know, how could someone do this?

MARTIN: And there must be something. If we only read between the lines, if we only more closely examined these statements that we could somehow find answers.

BLANCHFIELD: Precisely. But I keep on coming back to how - in the case of the El Paso mass shooting in particular - right? - where the alleged manifesto's extremely clear about how the shooter wanted to target Latinx people - right? - in the wake of that, there are consistent reports that the count of the wounded may actually be much higher because a lot of people who were hurt are afraid to seek medical care because of their undocumented status. And I want to stress, they got the message.

MARTIN: So do you believe the media is making a mistake by even reporting the content of these statements?

BLANCHFIELD: No, I want to be clear here - right? - that I think we need, obviously, to talk in sophisticated and intelligent ways about what is clearly a decentralized, long-standing movement of what you could call political terror. At the same time, the fact that these things keep happening and the fact that we find ourselves asking the same questions suggests that there're probably some other questions we should be asking that we don't want to be asking.

MARTIN: Like what?

BLANCHFIELD: Well, what's the point of interface between what these people say their reasons are and also what their actions do and what we accept more broadly as normative, acceptable expressions and differences of, quote-unquote, "opinion in the public sphere?" And once you get very granularly into what these manifestos say - right? - and there's a whole repertoire of tropes involving ethnic replacement, involving a fixation on birth rates, white birth rates - right? - involving a fixation on invaders coming through our southern borders...

MARTIN: Statements we have heard from our political leaders, in particular this president in some cases.

BLANCHFIELD: Precisely. But also, when you read this person talk about how elites support, quote, "open borders, free health care for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup" - yeah, I hear Trump there, but the moment he also starts talking about real Americans, about the future of the West, about American birth rates, I also hear a lot of stuff that I read better written, more sophisticated, more, quote-unquote, "intellectual" in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, in The Wall Street Journal. There's a tremendous overlap here. To be clear, I'm not assigning unicausal, moral responsibility of point A to point B to the president, to columnists, et cetera. But there is a way in which what these people do and what they say underscore things that we have normalized and made acceptable. And they give it back to us. And the people who are targets hear the message. They're killed, and they flee. And meanwhile, the rest of us will adopt this almost naive, kind of childlike wonder - where could this possibly have come from?

MARTIN: You're saying there is danger in treating these manifestos as fringe exceptionalism.

BLANCHFIELD: There are a lot of features to these manifestos. Like, they all think they're smarter than they are, right? They're written at, basically, at the levels like a poor, undergraduate, first-year freshmen comp essay, right? But there's something about the very clunkiness and cheapness and tawdriness and generic character of it that once you see it and you look back, you're like, oh, people get paid six figures to say the exact same things. But, you know, they'll more abstractly talk about the future of the West or generational decline or reinvigorating America. It's a question of how we normalize, frankly, toxic expressions of American identity and how normal that is. And that's the flip side of how abnormal these events seem.

MARTIN: Right. The bottom line being these statements tell us far less about the individuals who carry out these crimes and write these screeds than they do about the culture that bred these individuals in the first place.

BLANCHFIELD: That's absolutely right. And I think until we're willing to talk about how systematically there is an interface between those two things, we're just going to develop an evermore sophisticated, fundamentally navel-gazing repertoire of gestures of deferral and disavowal and specious false distinctions. And that's not going to stop this.

MARTIN: Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, thank you so much for your time.

BLANCHFIELD: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.