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Why it Matters that the Vegas Terrorist is White

This morning, I, like millions of other Americans woke up to the news of the horrible slaughter in Las Vegas. A sniper-style terrorist attack that targeted unsuspecting concert goers has left at least 59 people dead and more than 500 injured. As horrifying as this grim story is, it has become a sadly routine occurrence in American life. As the body count and the human suffering rose, a few details about the shooter began to emerge. Phrases like “mentally ill” and “lone wolf” were used to describe the shooter before his photo or identity were released. Phrases like this are really cultural code words to denote that a terrorist or mass shooter is white. Calling someone who slaughters dozens of people “mentally ill” separates the person from the criminality of the offense. Calling him a “lone wolf” ignores the pattern of mass shootings the country has suffered and the similar themes of targeting people at soft targets. Of course, when Stephen Paddock’s name and photo came out, my suspicions about his race and gender were confirmed.

When I said as much this morning in a Facebook conversation, I was almost immediately chided by a friend with whom I had gone to college:

“Who cares what the nationality of the shooter . 50+ people died. We could have been one of those fifty. And the last thing we would think of before dying would likely not be if the person was white or not,” he said.

Of course from the perspective of an innocent person about to meet a violent death, my friend was right. But from a public policy perspective, my friend couldn’t be more wrong. And therein lies the problem.

Mass shootings in America are shockingly common, and each one seemingly more deadly than the last. The Gun Violence Archive defines a mass shooting as an event in which “four or more [are] shot and/or killed in a single event, at the same general time and location not including the shooter.” By this very grisly standard, America averages about one mass shooting every day.

Who are these mass shooters? The most notorious ones have names that live in infamy. Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Dylan Roof, Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, etc. have been the authors of the most vicious attacks upon unsuspecting people in schools, movie theaters, grocery stores, and church. All were white men. All targeted people where they least expected to be victimized. All have been described in the media as lone wolves and mentally ill. Public policy makers fidget uncomfortably when asked to describe these men as terrorists and this is a problem, because we know that the same actions would have been immediately deemed as terrorism if the men were Muslim (and ostensibly brown, rather than white).

This reticence to label white (mostly Christian) men  who commit acts of terror as terrorists stands in stark contrast to how policymakers deal with offenders or perceived offenders of other races and religions. America has repeatedly and aggressively pursued public policy initiatives directed at targeting groups of people who are perceived to be threats to public safety. Stop-and-frisk in New York, for example, which targeted black and Latino men, was infamously ineffective at stopping crimes before they happened.  In fact, nearly 90% of the people subjected to stop-and-frisk were determined to have committed no crime at all. But that didn’t stop Rudy Giuliani and other supporters from continuing to defend the practice even after its inefficacy was proven.

Donald Trump began his official presidential campaign by disparaging Mexicans: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

His campaign promise to build a “big beautiful wall” along America’s southern border is now a serious public policy proposal to deal with the perceived hyper-criminality of Mexicans.

His so-called “Muslim ban” resulted in the United States Supreme Court rendering constitutional a travel ban that would halt travel from seven predominately Muslim countries because of fears of terrorism.

However, according to the FBI, they are investigating over 1000 cases of white supremacist or other types of domestic terrorist cases–roughly the same number of ISIS-related terror cases they are investigating. We are are very familiar with the public policy initiatives put forth to combat terrorists who are perceived to be Muslim–no fly lists, the Patriot Act, travel bans, limits on refugees, ect. However, there are no corresponding public policy measures put in place to combat murderous white men, who are disproportionately represented in the number of mass shooters and domestic terrorists.

Part of the reticence to label white men who commit terrorist acts as terrorists rests with what the people who dictate terrorism look like. When the vast majority of our country’s public policymakers are white men, it is much harder for that group to other a demographic that looks like them, or select them for pre-emptive criminal scrutiny. That is why even speaking in Arabic or Spanish in public can get a person harassed or detained under the suspicion that they have criminal intent or no right to be in the country, but white men openly carrying weapons in public barely register a raised eyebrow. Our country has done a very good job of convincing people that the folks you need to fear speak Spanish or Arabic, or have skin darker than a paper bag.

The problem with creating public policy in a way that creates the impression that only certain groups of people can be boogeymen is that malefactors who don’t fit the narrowly constructed paradigm of who is a public menace end up slipping under the radar.That’s how thousands of khaki-clad white supremacists could descend on Charlottesville, Virginia while blending seamlessly back into society after the terrorist attack was over.  Most black men know that open carry gun laws don’t apply to them in any meaningful way, whereas in Charlottesville, the white supremacists openly carried intimidating weapons with impunity. When violence erupted there and a young woman was murdered in a vehicle attack, there was no substantive discussion on how to create public policy designed to intercept criminally minded disaffected white men. In fact, Donald Trump even called the white supremacists “very fine people.”

Armed white supremacists in Charlotesville, VA.

When white men with guns transgress public safety,  groups like the NRA and politicians who count on them for donations insist that the only solution to a with a bad guy with a gun, is “a good guy with a gun.” This, however, is a sales pitch. It’s not a sound public policy prescription. In the time period between the Sandy Hook Massacre and the 2016 presidential election, gun sales skyrocketed–boosted in part by the erroneous belief that President Obama was going to take everyone’s guns away. However, despite the surge of “good guys with guns,” statistics don’t show that a better armed public correlated to a reduction of mass shootings and domestic terrorism incidents. By even the most generous definition of what constitutes a mass shooting, the frequency of these incidents hasn’t gone down since the Sandy Hook Massacre.

This observation isn’t simply whataboutism. I’m not simply suggesting that because other groups of people are profiled as criminals, that white men should be too as a way of bringing cosmic balance to the situation.  Rather, it is a serious look at who we are afraid of in this country and why. It’s been reported that Paddock had 18 legally obtained weapons in his hotel room, and dozens more in his home. We need to ask ourselves why a man amassing that kind of weapons stockpile didn’t raise any alarms? By comparison, various gun shops in recent years have indicated that they won’t sell guns to Muslim patrons, citing terrorism concerns. If Muslim people, by virtue of their religion alone, are enough to give some gun dealers pause about selling to them, then why aren’t the same proportion of gun dealers similarly nervous about selling weapons to white men, given high-profile mass shootings and acts of terrorism with white perpetrators?

What are the underlying reasons that white males represent 31% of the population, but 54% of mass shooters? Why don’t we have any policy proposals to address such a shocking disproportion when we have policy initiatives to address disproportion in other groups? What this Las Vegas massacre and other similar mass shootings demonstrate, is that while public policy discussions focus on building walls, travel bans, and what to do about “thugs,” a subset of people are slowly, but abundantly arming themselves and wreaking havoc on communities. If we continue to treat each of these ruptures in public safety as individual and unrelated acts, rather than as symptoms of a greater cultural crisis, then we will continue to miss the boogeymen right in front of us.