[Note: In the course of this piece I use the names of several mass killers. I realize this is controversial, but for me, as a matter of good writing it was difficult to avoid. Thanks for understanding and for reading.]
It is ghastly, yet true: Mass shootings are becoming so common that it now feels like a surprise if we can make it through three months without one. Now, Americans are reeling from not one, but three within the week.
July 28, Gilroy, CA: Three killed and more injured at the Gilroy Garlic Festival before the perpetrator turned the gun on himself.
Last Saturday morning, El Paso, TX: Twenty killed and over two dozen injured outside a Walmart. Age of youngest victim: 4 months old.
Sunday morning, in Dayton, OH: Nine killed and at least twenty-seven injured. Among the victims, the shooter’s own sister.
The brutal succession of shootings is prompting renewed reflection on the past spring’s killings in Christchurch and the Poway synagogue, as white nationalist terrorism is the through-line from those killings to El Paso in particular. Posts were found by the perpetrator on 8chan celebrating the Christchurch killer, echoing Poway copycat John Earnest. In his own manifesto, he explicitly draws a line between the Muslim “invasion” of New Zealand and the Hispanic “invasion” of his home state. He drove nine hours to El Paso from his family home in Allen, TX, to “kill as many Hispanics as possible.”
Racially charged language was also found on the Gilroy Fest killer’s social media, including a recommendation of a book commonly circulated among white supremacists. However, less information is available about the Gilroy than about the El Paso killer, and the FBI is suggesting caution before assigning explicit racial motives.
The case of the Dayton killer, Connor Betts, was the most puzzling at first. His profile seemed shockingly normal. He had no 4chan/8chan footprint. His police record was blemish-free save for a handful of speeding violations. He advertised himself on LinkedIn as a quick learner and a willing worker. He was good with his hands and had worked several service jobs. A close friend of his murdered sister says she never sensed bad blood between them. She recalls the sister’s personality with a poignant mix of past and present tense: “She’s very sweet, had her own opinions and was loud and kind in a way that her brother was quiet and stayed more to himself.”
I was struck by deja vu at that last line, as I thought back to this profile of the “quiet, piano-playing Presbyterian mass shooter” who killed four people at the Poway synagogue. Quiet, kept to himself, made good grades, all while he was being indoctrinated in alt-right fever swamps. His family and friends and church were blindsided. Compare too with this description of Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter: “He wouldn’t talk to people. No one really knew him.”
But more details were to come on Betts. An unofficial report says at one point he was expelled for making plans to shoot up his high school, including a hit list with graphic details of what he’d like to do with the bodies. A fellow alum says when she heard the news, her mind went back to the list: “I thought it might be him.” A further report mined his Twitter profile, turning up a strange array of facts: He was a leftist, a Satanist metalhead, a Trump-hater who called the ICE bomber “a martyr.” Most bizarrely, a few tweets even condemn gun violence. Taken as a whole, his feed is volatile, disturbed and disturbing.
A white nationalist Trump lover and a leftist Trump-hater—poles apart politically, yet within 15 hours of each other, they grabbed the highest-powered rifle they could find and left home with the same goal. How do we piece together the puzzle of this weekend, this season, this year?
Twitter and the media, as is their wont, have offered no shortage of Grand Unifying Theories. And in their defense, at least some partially unifying theories do present themselves. It should be abundantly clear that trite soundbytes about “a few alt-right trolls in their parents’ basement on a message board” need to be retired yesterday. The wolf is at the synagogue door. The danger is clear and present.I also see calls from the right for “a conversation about mental health.” Also well and good, though perhaps a bit inadequate.
And of course, there’s the monotonous drone of the gun control lobby, whom we have with us always. (By contrast, for people who would rather think through the matter helpfully than spew talking points, I point readers to the targeted, measured and substantive proposals of David French.) Apparently it’s also too much to ask that just this once, perhaps, we could not make something all about Trump.
And the takes keep coming. “If only…” “How many more before…” “This just proves… ”
Of course, I’ve got my own questions, my own things that make me go “Huh.” Like how Patrick Crusius became radicalized in a few years right under the nose of his grandparents, with whom he shared a house after moving out in high school. By all accounts they’re a sweet older couple. So sweet, they apparently let him use the computer eight hours a day without asking any questions. I think about how John Earnest’s family never even worried what their son might be reading online, for so many years that they no longer knew him. I think about how Connor Betts learned to love the dark and terrify women and glory in violence with nobody to whip his hide the moment his wolf fangs came out.
I nod knowingly when I read that Crusius’s parents were divorced and that he was always by himself—a lonely, isolated, “weird” kid, probably on the spectrum. In the same way, I nod when I read that Stoneman-Douglas school shooter Nicky Cruz and his brother had to go home-hopping after their mother died. I can wrap my mind around fatherlessness, neglect, isolation.
But then I think about John Earnest, Sr., a present father and a man of God, left devastated and uncomprehending. I think about the father of the Toronto van killer, Alex Minassian, who did everything he could with his wife to help their Asperger’s son, to encourage him, to launch him. I am haunted by this father’s simple, anguished reply when asked for a comment to the victims’ families: “I am sorry.”
The boys are not all right. We know this. We will keep trying to throw out ideas to “fix” this, some of them perhaps more helpful than others. The gun control lobby will keep droning and blaming Trump. Some of us will discuss strategies for regulating or stifling hotbeds of radicalization. Others will keep talking about the botched generational hand-off and about the dangers of unfettered Internet access.
All of it will be inadequate until we lift our eyes above this present carnage to see that hand of darkness outstretched over all, that power unbound by flesh with whom we contend. No words will suffice but “good” and “evil.” No language will suffice but the language of war.
Sooner or later we must come face to face with the truth, the terrifying truth: that sin crouches at every bitter young Cain’s door, waiting to enter if willingly invited. After all our blame has been parceled out, all our sage advice delivered, this remains. This choice. This lifting of the latch.
I have said that the boys, specifically, are not all right. But somewhere there is a Twitter account I will not link to, whose handle I will not name, whose management belongs not to a college-age male but to a 14-year-old girl. A recent tweet links a poll for her 133k fans to vote on a title for a T-shirt she has designed. On the front, a shot of her smiling, her teeth needing braces. On the back, a list of names: