Why we turn mass shootings into culture war fights

This is what despair over mass shootings looks like

Distracting ourselves from that which we can't control.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Images Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Corbis)

After every mass shooting, the media and the public express themselves passionately about gun violence. But something else happens, too. A friend put it this way: Each mass shooting seems to produce a "B-plot" now. And lately, the B-plot is always a familiar culture war argument.

Last week, while police were collecting more than a dozen pipe bombs from the home of the suspected San Bernardino killers, the media was revving its engines in a debate about whether messages of "thoughts and prayers" are an obscene and insulting gesture from politicians or a natural, human, and understandable sentiment. The mass shooting at Planned Parenthood sparked a discussion about whether the beliefs and rhetoric of peaceful pro-lifers are a cause of anti-abortion terrorism. Earlier this year, a mass murder in a historic black church in Charleston occasioned a debate that ended in the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse.

This is what despair over mass shootings looks like. In the A-plot about gun violence, there is the usual frustration. We know mass shootings are difficult to deter with policy. A waiting period may be long enough to outlast someone's suicidal ideation. But the type of killer who is willing to make a dozen pipe bombs is exactly the type most likely to find extra-legal access to guns. We may be able to make it more difficult to obtain weapons, and we should. But a nation with tighter gun laws is not a nation immune to mass shootings and terrorism. A nation that says it cannot possibly track or expel 11 million illegal immigrants has little chance of finding, tracking, and removing the most dangerous of over 300 million guns.

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The A-plot is straightforward, tired, and frustrating: We suffer mass shootings and terrorist attacks in large part because deadly firearms are ubiquitous, and we have little prospect of changing that.

What's so fascinating and occasionally unnerving about the B-plot to our gun tragedies is the way they become a search for the far more diffuse and remote causes of violence. Namely, the cultural reasons that violence erupts, or the cultural reasons that we find ourselves unable to stop violence. Our elite culture has mostly rejected the idea that popular entertainment that glorifies violence is the problem. So now we search for something deeper. Can we really trust people with these religious convictions against what the state has deemed lawful? Does religion itself become an impediment to intelligent reform? Are people being radicalized by the deinstitutionalized and ungoverned free speech on the web? For now, the culture war spats that come out of these tragedies are mostly conducted within the elite media, using the tools of social stigma. People ask whether pro-lifers can use less-charged rhetoric. Or demand that the state of South Carolina take down a flag that is used to endorse racist violence.

But if the frequency of ideologically motivated mass shootings picks up, whether founded in racism, anti-abortion zealotry, or Islamism, it's easy to anticipate the B-plot conversation will search for more comprehensive public policy responses. For understandable reasons, we are uniquely afraid of terroristic violence. Both because it is more indiscriminate than the kind of gun crime that normally afflicts us, and because it threatens our political order. In our despairing at the difficulty of controlling weapons, we may reach for monitoring speech and thought instead. The connection between hard-edged speech and violence is already being made more explicit at the highest levels of government. Attorney General Loretta Lynch promised that she would take legal action against anyone whose anti-Muslim rhetoric "edges toward violence."

Speech may seem like a hard thing to regulate, but it won't be, really. An attempt to confiscate guns would be a dangerous mission, and demoralizing to the law enforcement agencies tasked with doing it. Policing thought and speech, or at least the illusion of policing it, will be much easier to accomplish.

Abraham Lincoln jailed newspaper editors that he found to be publishing seditious material. In the present, the monitoring of speech would merely involve one federal desk worker calling another desk worker at a tech company. It would be about tracking IP addresses, and shutting down or undermining web forums, or the security of private chat clients. If anything important and dangerous is said, it's probably on an internet platform that can be monitored by government snoops.

The web has made it possible for ersatz communities based around exotic or psychopathic beliefs to connect with each other easily. And these communities become more visible to us because their work is searchable. A pre-web age could not produce the men's rights movement, an English-language magazine for an Islamic State, or the neo-reactionary community, or make them so widely known. If, in our despair of stopping violence by other means, we create agencies to prevent radicalization they will find plenty of communities on the internet that look dangerous when you squint your eyes. What else would you call a distributed network of young men who connect with each other across international borders on chat rooms, share explosive and extreme rhetoric, and even plan campaigns of trolling behavior and online harassment? To some observers, this looks like a proto-type of terrorist cell formation.

A century ago, it was expected that the great powers of the free world would impose censorship in times of war. Of course it could happen again. After the Paris attacks, I spoke to several European thinkers who all feared for the near term. Things they had grown to rely on — free movement through the European continent, and free expression — seemed to be suddenly in danger. France is contemplating a mass closure of unapproved mosques as a response to terror. Donald Trump seems eager to do the same here.

The one lesson that modern ideologically motivated terrorism has taught me is this: When narrow security measures fail, we demand new, broad, and invasive ones. Frustrated at our inability to alter the facts in the United States created by the Second Amendment, our fear of violence almost certainly will turn toward creating laws and agencies that try to control the ideas that inspire it.

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