I keep coming back to something Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said yesterday morning, after Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas from a hotel room where he’d stashed at least 20 legally purchased rifles, killing 59 people and wounding at least 500.
He said: “Right now we believe it’s a solo act, a lone wolf attacker. We are pretty confident there is no longer a threat.”
Even if you take that first sentence in the most literal way–that Paddock was not part of any organized group and did not have any accomplices in this terrible crime–the second simply does not follow. Because the “threat” did not end with him killing himself in his hotel room, just as it didn’t begin with him arriving there in the first place.
Although quite a number of people have already called me a “cunt” on the internet since yesterday because I referred to this act as terrorism, I will continue to do so, and I’ll explain why. (By the way, you’re not going to get very far condescendingly suggesting that an Israeli citizen doesn’t know the definition of terrorism. I’ve lived the definition of terrorism.)
People who blame these shootings on mental illness are correct in one way, and that’s when they say that “no normal person would do this.” Although they’re wrong in their conclusions, it’s true that in a normal, healthy human society, individuals don’t suddenly commit mass acts of violence, stunning all of their loved ones and the world at large.
But the situation of men in our society is not normal, and the addition of easily available semi-automatic firearms is the spark to that particular tinder.
Toxic masculinity isn’t a mental illness, but it isn’t healthy or “normal,” either, except in the statistical sense. We raise men to ignore and suppress any emotion besides anger until they’re no longer even able to identify any other emotion. We encourage them in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways to act out that anger as violence. We teach them that if the world doesn’t provide them with what they want–despair, and then anger, and then even violence, is a reasonable response. We teach them that emotional attachment, remorse, and self-criticism are feminine, and that if you’re a man who is feminine, you’re better off dead.
And then we give them easy access to guns–and not only that, but we tell them that they deserve those guns. That they deserve them in the literal same way as they deserve the right to criticize their government or to practice their religion.
By “we,” I obviously don’t mean you and me, except that I do mean you and me. Nobody did this to men; we all did it to ourselves. Non-male people perpetuate toxic masculinity all the time. I did it when I turned away in discomfort from male partners who were crying; male friends of mine do it every time they bury their feelings rather than acknowledging them.
But women and trans folks aren’t going to be able to fix masculinity. Men, especially cis men, are going to have to either reclaim it or toss it aside.
Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation against civilians for political aims. I suppose this is where people are going to disagree. We relegate these men’s issues, or whatever they are, into the private sphere. But toxic masculinity is a political issue, and the violence it sparks certainly has the effect of terrorizing large groups of people, especially women, queer/trans people, and people of color.
When white men go on shooting sprees, many of us feel like hostages. Whatever it is these men want–sex, love, respect, attention, a demographic majority–we’re being held at gunpoint until they get it.
Marc Lepine, who murdered 14 women in Montreal in 1989, wanted a spot in a university and a job, and he thought women had taken those things from him.
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, left copious written notes about their anger at specific people at school and at society in general.
James Eagan Holmes, who murdered 12 people at a movie theater in Colorado in 2012, was reportedly dissatisfied with his life and inability to find a job.
Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, felt that he was denied the sex and attention that he deserved.
Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, thought that African Americans are taking his country from him, and stated that “I have no choice” but to do something about it.
There are dozens more examples easily found. The common thread here isn’t mental illness, or illegally obtained firearms (many of them were legally purchased), or poverty. It’s white men who are angry, think the world owes them something, and have access to guns.
And even if all of these mass shooters were mentally ill, and even if their mental illness contributed to their actions, that’s still not a good explanation. A quarter of American adults experience mental illness at some point. Most don’t shoot anyone. Something else has to make the difference.
So, sure, I could Wait And See before calling this latest shooting an act of terrorism. And maybe we’ll learn something that makes me change my mind. Changing one’s mind is fine. But at this point, I’m going to go with the overwhelmingly most likely explanation, which is that Stephen Paddock is yet another white men who was angry about being denied something he thought he deserved, and decided to make that point with mass violence. (Imagine my immense shock when I read that local Starbucks employees recall Paddock constantly being a piece of shit to his girlfriend.)
Many terrorist acts contain a grain of validity in that they’re the desperate acts of people or groups of people who no longer know how else to get what they want–which, in some cases, is a valid aim. (In other cases, it isn’t.) The terrorism of white American men is unique in that they don’t see themselves as part of a political group. But, of course, they are–it’s just not an organized one.
What they’re seeking is relief from their anger and misery, and mass shootings are only the most extreme of their attempts to get it. You see the less dramatic, less immediately deadly of those attempts all the time: the bitter online trolls, the men who expect their girlfriends to fix all of their problems, the Trump voters, the hacky comedians with their tired sexist jokes, the corporate workaholics.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, toxic masculinity teaches men to see the causes of their problems as always outside of themselves, which is why talking to angry men about “toxic masculinity” goes over about as well as talking to them about about Andrea Dworkin.
There’s a reason bell hooks named her excellent book on this topic The Will to Change. We can’t force men to change or make these changes for them. Until they do that for themselves, we’re all hostages to toxic masculinity. And until then, Sheriff Lombardo is very much wrong, because there is very much still a threat.
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