Let me do the New York Times editorial board one better: We should try to stop mass shootings even if they aren’t motivated by white-nationalist ideas.
The Gray Lady this week discovered one category of mass shooting that requires invoking the powers of the modern surveillance state, the kind carried out by people who profess white racist sympathies. Its reasoning might have been taken from a column here after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre. As I put it then, Stephen Paddock would not have gotten as far as he did if, in addition to canvassing the country for large planned gatherings and hotel rooms from which to fire on them, as well as acquiring an arsenal of 47 guns and smuggling 23 into a casino suite, he’d spent 30 minutes on an al Qaeda website.
Paddock, as far as we know, did not profess white supremacy sentiments. In fact, the Las Vegas police department and the FBI, after yearlong investigations, never specified a motive.
Then again the question of motive may be a red herring. The shameless exploiters are always first out of the gate after a mass shooting, but the public and the press quickly come to see a political motive, if any, as one more symptom of a warped individuality. Extremist politics may attract such people (and exploit their vulnerabilities), but mass shootings are decidedly a psychological, not a political, phenomenon.
The Times is right, though, that mass-casualty attacks have a lot more in common with terrorism than with regular gun crimes, even in the absence of a professed ideology.
These are statement crimes: Planning and preparation are usually extensive. The individual often has long exhibited a fascination with violence and fetishization of firearms. An unraveling in the perpetrator’s personal life is often a triggering factor. The copycat element is glaring. Authorities can and should monitor extremists to get a lead on potential threats, but would likely be swamped with false positives. Success will come from cross-referencing multiple indicators in real time, as only can be done in a society where so much of social activity and virtually all economic activity now leaves a digital trail. The Times might recommend ignoring any signal unrelated to white nationalism. I would not.
Also, contrary to what the paper seems to argue, the U.S. is not in the habit of overlooking homegrown racist threats. When targeting those inside the country, however, it faces legal restraints. It can’t criminalize racist sentiment any more than it can Islamic sentiment. How would it be consistent with the First Amendment and other civil liberties that the Times occasionally supports to treat as terrorists people who espouse white-nationalist ideas? Many liberals promote the idea that police are systematically racist but don’t want credit for political murders of police. I personally would prefer that the identity-politics genie be put back in its bottle. I don’t see the left allowing it.
The big-data approach, if we could find a way to impersonally collate the flood of available information, is a strategy we might actually be able to implement. And, no, the common denominator that’s likely to pay off big-time isn’t racist leanings. It’s an obsession with guns and killing that, along with other more timely signals, would let us interrupt mass shootings in their planning stages. The Journal reports that 40% of domestic FBI terrorist investigations involve racist motivations, and white-nationalist motivations represent a “majority” of these—which could mean as few as 20%. Most mass shooters may be white, but not many profess political beliefs. Focusing on white nationalism may serve other needs but wouldn’t likely lead to many incipient killers.
Most important is an insight the Times can’t bring itself to articulate: The U.S. electorate has shown a lot more tolerance for surveillance than for gun-ownership limits. This is the place to start, and certainly more useful than gun-control proposals that either can’t be enacted or would have little effect on mass shootings (such as background checks). David Frum, writing at TheAtlantic.com, notes for maybe the 1,000th time that the U.S. is the only country that lets almost anybody buy multiple guns and . . . what? He does not propose letting Germans vote in U.S. elections to create a constituency for German-style gun-control laws. The only problem he solves is his own understandable wish to have something useful to say in the wake of the horrors in Dayton and El Paso.
It would be great if social scientists could show us how, by reprogramming our national and global media, we could short-circuit the social contagion effect that clearly plays a role in mass-shooter psychology. But contagion itself is a digitally mediated phenomenon. Big-data techniques sell us everything from diapers to car insurance. They won’t be uninvented. So what kind of democratic safeguards would let us more aggressively explore their policing potential? This discussion has been suppressed for too long.
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