“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people who read acclaimed civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s best-selling book, Just Mercy, that affirmation might sound familiar.
Advocates and activists, in the push for criminal justice reform, often reference this concept in their calls for a more just and equitable system, and for good reason. Millions of Americans, mostly black and Latino, have been sentenced to decades of their lives behind bars by a system that views them only as the crimes they have committed and nothing more. Though the system might behave this way, most people believe and understand that we need to shift toward perceiving offenders as human beings first, particularly when it relates to poor offenders of color.
But this growing societal consensus begins to crack when the focus shifts toward those offenders from the highest tier of privilege and who have often committed the most heinous crimes: white men who commit mass shootings.
In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, as biographical details about Stephen Paddock emerged, people on social media urged media outlets not to “humanize” him by publishing background facts about his life. They insisted that Paddock be characterized as a terrorist, plain and simple, and that providing information about his life and the possible factors that might be behind his decision to commit such an act of violence—his lack of a criminal record, for instance, or his Valium prescription, which could have caused aggression and intrepid behaviors—was disrespectful to the victims and would only glorify Paddock, encouraging others to follow in his footsteps.
It’s easy to understand why people find charitable coverage of mass shooters so frustrating. People of color have been portrayed almost universally in the media as hardened, violent, and beyond redemption, even when they are the victims of gratuitous crime. Who could forget the New York Times’ declaration that the late Michael Brown was “no angel,” or the haste with which a Cleveland publication noted that Tamir Rice’s parents “both have violent pasts”? When it comes to people of color who have committed crimes, the discourse is even worse: The mugshots lead, the rap sheets are dug up, and people call for the justice system to make examples of them, saying it would be too dangerous to offer forgiveness or understanding.
People are right to point out that this double standard is vicious and harmful. And likely very few—if any—of these people would defend Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, for instance, when he makes statements about young men in Chicago who commit acts of gun violence. Kass calls these young men “nihilistic feral boys, brandishing their guns in cars, waving their death sticks in rap videos,” and concludes that the only sensible solution is to let President Trump “send in the feds.” Anyone with an ounce of compassion understands that the young men and women in Chicago who join gangs and commit shootings live in blighted and overpoliced neighborhoods with direly underfunded schools, few well-paying jobs, and almost no access to healthy food or mental health care. The well-documented link between lead poisoning and violent crime further undermines any narrative that would portray these young people as inherently violent. (In Chicago, officials recently discovered more than 14,000 water fixtures containing dangerous levels of lead.) People in these communities who commit acts of violence cannot be dismissed as evil or inherently violent: They are victims of a society that has left them to fend for themselves.
But responding to these harmful characterizations by saying that we must label mass shooters like Paddock as “evil” and shun all information about their motives or struggles is course-correcting in the wrong direction. The truth, difficult as it may be to accept, is that societal influences play as much of a role in perpetuating mass shootings as they do in local, small-scale shootings. The magnitude of mass shootings makes the intentions behind them more difficult to comprehend, but these shooters are also products of a society that is notoriously apathetic toward more quotidian acts of violence.
Toxic masculinity and gendered abuse, two things that many mass shooters, including Paddock, tend to have in common, breed as much of a culture of violence as the rampant disregard for poor black communities does. That Paddock’s verbally abusive treatment of his spouse was acknowledged as a red flag only after he unleashed an assault on hundreds of innocent people shows that society has become too accustomed, too tolerant of such behavior in the first place. We understand the intention behind investigating the mental health status of white mass shooters, but ultimately using mental illness to explain this is little more than a cop-out from a more difficult confrontation: Why are so many of these shooters often found to be “loners,” flying under the radar of everyone around them? What about life on the fringes is so distressing that the only way to escape it is to murder innocent people? That such conversations are rarely had suggests that society might bear some of the blame.
Asking people to course-correct toward empathy and humanization for white mass shooters can seem like a daunting request to make when offenders and victims of color are dehumanized seemingly every day by mainstream media. The media should remedy its vicious double standard around gun violence, but it should do so by offering all shooters more humanity, not less. Denying white mass shooters their humanity does nothing to further our understanding of such acts of violence or help prevent them in the future.
The crimes committed by people like Stephen Paddock are undoubtedly monstrous. Unfortunately, labeling them monsters only serves to enable us to turn a blind eye to those aspects of society that continue to give rise to such a brutal phenomenon. And with the prospects for gun control legislation looking as bleak as ever, humanizing the shooters—that is to say, viewing them as whole, deeply complicated human beings undeniably influenced by the many forms of violence surrounding them—may actually be the most realistic way to confront large-scale shootings and gun violence at their source.