It had been an evening planned with fun and entertainment in mind: I was scheduled to join my friend, radio host Jimmy Church, on his program for a live call-in game of rock n’ roll trivia. The date was Thursday, July 23, and spirits were high as Jimmy and I were gearing up for the best (or worst) that his listeners could throw at us in the way of obscure anecdotes and trivia about rock music icons.
Elsewhere at that time, it had no doubt been a similar atmosphere of light hearted fun near Lafayette, Louisiana, as moviegoers were attending a showing of the comedy “Trainwreck”, when a man authorities have identified as John Russell Houser stood up and began shooting. Nine were injured, and three individuals were confirmed dead, including the shooter, who took his own life as police sirens became audible outside the theater.
As the events taking place in Louisiana became known to us, Jimmy and I discussed the incident briefly on-air with what little information was forthcoming at the time. This would mark the second shooting in the course of a single week; on July 16, a young man identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. On June 17, just one month prior to the Chatanooga incident, 21-year-old Dylan Storm Roof entered an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, opening fire and killing nine people. Roof has since been charged with federal hate crimes, and may face the death penalty for his actions.
Abdulazeez, unlike Houser in Louisiana, was killed during police gunfire that ensued. Houser, it was reported, had initially fled the theater along with surviving victims, and upon hearing police and ambulances approaching, reentered the building and claimed his own life. In Charleston, Roof had reportedly intended to do the same, according to surviving witnesses who claimed he pointed his weapon to his head, only to find the chamber was empty.
The scenario is all too familiar to us today in America: a young, troubled individual–nearly always male, but not always caucasian–gains access to firearms and plans an attack that is fueled both by hatred, and mental instability.
In some instances, the actions of the shooter can be so strange and disturbed that it becomes a struggle to make sense of what had actually driven the person to committing such an act. This was the case following a navy yard shooting carried out by Aaron Alexis on September 16, 2013, who had lived nearby and suffered persistent mental issues. Etched onto the firearm he carried had been the words “Better off this way,” and “my ELF weapon,” which some interpreted to be a reference to “extremely low frequency” technologies. The Washington Post further reported at the time that Alexis was “hearing voices of three people who had been sent to follow him and keep him awake,” who the shooter claimed had been using a microwave device to cause his insomnia.
President Obama recently cited issues with gun laws one of the greatest frustrations of his presidency, and in a subsequent BBC interview, called for institution of “common sense” changes to existing gun laws.
“The United States of America is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient common-sense gun-safety laws,” Mr. Obama said. “Even in the face of repeated mass killings.”
In response to the recent shootings, the recurring debate over gun laws has been paired with broader social actions, ranging from the removal of the Confederate Flag from state grounds in South Carolina and other states, to the criticism of encryption technologies that may assist terrorist groups like ISIL to reach radicalized individuals in the west. Senator Diane Feinstein of California, discussing the Chattanooga incident, argued that it bore the elements of ISIL influence, and noted how encryption technology available today offered methods by which such influence might go undetected:
“This is a classic lone wolf terrorist attack,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told US broadcaster CBS. “Last year, 2014, ISIL put out a call for people to kill military people, police officers, government officials and do so on their own, not wait for direction.”
And according to Feinstein, part of the solution is to provide the government with greater access to digital communications.
“It is now possible for people, if they’re going to talk from Syria to the United States or anywhere else, to get on an encrypted app which cannot be decrypted by the government with a court order,” Feinstein said.
DW further reported that, “the Obama administration… has expressed growing concern about encryption technology,” and that “even with an appropriate court order [law enforcement agencies] still cannot view communications masked by such technology,” a process collectively referred to as “going dark.”
The problem with such technology is twofold: protecting communications has become paramount in the minds of many Americans, especially in a post-Edward Snowden world where the extent of government monitoring of personal communications is all too apparent. On the other hand, such encryption technology will obviously be exploited by those intending to do harm on American soil, or for that matter, anyplace else in the world.
Despite concerns over radicalization and terrorist groups exploiting social media and encrypted technologies, there are no credible ties at present linking such groups to any of the aforementioned shooters. Rather, the problem seems to be rooted in the toxic relationship between drugs (whether prescribed, or obtained illegally) guns, and mental illness which may range from psychotic episodes like those displayed by Aaron Alexis, or severe depression fueled by substance abuse, as Abdulazeez had battled prior to the Chattanooga shooting.
None of the debates, social movements aimed at solidarity in the face of crises, fear-mongering over the very real threat of terrorism, nor the crusading against encryption technologies really seem to address the darkness that motivates these shootings. If anything, there are moments where the reactions of lawmakers to such incidents do more to underscore how those in leadership are merely grasping at political straws, with little sincere understanding of the hard issues at play.
Without question, the problems underlying gun violence in the United States are among the most complex that we face today. In order to combat such complex problems, the requirement for complex solutions becomes all the more apparent.
Putting aside all political posturing, there are a number of truths we must face: taking guns off the streets, for instance, would probably do very little to end all violence, just as mental health screenings would do little to curb issues like racism that similarly motivate violence through hatred. Comprehensive health care reform can probably do very little to combat depression and substance abuse so great that it drives unhinged young American men toward killing themselves, or in the worst instances, others around them. And carrying on about terror groups “going dark” is still overlooking those right here among us who require little in the way of outside influences to follow through with what becomes their own self-motivated horror.
Instead of realizing the insufficiencies of our politically-driven attitudes toward such problems, we continue to leap at every tragedy, hoping to advance some even greater notion of political reform than the last incident could offer. What is, or ever really has been done in recent years, to seriously engage these issues?
If we can learn to be more honest with the issues at hand, and with ourselves, perhaps we can find some answers. Until that time, the difficult question remains: what is really being done to prevent the next act of horror, and whose neighborhood will it occur in next time?