By some counts, the horrific attack at a Buffalo supermarket was the second terrorist attack, and the 202nd mass shooting, that happened in the United States this year. Given Americans’ easy access to weapons, growing political divisions, racism, and rates of mental illness, there will almost certainly be more. So understanding why this is happening is critical.
In the aftermath of a bloodbath, it is hard to have a nuanced discussion. As has been shown by many scholars, in recent years, our political affiliations have become all-encompassing. We live in partisan bubbles, often geographically defined, and this poses a problem. According to Harvard University political scientist Ryan Enos, “There’s a lot of evidence that any separation between groups has a lot of negative consequences.” We see this in race and religion, he notes, but we also see this in regard to partisanship in the U.S. Our political affiliations have become so entrenched and calcified that it is often possible to guess what will be said in the wake of a tragedy like the recent attack in Buffalo, NY. Specifically, if the perpetrator is white, the right will emphasize mental illness and the left will focus on gun control. The problem is that both sides are right, and we need to be talking about both the psychosocial variables that help explain why someone would want to commit an act of violence, and also the gun control policies that make it possible for this to happen on a horrific scale.
There isn’t much known about the Buffalo shooter at this point, but reporting suggests that he was recently held for a mental health evaluation after making “generalized threats” at his high school. Understanding the relationship between mental illness and domestic terrorism is critical. We are part of a research team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that is seeking to understand how and why people radicalize, commit acts of violence, and deradicalize. The former violent extremists we’ve interviewed—including jihadis, white-identity violent extremists, and others—have complicated stories to tell about their paths into and out of extremism. Some have histories of debilitating mental illness, and they have clear diagnoses reflecting their struggles; others don’t have debilitating histories, and because they haven’t had sustained contact with mental health professionals, they lack the kinds of diagnoses that researchers can use to look for patterns and trends.
Nearly all the formers we’ve interviewed cite underlying social and emotional difficulties; they talk about experiences of racism and persecution (whether real or imagined); they mention poverty and drugs and childhood trauma; they tell stories about exposure to extremist content; and they talk about the meaning and community that they found in their respective extremist movements. All of these factors are at least as important as intellectual endorsement of the specific theories or conspiracies or beliefs that they came to endorse to justify their violence. Debilitating mental illness (one that interferes with daily functioning and demands professional help) may not be part of every extremist’s story, but a struggle with mental health is common among the former extremists we’ve interviewed.
Mental health is only part of the story. Terrorists (even lone actors) adopt and adapt ideologies endorsed by a group, a network, or a movement. These ideologies might be loosely held, and might be adopted to provide a gloss of significance to an act of pure, hateful savagery. Terrorists are increasingly justifying violence with ideologies that combine “far right” views (such as white supremacy) and violent “far left” ones (such as radical environmentalism), and their rationalizations may shift over time. The rationale that the Buffalo shooter used to justify his violence—his wish to “protect” the white race from a perceived threat posed by other races—is a common theme among the network of violent white supremacists we’ve studied. Rationales for political violence often mask deeper fears, such as the fear of being outclassed, outnumbered, or humiliated by some “other.” To be clear, such fears—couched by white supremacists in terms of “white genocide” or the “great replacement” conspiracy theories—are no justification for heinous acts of hate. But by studying why people endorse such conspiracy theories, we may be able to find effective ways to stop this kind of violence before it starts.
This type of research has yielded surprising results. as Karen Stenner have shown that diversity—racial, ethnic, gender, and even moral—is most aversive to those who are innately authoritarian, a latent trait shared by around 30 percent of the population. This is not unique to America; authoritarianism is found all over the world. When a society becomes more diverse or multicultural than such authoritarians can bear, they are prone to becoming overtly racist and even violent. According to polls carried out by University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape and his research team, an estimated 21 million people hold two radical beliefs, which, when held together, are defined by the researchers as “insurrectionist”: they believe the election was stolen and that violence is justified to restore Donald Trump to power. Interestingly, 10 percent of the 21 million who hold both these views are Democrats. The strongest driver for subscribing to these views is the unfounded fear that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites.”
These fears are based on perception, not reality, and are no justification for heinous acts of hate. Understanding what really motivated the Buffalo shooter won’t undo his actions, heal a community, or make families whole. But it does offer a chance to help those engaged in the work of preventing these acts before they occur.
That said, there is one final piece to this particular story: guns.
The Buffalo shooter’s manifesto was 180 pages long: 81 were dedicated to discussions of race, ideology, and motivation; and 99 were dedicated to a discussion of plans, weaponry, and gear. The U.S. has a long and complicated history with guns, with a robust gun culture that can be found in both online and offline spaces. More than half of the document was focused on explaining why he made specific choices about his weapons (20 pages), helmet (24 pages), and body armor (38 pages) and suggests an intimate familiarity with the gear he was discussing. Additionally, the manifesto notes that the shooter radicalized on 4chan, and that he started in the /k/ community (one focused on weapons, where “guns are the primary topic”) before transitioning to /pol/ (a politically incorrect community renowned for its racism) where he “learned the truth” about the threat to white Americans. Thus a gun community was the gateway from which he transitioned to ideologically extremist content.
Moreover, the Buffalo shooter notes that he chose to use a gun because (1) “they work” and “there are very few weapons that are easier to use and more effective at killing than firearms” and (2) he imagined that his attack would be followed by a call for gun reform that would rally sympathetic Americans to violence in order to protect their rights. Finally, he writes in multiple instances about laws related to gun control: he writes about circumventing these laws in order to secure the firearm he wanted; he writes about exploiting local gun laws to increase his likelihood of success; and he writes about manipulating the U.S. debate on firearms in order to recruit more people to his agenda.
The path forward from here is complicated. It is critical that we reject simplistic explanations, whether they focus on access to mental-health care, or the spread of dangerous political ideologies, or access to guns. There is no single variable that explains why this terrible massacre occurred, and so there will be no single answer. But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do. A mental-health crisis among adolescents and the shortage of mental-health practitioners has been widely covered in the media. Our research team has found that there are especially few clinicians trained and willing to work with individuals who subscribe to violence-endorsing ideologies. We need to support policy decisions that will increase the availability of mental-health clinicians, especially those willing to work with this potentially dangerous community. We also need to both improve digital literacy (which might have prevented the Buffalo shooter from believing the false narratives he found online) and reject the mainstreaming of heinous ideologies like that of replacement theory. And finally, we need to advocate for the kinds of gun control policies that are already supported by more than half of America. Preventing future terrorist attacks of all kinds will require policy changes on all these fronts.
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