How does skin color protect lone wolf perpetrators?

A note on the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following a mass shooting, in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 21.
A note on the fence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following a mass shooting, in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 21.

The United States again has been shaken by a mass shooting. Seventeen people, mostly children, were killed and at least 15 others were injured by a 19-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15 assault rifle last week at a high school in Florida.

As we all know, this is not the first mass shooting in the U.S. and probably not the last. According to Statista, between 1982 and 2017, 95 mass shootings took place in the U.S. More than half of the perpetrators, 54 out of 95 were white shooters. Not surprisingly, Nikolas Cruz is also a white American. Why is the focus on the skin color, does it really matter? It absolutely does. This simple fact can make an incredible difference in many things such as the attention paid to the attack, media framing, politicians' discourse or being labeled a terrorist or not.

When a mass shooting occurs, particularly in the West, the media somehow tends to make sure that the perpetrator's religion and skin color are at the center. A similar attitude exists especially for African-Americans. When a crime is committed by an African-American, the focus is not his skin color and African-Americans are criminalized as a group. But this is especially the case when the assailant is Muslim. When a person who is claimed to have an affiliation with Islam commits a crime, the media, society and politicians tend to associate the incident with his religion. Islam is the focus and all Muslims are held responsible and blamed for the incident. The attack gets attention from around the world like it did for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Politicians from everywhere condemn the attack, hashtags are created on Twitter and states call for collective consciousness against terrorists.

If the attacker has any connection with Islam, the crime is announced as a terrorist-related incident in a second and the attacker is labeled a terrorist. Authorities take precautions for possible attacks and portray Islam and Muslims as securitization subjects. People share the pain of the families of the victims around the world. Politicians prepare to implement policies and make speeches on how Islam is destroying Western culture. All Muslims are blamed for the attack that makes Muslims feel obliged to build bridges. So Muslims start sharing apologetic posts while the attack has nothing to do with them. Headlines run for many days and anniversaries are observed each year to commemorate the victims of attack. This is the typical scenario.But what about the lone wolves? Obviously, they do not seem to have the same process. Let's look at the Las Vegas Strip massacre, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history in which at least 58 people were killed and over 800 more injured in a single incident. The attack took place while people were enjoying a music festival on the streets of Las Vegas. Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire on the crowd from his hotel room on the 32nd floor and then he committed suicide in the room. Paddock, the perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting, was also a white American. One might guess that his whiteness afforded him some privilege, as well. Within the same day, as is always the case with other white mass shooters, he was declared to be a lone wolf.On the other hand, unsurprisingly, after the incident, President Donald Trump tweeted: "My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!" It was not an angry tweet, nor a strong reaction to the deadliest attack on his nation. It is possibly because the perpetrator was not Muslim or black.

Skin color also gives protection and tolerance in the media. Newspapers called Paddock a lone wolf. Moreover, even though they later updated the reports, The Washington Post posted an article with the headline "Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock enjoyed gambling, country music, lived a quiet life before massacre." This is obviously normalization of a white man's violence that humanizes the killer who carried the bloodiest massacre in U.S. history from his hotel room with over 20 weapons.

For the Florida shooting, Trump showed a similar white supremacist and biased reaction. He tweeted: "My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school." Again, no criminalization or dehumanization of an entire religious or ethnic group, no threat, no anger, no Muslim ban, no wall with Mexico. Just simple condolences and warm thoughts were heard from the president of the U.S. concerning these bloodiest massacres. Would his discourse be the same if the perpetrator had been Muslim or would this be an opportunity to implement more bans on Muslims or to push more policy proposals?

Remember how Muslims were portrayed as a threat to the U.S. a short time ago. When Trump signed the executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S, he signed it in order to keep out what he calls radical Islamic terrorists. "We don't want them here!" he said. But it is questionable who or what is the real threat because the statistic shows another reality. Since his presidency began, more people have been killed by white American mass shooters who have no connection with so-called radical Islam. This fact may surprise you. This is because white shooters have not been given the same attention, they have received sympathy instead.

Every time there is a white shooter it proves that one's color skin gives privilege and protects one from being called a terrorist. It will also free one and their ethnicity or religion from certain judgments and criticism and make them invisible. Nobody will question one's religion and the relation between motivation and religion. Nobody will ask if the incident possibly related to extremist Christianity. Hence, that person is privileged, this privilege sends the warmest condolences to the families of the victims, minutes of mourning pass and news reports on mental health issues. People are tolerant and feel sorry for the perpetrator's mental health. The media humanizes them by showing pictures of the attacker, not ones holding rifles, though. They are remembered as lone wolves. This is the only possible story if the attacker is a white man who carries out a mass shooting in the U.S.

* Researcher at TRT World Research Centre. She is doing her masters of science in Global Europe: Culture and Conflict at the London School of Economics and Political Science

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