Imagine you’re walking alone on a deserted street in the eerily silent twilight murk when you spot someone headed toward you. A chill runs down your spine—everything about this person, from their haircut, to their clothing, to their carriage, puts you on edge. In an instant, you guess their religion, politics and worldview. You just know their thoughts run toward hate, violence and death. Everything in you wants to run away.
Now that you have an image in your mind, let me tell you who I see.
Perhaps like you, I see a young man, average in most ways. His face is contorted in a sneer. He’s cocksure, brutal, arrogant, suspicious, is specific about the proper religion, race, language, dress, diet and nationality. He’s probably not too smart, but not a complete idiot either, just misguided, easily manipulated and filled with a false sense of superiority. He is always, always armed.
He is also white. And he is wearing some combination of hyper-nationalist, Confederate, Nazi, militant and utilitarian dress.
This is the terrorist of my America.
I realize that you may think I, as a white person, have less cause to fear whites, even on the alt-right, and even though I’m an unflinching feminist, liberal, agnostic unmoved by the sexual, religious, dietary, intoxicant, et alia, choices of others so long as they do no harm. I actually have more, not less, reason to fear white people, as most violent crimes are committed against members of one’s own race, most often by someone they know.
Further, in terms of mass killings, there is an undeniable pattern to recent history.
Last week’s mass shooting in South Florida is another in a long line of such crimes committed by men who fit the above description. I was the same age as Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris when they opened fire at Columbine High School. I vividly recall watching the coverage in my college dormitory, overcome with emotion but unable to decide if I was stunned or unsurprised that the killers looked like a hundred boys I knew.
Since then, there have been dozens of mass shootings. Often, though not always, the killer’s face isn’t very much different from the faces of Klebold and Harris. Witness Dylann Roof, who murdered congregants at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church; Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter; James Holmes, who opened fire at the Aurora Theater. And now Nikolas Cruz, who killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
The fact that these young men are terrorists, that the terrorist who threatens your family is more likely to resemble Timothy McVeigh than Osama bin Laden, is hard for some whites to swallow. You don’t have to be a scientist to know that white Americans are afraid of black men first, Middle Eastern (looking) men second. In truth, we’re afraid of the wrong people. An even harder truth is that black and Middle Eastern and Latino and Asian people are often afraid of white people, and often with cause.
Being a white person in America gives one access to certain privileges that should be natural rights for all. That privilege is not universal, however, even among whites, and for people who are unbalanced, mistreated and susceptible to influence, I imagine the lack of these privileges can feel unfair, that every advancement of a person they perceive as inferior or perhaps equal while they remain behind could feel like an injustice inflicted on them personally. Even as they sneer about affirmative action, inside they may harbor that sinking feeling that it’s their fault, that they’re unworthy, defective, dumb. (If I’m being honest, they probably are at least one of these.) The hurt this causes gets coated in self-protective anger that becomes rage and builds over months and years as, again and again, they’re the odd one out in class, on the team, at work, romantically, academically and professionally thwarted from attaining the greatness they feel is their due.
Then, one day, it happens. Perhaps it’s a website, like Roof, or a group like (allegedly) Cruz, or a kindred spirit like Klebold and Harris. But someone or something comes along that tells them, NO, it’s NOT YOUR FAULT. It’s THE SYSTEM. It’s those undeserving blacks, or America-hating Muslims, or sheeple at school holding you down. You’re the special one. You’re the prodigy.
The vast majority of these men will never murder. Among those who do, the vast majority will not turn a gun on a crowd or detonate a bomb in an occupied building.
A very, very few of them, however, will.
These are the bogeymen of our America. Sensible gun control is a necessary first—but far from last—step to waking up from this nightmare. Because until something changes, we’ll keep churning them out. If we want the killings to stop, we need to figure out what that change should be. My advice: First, look within.