#ChapelHillShooting & Numbers v. Reality

By all accounts, three particularly incredible human beings were murdered by a lone gunman about 36 hours ago in Chapel Hill. The victims were Muslim and the murderer was white.

In reflecting on this senseless killing, the oft-repeated statistic that 87% of mass shooters are white men between the age of 13 and 56 came to mind, as did the fact that America admittedly spends a disproportionate amount of resources spying on Muslim communities to prevent “violent extremism.”

I tweeted this:

Inevitably, I received a shitstorm of racially charged replies.

However, I was surprised that most of them attacked the statistic with counter stats that utterly failed to disprove the conclusion, which is of course what they actually wanted to dispute – that white communities may be more “deserving” of being spied on than Muslim communities, may be more inclined to violent extremism.

A statistic with this many undefined terms is obviously open to debate. What is a “mass shooting”? What is the date range of the data set? What are the other ethnic categories? What defines “caucasian”?

No one asked any of these. They replied with many articles that had all the same undefined terms and slightly lower percentages of mass shootings committed by white men.

But like I said, none of them disproved the conclusion. The furthest any of them went in the opposite direction of the 87% claim was to argue that mass shootings are committed by white men in their exact proportion to the general population:

That figure is most definitely low because it explicitly excludes hate crimes, which – duh – are committed by white men.

However, even if this is the statistic you choose to believe, it should lead you to the same rhetorical question I asked: why isn’t this community being spied on (to the extent Muslim communities are)? 

People only dispute that “87% of mass shooters are white” in an attempt to defend the fact that we disproportionately spy on Muslim communities. The people who attack it want to believe that spying on Muslim communities to an extent they think would be  absolutely unacceptable on their own community is justified because Muslims are disproportionately responsible for senseless violence.

Even their own statistics don’t justify this. Their statistics, paired with their logic for spying, would justify equal spying on all communities, which is not what is happening in America today.

However, I will agree with the trolls on one point: the term caucasian is overly broad. There are obviously many communities within the umbrella of “caucasian,” and I would guess that a few of these communities account for an even higher percentage of mass shootings.

How about gun owners? How about hand gun owners? How about people who post pictures of their guns on social media?

The Chapel Hill shooter fits this bill. Seriously, considering the amount of spying that occurs in this country, why didn’t that put him on a watch list?

But that is not the reality of America today. I won’t be surprised if the victims of the Chapel Hill shooting, and not the murderer, were on a watch list. 

If preventing violent extremism is really the goal of spying on targeted communities, America’s spying resources would be getting used much more effectively in communities of white gun-owners, which have repeatedly proven themselves to harbor violent extremists.

Many people argue that these white mass shooters are not part of “communities” unlike “terrorist which operate in networks”:

I think the racism inherent in this statement is obvious.

White men who commit mass murders are terrorists. And they did not develop their ideologies or justifications in isolation. They are a product of their communities.

It is also problematic to blame mental health alone, without examining the culture that leads to these sort of mental health problems in greater proportions in some communities than others.

The Chapel Hill murderer apparently felt empowered to end his dispute (whatever it was – ideological, in his own mind, over a parking space, whatever) with three Muslims by shooting and killing them.

Even had the victims been white – which the victims of many mass shootings are – this empowerment seems far more likely to manifest itself in privileged communities – communities that think they are entitled to something without having to discuss it in a democratic process, that they are allowed to defend with violence.

This sentiment was surely on display in replies to my tweet:

Many, many people even asserted that the “87% of mass shooters are white” statistic is fine because caucasians account for a greater percentage of the general population: 


An interesting attempt to refute my conclusion, but again, I think the inherent racism in this statement is obvious.

It displays a belief that America is basically a completely white nation. That may be true of your family and friends, maybe even your whole community and town, but don’t let that distract you from the fact that this is still the most diverse country in the world and we must be aware of  that fact at all times if we are to address our social inequalities and ills.

My tweet was also plagued by the insufferable racist trolls who spewed the socially constructed myths about “black on black” crime (who was talking about this?) and people who pointed out that mass shooting account for a small percentage of all murders.

No shit. That’s not the point, but if it is your point, you should also agree with my conclusion that spying on Muslim communities is not backed by data.

Lastly, the whole notion that I was actually calling for more surveillance of any community is absurd. The most tangential look at my public life would show you that I’m an advocate for the right to privacy and abhor government spying. Some people obviously didn’t take the time to look. Still others recognized this fact and didn’t take the time to consider what that may mean about my statement:

I don’t think we need more spying in America. I think we need to examine the disingenuous justifications for the spying that we do have.

I also don’t think spying will prevent violence. I think spying harms communities and the relationships between communities, and that this cultivates violence within and between them.

I think this was on full display in responses to my tweet. If we want to prevent violence, we need to invest our resources in healing communities and the relationships between those communities, not tearing them apart with spying.

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