You seldom have to wait long for mass shootings in the US, and then two come around together.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 251 mass shootings there in 2019, and the year is still young. Other, less partial, sources put that number at 36. Both agree that the one in El Paso, claiming 20 dead, is so far the bloodiest of all.
That’s why it’s perhaps not surprising that the reactions to it have been the inanest of all, with meaningless clichés dripping from every word.
Thus President Trump showed his inimitable sense of style by describing the El Paso and Dayton murderers as “really very, very seriously mentally ill”.
Mr Trump needn’t bother to apply for a position on Rees-Mogg’s staff. The latter enforces stylistic rectitude in his office correspondence, and preceding a noun with five modifiers, two of which are ‘very’, just wouldn’t cut the mustard.
As to the substance of his statement, Mr Trump’s qualifications for diagnosing a psychiatric condition aren’t immediately obvious. He has merely succumbed to the widespread temptation of trying to medicalise every social problem.
This is a cop-out that avoids serious analysis, without which Mr Trump’s stated objective of “doing more to stop mass shootings” can’t be achieved.
Once platitudes took hold, there was no stopping them. He described the El Paso shooting as “an act of cowardice,” adding that “there are no reasons or excuses that will ever justify killing innocent people.”
Those two murderers are many things, few of them nice. But one thing they definitely aren’t is cowardly.
I’d suggest that going to an almost certain death testifies to great courage. However, many people make the mistake of regarding bravery as an unconditional virtue, regardless of what purpose it serves.
However, if bravery serves an evil end, as in these cases, it’s itself evil – whereas cowardice becomes a virtue if it restrains a potential murderer from perpetrating his evil deed.
Then the president added that “hate has no place in our country”, which is false both factually and metaphysically.
Factually, hate manifestly occupies a prominent place in the US and elsewhere. Metaphysically, hate will have no place anywhere only after the Second Coming. Until then, original sin will continue to operate.
That also makes nonsense of Mr Trump’s platitudinous reference to there being no excuse for murdering “innocent people”. Until the aforementioned event has arrived, few of us will remain truly innocent.
Also, the implication is that it would be justified to shoot up a crowd wholly made up of bigamists, prostitutes and paedophiles. One does wish our rulers were able to find better words to convey their outrage and, more important, to suggest preventive measures.
But at least the president refrained from coming up with more spurious explanations for the tragedy, other than ascribing it to the murderers’ lunacy, as one does.
Now, someone wantonly killing and being killed clearly commits an aberrant, violent act. But not all violent acts are a result of a diagnosable psychiatric condition – in fact, in the US, less than five per cent of them are.
The explanations proffered by Mr Trumps’ detractors are even less sound. Some political southpaws even blamed the El Paso shooting on his anti-immigration rhetoric.
Yet such rhetoric was never muted even when I lived in Texas (1974-1984). Though since then El Paso’s Hispanic population has grown from about 60 to over 80 per cent, the city remains one of the safest in the country. Hence this act of random violence hardly reflects a link between demographics and murder.
The El Paso shooter explained that he was responding to the Mexican “invasion” of Texas, which shows an insecure grasp of history. After all, Texas was originally Mexican, and it was white settlers who invaded and ethnically cleansed it in an unjust 1848 war.
Nor does one see any persuasive evidence of a rise in white supremacism. On the contrary, such organisations as the Ku-Klux-Klan and the John Birch Society, if they’re still extant, have certainly lowered their profile to virtual invisibility.
During my time in Texas, I heard anti-Mexican sentiments expressed every day, yet no one discharged assault rifles in supermarkets. Ethnic animosity may sometimes be a constituent of criminality, but in this case it’s best to sheathe one’s Occam razor: this explanation is too simplistic to elucidate a trend, though it may account for a single incident.
Then naturally there’s a thunderous choir of voices clamouring for a ban on firearms, the Second Amendment or no. To be believed, such vocally endowed persons would have to find fault with the detailed and copious research presented by John Lott in his book, whose title is also its conclusion: More Guns, Less Crime.
Prof. Lott analyses reams of data for every state, reaching the conclusion that the availability of firearms is in inverse proportion to the crime rate. Yet, taking their cue from Rousseau, anti-gun fanatics insist on the inherent goodness of man, with each vile act therefore attributable to external reasons only.
Alas, that’s demonstrably not the case. It’s an immutable fact of life that people kill – with guns, if they are available; without, if they aren’t. London, for example, has some of the strictest gun laws in the world, which doesn’t prevent someone being knifed to death practically every day.
Moreover, since the US gun laws were liberalised in the early ‘90s, firearm homicides have decreased by about fifty per cent, vindicating Prof. Lott’s findings.
However, mass, showcase shootings (defined as producing four or more victims) have skyrocketed during the same period: from an average of just over three a year back then to one a week now, even if you only accept the lower figure cited above.
It takes more research than I can conduct to understand why. Conceivably, there’s some kind of Herostrates complex at play, a morbid desire for notoriety at any cost.
Since celebrity and achievement have gone their separate ways, obscurity may strike some losers as unfair. If someone can become an international star simply because her gluteus is very maximus, why can’t they? This is an injustice, which may be correctable by a few well-publicised shots – even at the cost of one’s own, hitherto worthless, life.
Drugs may have a role to play too, especially if the wrong ones are in fashion. Thus the murder rate in New York dropped appreciably when heroin replaced crack as the drug of choice. Heroin, being a downer, makes one less violent; crack, being an upper, more so. Currently popular crystal meth is an upper too, and it may encourage violence.
A constantly fostered culture of entitlement may also be a factor: the sense of being denied one’s perceived due may create a grudge against the world in general and the usual culprits in particular.
All this is sheer speculation, but the issue must be studied seriously, for the findings will shed light not just on crime, but on the world as it now is. Using these tragedies as an opportunity for mouthing banalities or scoring political points is in itself a tragedy.
P.S. While we’re on the subject of mental disorders, my cracker-barrel diagnosis is that Peter Hitchens suffers from perseveration, the urge to repeat the same things over and over.
His two idées fixes are the evil of drugs and the virtue of Putin. Displaying an enviable agility, he’s capable of squeezing one of those into any seemingly unrelated context.
Yesterday, for example, he wrote a good article about the sorry state of policing in Britain. Suddenly, out of the blue, came the conclusion: our police present a greater threat to our freedom than Putin ever will.
This is a blatant non-sequitur, and experienced writers know how to avoid those. That Hitchens was unable to do so surprised me no end – until I realised that the whole piece had been written for the purpose of emphasising Putin’s harmless nature.
I’m sure that if Mr Hitchens were to write a cookery book, he’d find a way of saying that Putin is excellent for one’s digestion.