Why We Care About Some Gunmen, and Not Others (by Charles Kurzman)

[ 0 ] August 31, 2015


by CHARLES KURZMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on AUGUST 31, 2015:

Not every gunshot echoes alike. Some echoes fade quickly, and are only heard in a single neighborhood. Others resonate nationwide, making headlines for days or weeks. Why do we pay attention to certain acts of violence more than others?

The latest gun violence to raise these issues is last week’s murder of two television journalists near Roanoke, Virginia. The gunman, Vester Flanagan, is one of a series of shooters to gain national attention over the past year, including Mohammad Abdulazeez in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Dylann Roof in Charleston, South Carolina; and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. These are not names that you would ordinarily see grouped together: an African-American journalist who killed two white colleagues; a Muslim-American who killed five military personnel; a white supremacist accused of killing eight people in a historic African-American church; and a white police officer who shot an unarmed Black man. They do not have anything in common, except that they are American males who used lethal gunfire to address their personal sense of threat — and then became household names.

Yet thousands more murders never make the news. Every year, according to the FBI’s Crime Report, more than 14,000 Americans are murdered, two thirds of them by firearms. Each victim deserves the same sort of media eulogies as the victims in Roanoke, Chattanooga, Charleston, and Ferguson, but almost all of the victims remain anonymous beyond their friends and family, or perhaps a local news audience.

Simply identifying all murder victims in America involves a significant investment in reporting, as the “Homicide Watch” initiatives in Boston, Chicago, Trenton, and Washington, D.C., have found. The D.C. initiative shut down at the end of the end of 2014 for lack of funds. And these lists hardly begin to honor the victims in any detail or explore the suspects’ motivations.

So why did these four out of thousands of gunmen get so much attention? Part of the explanation has to do with the horrific nature of the crimes: a murder on live television, an attack on military personnel, a bloodbath at a church, and an unarmed victim left unattended on the pavement for hours. But there are, unfortunately, lots of gruesome crimes in America that only make local news.

Beyond the nature of the crimes, what keeps these particular gunmen in the news is their adoption by political movements as symbols of a broader threat.

Residents of Ferguson, Missouri, did not let Officer Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown pass quietly, as previous police shootings had — according to an analysis published last spring by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 300 African-Americans die each year at the hands of law enforcement. (This figure represents one-third of the total, more than double the proportion of African-Americans in the U.S. population.) Instead, there were weeks of protests in Ferguson, joined by the national movement, Black Lives Matter, which adopted Mr. Brown’s death as a vivid emblem of a broader threat to the safety of African-Americans.

The Charleston church massacre also became a national rallying point, in a way that other mass killings have not, and there are a lot of mass killings in the United States — according to an ongoing count by USA Today, the country averages 29 mass killings per year (defined as four or more fatalities), causing an average of 145 fatalities per year. The Charleston shooting was particularly shocking — parishioners at a historic Black church gunned down by a white man who had just engaged in Bible study with them for an hour. Soon after the Charleston shooting, two independent researchers discovered the suspect’s racist website with its manifesto promising to defend white America through violence against Blacks. The manifesto also noted that Roof had been “awakened” by another gunman, George Zimmerman, the neighborhood security officer in Florida who shot and killed a Black teenager, Trayvon Martin, and was subsequently acquitted.

Anti-racist activists seized on the website’s photos of Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag, demanding that the flag be removed from the South Carolina statehouse and other public spaces. And they succeeded — a single individual’s violent racism came to be seen as an outgrowth of broader racial problems, making the display of the flag indefensible for many white politicians who had long embraced it as a symbol of Southern heritage.

The Chattanooga shooting was also interpreted as a sign of a broader threat — in this case the threat of Islamic terrorism. And the political movement that publicized the incident involved conservatives, not liberals.

Anti-Muslim activists quickly publicized the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s support for the attack on Twitter, and identified Abdulazeez’s blog, which had urged Muslims to devote their lives to Islam and not be swayed by “so-called ‘Scholars’ or even your family members.”

They linked the incident with the series of attacks by Muslim-Americans, and cited it as evidence that Muslims pose an existential threat to non-Muslim Americans.

“The disease of Islam in America raises its ugly head once more,” one commenter, responding to an article on Jihad Watch, wrote — reflecting hostility toward Muslims that has been building for years, according to public-opinion surveys.

(In reality there have only been an average of six plots and two incidents per year since September 11, 2001, resulting in four fatalities annually, according to data I have collected — considerably lower than killings by right-wing extremists and law-enforcement.)

Now another gunman is in the national spotlight, triggering debate over workplace grievances, racial retribution, gun control, and the possibility for preventive diagnoses. Vester Flanagan did his own publicity work, shooting his victims during a live television broadcast and then faxing a statement to ABC News that attributed his radicalization to the Charleston shooting. Addressing Roof directly, Flanagan wrote: “You want a race war? … Bring it then…!”

Many conservatives blamed Black Lives Matter. “[I]f you look at his motives, we can see the divisive racial narrative promoted by the media taking its toll,” wrote Michael Cantrell on the Young Conservatives blog. Ben Shapiro, writing on the Breitbart blog, urged a “rethinking of the divisive politics in which [Flanagan] apparently bathed,” where “a perennial picture of victimhood for blacks and gays in the most black-friendly, gay-friendly country on the planet could drive supposed victims to violence.” For anti-anti-racists, Flanagan is a useful example of the perniciousness of civil rights activism.

Meanwhile, most of the people these gunmen claimed to represent defensively distanced themselves from the violence, portraying the criminal acts as those of a madman.

Huffington Post columnist Zeba Blay wrote that the shooting by Flanagan had “nothing to do with” the Black Lives Matter movement, calling Flanagan “obviously disturbed, his delusions filtered through the prism of racism.” A white supremacist group said it was “deeply saddened” by the Charleston shooting, and called the suspect a “lone wolf” who was “allegedly abusing anti-depressants and other drugs.” The country’s leading Muslim civil rights organization, CAIR, immediately condemned the shooting in Chattanooga and “reject[ed] anyone who would harm our nation’s safety and security.”

Of the four gunmen, the only one to retain support from his purported constituency was Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, who was legally vindicated in the killing of Michael Brown. The Missouri Fraternal Order of Police stood by the shooter, selling “Support Officer Wilson” t-shirts and declaring a “Darren Wilson Day” on the anniversary of the shooting.

Regardless of anyone’s position on the threat represented by each of these shootings, the fact that we have a position is part of what sets these shootings apart from the thousands of other killings that the U.S. experiences each year.

The politicization of these incidents keeps them in the news, and that’s a good thing — an informed democracy needs public debate on life-and-death issues. But as we fixate on these particular cases, let’s not forget all the other deaths that do not reverberate so widely.


Charles Kurzman is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Missing Martyrs: Why There Are So Few Muslim Terrorists (Oxford University Press, 2011). He is also co-director of  UNC Chapel Hill’s Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary. 


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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