“Society Made Him”: Notes On Mainstream Media Coverage Of Mass Murders

Last week in the Gender & Society course I teach at Rhode Island College I screened the documentary “Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity” which was created by educator and activist Jackson Katz. The documentary contains some extremely important information about the formation and perpetuation of standards of masculinity and the damage that these standards have wrought upon boys, men, and our entire culture. During one segment of the documentary, Katz discusses the spate of school shootings that occurred in the US between 1997 and 1999. During that time, eight school shootings occurred, all involving young male shooters. Katz presents the various school shooters in his documentary, and notes that media coverage of this phenomenon in the late 1990’s neglected to interrogate the role of gender in these shootings; specifically, he shares his concern that media failed to mention that all of the young people who committed these heinous acts were boys.

But Katz failed to interrogate the role of RACE in these school shootings. In fact, the media – and Katz – failed to mention that all of the young people who committed these heinous acts were WHITE boys. When Katz “overlooked” this basic fact in his work, he also engaged in and with the dominant discursive construction of whiteness as invisible, irrelevant, and inconsequential to acts of violence. In doing so, he placed himself squarely on the side of a racist ideological paradigm. This is especially disconcerting to me because around the same time that media was covering the acts of white male school shooters by asking question such as “What Is Happening To AMERICA’S Children?,” they were simultaneously covering acts of violence committed by young Black males which were directed towards other young Black males by asking questions such as, “What Is This Phenomenon of Black on Black Crime?”

When young People of Color kill one another, the perpetrators of these crimes are not described as “America’s Children.” We do not delve into their lives and experiences in any attempt to discern why they may have engaged in these violent acts. Conversely, when a white male engages in mass murder (or attempted mass murder), mainstream media feeds us a plethora of information about their lives, digging into every corner and crevice of their minds (including, in the case of the Columbine shooters, the diaries of the murderous duo) to discover why they committed these acts, what “triggered” these acts, and what they were going through when they chose to commit these acts. These white males are treated as anomalies, as outliers, or as damaged persons who were responding to multiple stressers caused by society.

When men of color engage in these types of heinous acts, we are rarely made privy to their childhoods, backgrounds, or life experiences. Mainstream media rarely seeks to understand why these men of color committed such acts, what “triggered” these acts, or what they were going through when they chose to commit these acts. It is implicitly understood that people of color are INHERENTLY prone to violence. There is no need to ask the question of why a Black man, for example, may have committed a specific act of violence, because we already know the answer: He is Black. And violence is what Black people do. Ergo, when a white male commits an act of heinous violence he is said to be suffering from some sort of INDIVIDUAL pathology. When a male of color commits an act of heinous violence, he then becomes a representative of the alleged COLLECTIVE pathology of his entire race.

Our resistance as a culture to recognizing historical patterns is dumbfounding to me. A quick look back in time can inform us of the LONG history of white men engaging in mass murder and serial killings, as well as genocide, enslavement of other humans, rape, and lynching. My class was stunned when I informed them that not so long ago entire communities of white people would pack up picnic baskets, dress up their families, and head out for the Entertainment of the Week – the lynching of a Black person. While at these Lynching Parties, families would fellowship, cheer, and bond over the public execution of another human being. They would watch with glee as a Black person was hanged, male victims would have their genitals cut off and stuffed into their mouths, and bodies were often burned alive.  White families would take home body parts as souvenirs. And to add insult to insanity, these folks would take pictures of the lynched individual, create postcards with these pictures on them, and send them out to friends.

This is not information I gleaned from The X Files, folks…this is US History! And it is not so far removed from the public execution celebrations that existed all over Europe at one point. We KNOW that entire communities of white people engaged in these vulgar and sadistic acts, and yet these entire communities were never pathologized and presented as evidence that white people are inherently violent. Every crime committed by a white person has been reframed as the act of a disturbed Individual and is in no way linked to their white racial status. People of color, on the other hand, can commit no act that will remain separate from their racial identities. It’s called RACISM…and many of us believe the completely fabricated HYPE that we have been fed.

I already had these oppressive thoughts on my mind when I awakened this morning to the news that at least 14 people had been murdered and at least 50 seriously injured by a 24-year-old gunman named James Holmes at a midnight screening of the film “The Dark Knight” in Aurora, Colorado. I scanned through copious articles about this horrific event, paying close attention to the discourse that was used by media to describe it. The first item of note that I discovered was that no media outlet had – as of 10am on Friday, July 20, 2012 – released the racial identity of the shooter. They have this man, who is described simply as a 24-year-old male, in custody. They know what he looks like. But we don’t. History and repetition have convinced me that if the shooter were a man of color, we would know that – we would be explicitly told the race of the shooter, and we might even have access to a picture of him. Also of note is that the film “The Dark Knight” has not been “blamed” for this act of violence, as films like “Boyz In The Hood” and “Menace II Society” were when acts of violence broke out at screenings for those films. I have no doubt that had “The Dark Knight” been a predominantly Black film, the film itself would have been held up as an exemplar of the belief that media can lead directly to acts of violence.

And the aspect of US mainstream media-generated discourse around this event that most slays me is the assertion that James Holmes was a “lone gunman” and that this act is not “tied to Islamic terrorism.” Interestingly, British media has simply stated that authorities don’t believe this act to be one of “terrorism,” omitting the word “Islamic” from their coverage. Firstly, this act fits the very definition of TERRORISM – it was an act of DOMESTIC TERRORISM. Secondly, US mainstream media is attempting to use the idea that this was not an act of “Islamic terrorism” in a misguided (and completely Islamophobic) effort to assuage public concerns about this event – as if this tragedy would have been worse had it been perpetrated by Muslims, and as if this act would only count as “Terrorism” if Muslims were involved. APPALLING! This helps to explain why very few of my students recognize the name “Timothy McVeigh” – the 27-year-old white male who executed the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, and who was considered to have committed “the deadliest act of terrorism within the United States prior to September 11, 2011.” [Caveat: I believe that the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and ongoing harassment and disenfranchisement of people of color, women, LGBT folks, and folks with disabilities were/are far more deadly acts of terrorism than these two events, but I digress.]

McVeigh – who had known accomplices and was part of an organized American militia movement – was found guilty and was executed in July, 2001. And then he just…faded into obscurity. Few people know or remember his name. There was not a mass movement – by both government and media – to warn us of the very real threat that American terrorist militia groups represent for us. Instead, 3 months after McVeigh’s execution we were overwhelmed by the horror of 9/11 and had established the TRUE face of Terrorism: Islam. And while there are many white Muslims on the globe, it is only those BROWN folks from the so-called Middle East whom most Americans envision when they hear the word “Terrorist.”

Media coverage of events like this Aurora, Colorado Massacre seeks to obscure the realities of Domestic Terrorism in the US by utilizing the time-proven discourse of the “lone gunman” and by insinuating that the word “Terrorist” only applies to Muslims. It creates a spectacle wherein folks are encouraged to be so distraught over this tragedy that they fail to notice the ways in which media has manipulated the story. And in our hyper-emotional response states, we often fail to ask important questions about discourse and representation. But do not allow the media to cajole you into believing that this horrific event was not an act of Domestic Terrorism, or that others in this country are not planning similar acts. As the saying goes, “I Have Seen The Enemy…And He Is Us.”

p.s. I’m Baaaaack!

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One response to ““Society Made Him”: Notes On Mainstream Media Coverage Of Mass Murders

  1. NYPumaGirl

    Rousing applause. You nailed it all. Sending to my white boyfriend who happens to agree with everything you said, and asked me this morning of James Holmes, “Why haven’t they shown this cracker’s face yet? Harumph! But oh, we know why, don’t we?”

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