The Templates of Mass Shootings

July 15th, 2014

One of the themes I tried to develop in The Shooting Cycle is how we react to different types of mass casualties. For random mass shootings, in places where middle-class America might frequent, deaths are treated very seriously. For random mass shootings on the wrong side of town, where middle-class America would never frequent, deaths are often disregarded.

NPR has a detailed piece about murders in Chicago that explores similar themes. Specifically, the “templates” through which we view different types of mass shootings.

We have a default template for the way we process mass shootings. We scour through every available scrap of the perpetrators’ interior lives – Facebook postings, YouTube videos, interviews with former roommates — to try to find out what drove them to kill. The sites of the massacres become a kind of shorthand: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Fort Hood. We conduct protracted, unsatisfying conversations about gun rights, and about mental illness, and about how we have to make sure that they never happen again.

We also have a template for the kind of carnage we saw in Chicago last weekend, in which at least 80 people were shot in 21 separate shooting incidents. At least 14 people died. The conversation and the coverage here is different, less probing. There are no attempts to illuminate the killer’s psyche, no news coverage of the anniversaries of the shootings. These incidents are generally not treated as discrete events, but as part of a grim, undifferentiated parade of violence in the Chi. It’s a war zone. Welcome to Chiraq. Send in the National Guard.

What these templates have in common is that they blunt the contours of individual lives and their particular, tragic ends.

We have templates that we superimpose on Chicago and places like it. These templates distort the ways violence comes to bear on individual lives, obscure the patterns that come with that violence, and shape the ways we think about ameliorating it. These are each human-scale tragedies worthy of human-scale consideration. To really understand what happened in Chicago last weekend, we have to be able both to see those shootings as mass shootings, and to see the lives they shatter.

The article discusses further how we frame different types of deaths.

I asked Lansu about how the city’s violence is typically handled in the news media. “In general, most of the stories [in the local media] aren’t focused on the victims,” Lansu said. “That’s not always the case, but the statistics kind of take the lead.”

He went on: “I think the national media only pays attention to Chicago when its an issue of sheer numbers.” But even then, the terminology is still different. “In Chicago, there were [seven] people shot outside of a laundromat, and no one uses the term ‘mass shooting,'” he said, referring to an incident there in June.(There is no official FBI definition for a “mass shooting,” Mother Jones says, although there is one for “mass murder.”)

Shootings perceived as random get more attention, Lansu said. “At the movie theater shooting [in Aurora, Colo.], the theater-goers weren’t going into the theater assuming they were going to be shot. The shooting outside of the laundromat, to me, is much more related to the movie theater. The people in Chicago at the laundromat weren’t expecting to be shot, either.”

It brings to mind the news coverage of the shooting at a Mother’s Day parade in New Orleans last year. Nineteen people were shot, but it, too, was treated as just an especially bloody day in an especially bloody city.

It’s a point that was underlined in a much-discussed column written by David Dennis for theGuardian about the New Orleans incident.

I’ve learned to redefine what constitutes an American tragedy. American tragedies occur where middle America frequents every day: airplanes, business offices, marathons. Where there persists a tangible fear that this could happen to any of us. And rightfully so. Deaths and mayhem anywhere are tragic. That should always be the case. The story here is where American tragedies don’t occur.

American tragedies don’t occur on the southside of Chicago or the New Orleans 9th Ward. They don’t occur where inner city high school kids shoot into school buses or someone shoots at a 10-year old’s birthday party in New Orleans. Or Gary, Indiana. Or Compton. Or Newport News. These are where the forgotten tragedies happen and the cities are left to persevere on their own.

It’s worth a close read.