Killer narratives: The real culprit of mass shootings in the US

Mass violence is not the product of religion or culture. It is born of narratives of insecurity.

El Paso shooting mourners Reuters
A man prays at a memorial three days after a mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, US August 6, 2019 [Callaghan O'Hare/Reuters]

Sci-Fi films like the Terminator series (in particular Terminator II – Judgment Day), or The Matrix trilogy, use morphing – a special-effects process in which someone or something changes shape or form – to present the viewer with alternative perspectives on the same reality. In the Terminator, the “cyborg” robot has the power to take the shape of humans – usually after killing them – of any age or gender. Once it takes the human form, characters within the film start responding to the violent attacks against “the monster” with horror. However, the viewers applaud these brutal attacks, and even demand more. The narrative demands it, after all, especially after the atrocities it perpetrates!

This illustration of the effect of narrative framing holds the key to understanding instances of mass violence, such as the recent series of mass shootings in the United States. The two young men who carried out the mass shootings on August 3 in El Paso, Texas and August 4 in Dayton, Ohio, were acting in a different movie from the one we are all watching. In their story, they were not opening fire on “innocent people”, but heroically responding to “an existential threat”.

The two episodes occurred within 14 hours of each other, and only a few days after a similar attack in California. This indicates a shared story that is gaining traction. While the Time magazine counted 250 other mass shootings in the US this year, the last three were somewhat different. They seem to have a clear political message, with racist and anti-immigrant undertones. The El Paso incident, in particular, appeared to copy the notorious July 2011 Oslo massacre by right-wing “terrorist” Anders Behring Breivik, who uploaded a rambling Islamophobic “manifesto” on the Internet before murdering 77 people. While the Oslo attacker ranted about a “Muslim threat” to European identity, his El Paso copy-cat was also believed to have uploaded a racist “manifesto” deploring the “Hispanic invasion” of Texas.

As expected, these atrocities raised serious questions and an anguished soul-searching. And as Americans of all walks of life tried to answer the vexing question “why?”, their divergent answers once again highlighted the deep divisions the country is currently facing. Liberals blamed lax gun laws and racist rhetoric promoted by US President Donald Trump. Those on the right cited mental illness, suspect Internet and social media sites and violent video games.

This mirrored the contested explanations of the 9/11 attacks and more recent atrocities committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). As they tried to explain the reasons behind these atrocities, serious academics and analysts focused on complex political, economic, psychological and ideological factors feeding terrorism across regions and cultures. However, right-wing ideologues focused on Islamism (even Islam) as the main factor. These views are now dominant in Trump’s inner circle. It is interesting – and ironic – that the resulting Islamophobic narratives have fed populist right-wing rage in Europe and the US, contributing in turn to right-wing militancy and terrorism.

The research I conducted in collaboration with colleagues from around the world has proven both sets of explanations inadequate. Our study (published in Genocidal Nightmares: Narratives of Insecurity and the Logic of Mass Atrocities, 2015) was unique in that it included an unprecedented array of cases and cultural contexts (from Europe, Asia and Africa). We rejected the simplistic cultural-religious explanations because mass violence is perpetrated in many cultural contexts – Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim – and the majority in all these groups (even among “Islamists”) opposes terrorism.

However, alternative explanations looked equally unconvincing. Terrorism and mass violence do not result automatically from economic deprivation, political injustice or religious or ethnic polarisation. Psychological explanations are particularly problematic. It cannot be convincingly argued that the millions who abruptly engaged in intense mass violence, such as in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, India, Darfur, and so forth, have all suddenly become “insane”, as it takes plenty of sustained rationality even to conduct genocide.

This is where our “narratives of insecurity” solution comes in. As in the case of the science fiction narratives cited above, “It is the story, stupid!” People do not just wake up and attack their life-long neighbours and friends because of insanity. Rather, they act within a shared story, emphasising a threat to their values or existence. Like cyborgs (or monsters in old fairy tales), the neighbours become part of a bigger story of aliens threatening our very existence. They take on the role of “invaders” threatening Europe’s (or America’s, India’s etc) cultural identity. It is interesting that al-Qaeda and ISIL fighters also peddle similar narratives about “Crusaders” threatening Muslim land and even Islam itself.

All will be lost unless urgent action is taken. Anyone “possessed” by such narratives of a clear and present danger will feel compelled to act, or at least demand action. This is especially true if this picture is embedded within a wider narrative of a “conspiracy” of elite inaction, even complicity. In such a scenario “direct action” would be called for, and actors that promise it hailed.

Again, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek remarks, some fictional narratives, such as Fox’s hit TV series 24, illustrate this by showing how “ticking bomb scenarios” tend to justify extreme action, including the arrest and torture of key security agents. Even the son of the secretary of defence was arrested in one episode in the context of tackling a threatened mass terror attack. In the series, even the victims themselves accept this as justified, and go back to work immediately after their release!

Security analysts use the term “securitisation” to refer to moves aimed at shifting routine administrative matters such as migration or health to major national threats. We can see this in the way Trump has classified Muslim and Latin American immigration, and trade with China, and even with Canada, Mexico and Europe as national threats. In such cases, securitisation permits policymakers to take exceptional measures that would not otherwise be permissible, such as suspending human rights, building walls or engaging in trade sanctions, military mobilisation, etc. I have coined the term “hyper-securitisation” to refer to cases where fear-mongering rhetoric is used to incite mass panic and incite genocide and similar atrocities.

These narratives are often contested; rival versions gain currency according to how skilfully and convincingly they are presented, and which influential narrators chip in. It is different when the head of the state and mainstream media, rather than fringe actors, peddle the stories, thus enhancing the plausibility of threat narratives. Political mood shifts helped bring extremist right-wing parties from the fringe to centre in India, Israel, the US and Europe. The Brexit debate in Britain also shifted the political topography. However, in Canada, Germany and France, more centrist forces prevailed.

To sum up, perpetrators of mass violence act within a narratively-constructed and validated context. They are “possessed” by narratives of intense insecurity, usually wrapped up in conspiracy narratives about betrayal and sinister evils lurking in the dark. These narratives are self-reinforcing since their believers would treat every refutation as corroboration, every revelation to the contrary as “fake news” from the same suspect sources. It is a virtual death trap that often ends in mass murder unless some courageous voices rise up and win the contest.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.