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Over the last few years, there have been a number of high-profile mass shootings in the United States, most of which have been committed by white men. In an attempt to make sense of such shootings, the Western media has developed a tendency to focus on how the perpetrators’ mental health may have motivated their actions.
In the fortnight that has passed since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz carried out a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the media has already come to several conclusions about the perpetrator. Although all media outlets have condemned the shooting, with many referring to Cruz as a “monster” that committed a “massacre”,[i] they have also reported that those close to him have described him as a “troubled”, “lost” and “depressed” teenager.[ii]
The media’s evaluation of Cruz’ motivations is not unique. Following the Las Vegas Strip shooting in October 2017, the media discussed how the perpetrator, Stephen Paddock, had become distant from his family in the past year and continued to insinuate that he had shown signs of suffering from bipolar disorder before the event.[iii] Similarly, although the media acknowledged that the June 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was racially motivated, it repeatedly emphasised that the gunman, Dylann Roof, suffered from some form of mental illness. It even referred to a psychological evaluation report, stating that Roof exhibited “social communication challenges” and “atypical behaviours”.[iv]
In all three of these cases, the media made a deliberate effort to obtain and present evidence to of the perpetrators’ mental illness. In doing so, it arguably gave them, to some degree, a benefit of doubt that it does not give to other terrorists of Middle Eastern descent. Therefore, the implication has it that a Western categorisation of “terrorism” requires the perpetrator to be of a particular ethnic background (as Middle Eastern terrorists also often have their fair share of mental health issues). This double standard is a form of subconscious, institutional racism: the same media outlets have been far less forgiving in its coverage of gun crimes committed by Middle Eastern individuals. This, in itself, is not an issue, but the media must also be less forgiving to perpetrators of a Caucasian ethnic background.
For the most part, Middle Eastern gun crimes in the US have been few and far between. However, in instances where a Middle Eastern individual has carried out a mass shooting, the media has tended to focus more on the perpetrator’s potential ideological motivations rather than their individual state of mind. Very often, white shooters can also have ideological motivations.
When Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot five people at a military facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 2015, the media immediately pointed to his Palestinian-Jordanian background and speculated whether his religious beliefs may have prompted the attack.[v] Some outlets mentioned that Abdulazeez came from a conservative family and that he had expressed sympathy for “jihad” on his blog before the shooting.[vi]
Furthermore, when it was revealed a few days later that Abdulazeez may have suffered from mental illness, newspaper headlines made it a point to state that his family had said that he was depressed.[vii] In a way, the wording of the headlines cast some level of doubt towards his family’s claims. Likewise, when another Palestinian-Jordanian military psychiatrist by the name of Nidal Hasan shot dead 13 people in Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, the media mainly focused on claims that he had shouted “Allahu Akbar” before pulling the trigger.[viii] Moreover, it highlighted that Hasan had been a practicing Muslim before the shooting and that he frequented his local mosque.
In advancing these details, the media insinuated that Hasan’s religious beliefs may have motivated his actions.[ix] This may or may not be partly true, but why doesn’t the media apply the same standard of accountability to white shooters who are also ideologically driven, such as Dylann Roof?
Unlike in its analysis of Cruz, Paddock, and Roof’s motivations, the Western media made little effort to show how Abdulazeez and Hasan’s personal struggles may have also partly motivated them to carry out the shootings. Instead, it immediately resorted to scrutinising the perpetrators’ Middle Eastern roots.
An analysis of the Western media’s coverage of all these cases makes it evident that it is biased in its coverage of Middle Eastern gun crimes. However, the question arises as to why this bias is so problematic. To answer this question, it is useful to look at the way in which media narratives can serve to perpetuate the securitisation of Middle Eastern bodies in Western states. An object or issue is securitised when powerful entities discursively cast it as an existential threat warranting emergency (and often extra-legal) action.[x]
Since 9/11, individuals with a Middle Eastern background have been securitised across the West. This has not only restricted their freedom of movement, expression and association relative to that of other non-Middle Eastern citizens, but has also contributed to their alienation from society at large. Within this context, the Western media’s tendency to repeatedly emphasise a gunman’s Middle Eastern roots rather than focusing on their personal histories serves to present Middle Eastern bodies as a serious threat to Western society and its values. This not only encourages the “othering” of Middle Eastern immigrants and citizens in the West, but also “securitises” them by making it permissible for the state and society to deny them the same level of citizenship enjoyed by their compatriots.
Since discourse, through the construction of knowledge, has the ability to securitise certain segments of society, counter-discourse may have the ability to “desecuritise” them. Given that the securitisation of Middle Eastern bodies has become so deeply entrenched in Western – and hence global – societies, it will be difficult to challenge the perception that people have of Middle Eastern communities in the world. However, those in positions of power, such as government officials and members of the media, have a considerable platform to question existing discursive frames and create new ones that de-stigmatise Middle Eastern identity. If such individuals use their platforms to transform the discourse that surrounds Middle Eastern bodies in the West, it could help reduce the alienation that Middle Eastern communities face in the West today, hence contributing to a more holistic approach of eradicating inter-communal hate crime.
[i] Eric Levenson, “Family that took in Florida shooting suspect call him a ‘monster’ and say they had no clue what he was planning,” CNN, February 19, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/18/us/florida-shooting-cruz-family/index.html.
[ii] Ed Pilkington, “Florida shooting: FBI admits it failed to investigate Nikolas Cruz tipoff,” The Guardian, February 16, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/16/florida-shooting-fbi-nikolas-cruz; “Nikolas Cruz: Depressed loner ‘crazy about guns’,” BBC News, February 16, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43067530.
[iii] Caroline Mortimer, “Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock had child abuse images on his computer, police announce as they search for new person of interest,” The Independent, January 20, 2018, accessed February 20, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/las-vegas-shooting-latest-child-abuse-images-stephen-paddock-fbi-marilou-danley-a8169491.html.
[iv] Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Report: Dylann Roof told expert he was a sociopath, not autistic,” CNN, May 16, 2017, accessed February 20, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/16/us/dylann-roof-court-documents-competency/index.html.
[v] Shimon Prokupecz and Evan Perez, “Chattanooga shooting: New details emerge about gunman,” CNN, July 20, 2015, accessed February 20, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2015/07/20/us/tennessee-naval-reserve-shooting/index.html.
[vi] Craig Whitlock and Carol D. Leonnig, “Chattanooga gunman came from a middle-class Muslim family,” The Washington Post, July 16, 2015, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/chattanooga-shooter-came-from-middle-class-muslim-family/2015/07/16/815c39c2-2c04-11e5-bd33-395c05608059_story.html?utm_term=.2916628f1c41; “Chattanooga shooter: Prophet’s friends ‘fought Jihad for …,” July 17, 2015, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/…/chattanooga-shooter-blogged-about-jihad/.
[vii] Reuters, “Chattanooga shooters family says he suffered from depression,” The Telegraph, July 19, 2015, accessed February 20, 2018, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11749152/Chattanooga-shooters-family-says-he-suffered-from-depression.html.
[viii] Ewen MacAskill, “Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as he opened fire,” The Guardian, November 06, 2009, accessed February 20, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/06/fort-hood-shooter-alive.
[ix] Philip Sherwell and Nick Allen in Fort Hood, “Fort Hood shooting: inside story of how massacre on military base happened,” The Telegraph, November 07, 2009, accessed February 20, 2018, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/6521578/Fort-Hood-shooting-inside-story-of-how-massacre-on-military-base-happened.html.
[x] Barry Buzan, Ole Waever, and Jaap De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1996).