June 21, 2015

Racism, Guns, Flags, and Angry Young White Men

The "Confederate Flag", a rectangula...
The "Confederate Flag", a rectangular variant of the Battle Flag. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The recent shooting in Charleston appears to have been about racism, at least in terms of alleged shooter's likely motive and choice of target. Access to guns appears to have been relevant too in that a gun was used. I think it is perfectly understandable that some would want to discuss racism and gun control in the aftermath of this event. I also think that doing so paints an incomplete and potentially misleading picture.

While racism and guns both appear to be relevant here, they strike me as far less relevant in incidents like this than something few seem to want to discuss: intensely angry, troubled, and alienated young White men. As someone who was once an intensely angry, troubled, alienated young White man, prone to frequent violent fantasies involving the extermination of those I perceived as enemies, I thought I might weigh in on this particular topic and suggest that we do not lose sight of it while pushing our ideologically-driven agendas.

It seems difficult to deny that racism was a factor in Charleston. But would we really claim that the alleged shooter would not have committed a similar crime if not for racism? I'm skeptical. The target almost certainly would have been different, but I think it is a real stretch to say that nothing remotely like this would have happened without racism. Maybe it would have been a school shooting instead. We've certainly seen plenty of those where racism did not appear to be a factor.

And while easy access to guns is known to facilitate crimes like this, it seems a cop out to claim that guns somehow cause such crimes. Yes, they undeniably contribute to the victim count. But they are still tools that are being used in a particular way by a particular person in pursuit of particular goals. Is it so difficult to imagine that this particular attack could have been a bombing instead of a shooting? I mean, church bombings have happened before, right?

As relevant as racism and guns may be, I'm inclined to think that the central issue might be how people get to the point where they commit acts like this and why the rest of us seem incapable of - or unwilling to - understand this process, prevent it from happening in the first place, and intervene before it is too late. We have an awful lot of angry and disaffected young White men out there, a tiny number of whom could reach the point of committing acts like this and a somewhat larger number could reach the point of milder antisocial behavior and/or suicide. It seems like this should be on our radar.

An Angry Young White Man

When a mass murder takes place and I hear everyone saying that they cannot comprehend how the alleged perpetrator could have possibly done what he did, I shake my head in disbelief. I can comprehend it quite well. Too well. I remember the violent fantasies, the feelings of powerlessness, the sense of disconnection from others, the rage, and the almost overwhelming desire to lash out. The only part I have trouble understanding is the selection of targets with which one had no prior grudge. In my fantasies, the targets were always those who had wronged me. They deserved to be on the list. So while I do have difficulty wrapping my head around something like the Charleston shooting, this is not the case for most of the school shootings.

So, what did it feel like to be an angry young White man? It felt like I was trapped in a situation from which there was no escape. The boys who were bullying me at school only respected strength, and that was something I didn't have. Everything I tried only made it worse. Nobody understood. Nobody wanted to understand. The adults didn't really want to know what was going on and could not be trusted not to overreact. Most of the other kids were too caught up in their own stuff or too easily scared. With no real outlet, the rage grew and the violent fantasies became a daily experience. It felt like I was on the verge of exploding all the time. I became scared of what I might do.

I needed mental health treatment. That is obvious now, but I didn't know I needed it at the time. And even if I might have suspected it, I had no idea how to go about getting it. I do not recall ever hearing about counseling at school. There was no point person to whom we were directed if we needed help. I needed an adult to take an interest, but I didn't trust them and wasn't sure how to reach out. Suicide became an appealing thought. And if I was going to do that, I'd damn sure take a few of them with me.

There were many things that stopped me from going too far down the path toward violence or suicide, but most of them can be arranged around a particular theme: I always had some hope that my future would be at least a little bit better than my present. I knew I could move away from the depressing town where I grew up and attend college. There was something about my future that seemed bright enough to keep me from ruining it. All I had to do was keep the violent impulses under control until I could get just a bit closer to my imagined future.

This was the big difference between my angry young White male friends and I. Many of them did not have much hope. They weren't going to move away to attend college. Many barely made it through high school, and they had none of the job skills that would allow them to hope for something better than what they had then. They had already seen their futures because there would be little difference between their present and their future. The minimum wage jobs they were working now would be their jobs after graduation. Most turned to drugs (both using and selling), a couple died violently, and a few went down for attempted murder. Fortunately, I was gone by then.

Had I been in their shoes with no hope of leaving and no big change on the horizon to focus on, I am fairly confident that I would be dead or in prison. I can't say with certainty that I would have ended up hurting a bunch of people, but it does not seem all that unlikely. And it wouldn't have had anything to do with racism or the Confederate flag. Although admittedly, if I had easy access to guns at the time, it would have been more likely.

Whatever was wrong with me back then cannot be blamed on 24-7 cable news or violent video games. Neither existed yet. And while the experience of being bullied was certainly relevant, it would be far too simplistic to blame it on that. In many ways, I was lucky. I had an escape route in the form of moving away for college, and that kept me marginally sane until the rage subsided.

The Perils of Ideology

I think it is unfortunate that tragic incidents like the Charleston shooting activate our ideologically-driven scripts instead of any real thought. The left uses events like this to howl about gun control, racism, White privilege, flags, and the patriarchy; the right uses events like this to howl about family values, call for more blood, and complain about their inability to preach Jesus in the public schools. And both are perfectly willing to use tragedies to promote prayer. Neither seems to be able to get past their own ideology to deal with the facts and confront the harsh realities involved in these crimes.

When it comes to mass murder, the disaffected loner scenario is a nightmare from the standpoint of law enforcement. We will never be able to completely rid ourselves of this sort of crime. The best we can do is implement reasonable measures to reduce their occurrence. And as appealing as it seems to be to focus on our ideologically-based pet issues, I cannot help thinking that we are missing something important by doing so.

I'd like to see more attention given to the subject of what leads some of our angry young men (of all races) to become so angry in the first place. What factors drive the rage and the alienation? What can we do to prevent it? How can we do a much better job of supporting the youth who are struggling? How can we create the sort of society in which there is more hope and brighter futures for more people?
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