Identifying Threats of Violence

Guns hanging on a wall in a storeWith discourses surrounding terrorism and gun violence, which have become prominent again in the wake of Charleston and Chattanooga, people want to find patterns that illustrate the source of the threats of violence. Looking for these patterns, people engage in an act of comparison, which, as we have discussed on this blog previously, is more about the person constructing the comparison than some reality outside of him/her. For example, I have seen various social media posts recently that include lists of acts of violence, ranging from 9/11 and the storming of the US Embassy in Iran to the Chattanooga shootings, all attributed to people who identified as Muslims. While these posts appear to be direct descriptions of reality, they reflect the choices of the creator of the list as to which acts of violence to include and which identifications to include.

Of course, most of those individuals identified as Muslims and even in some cases made direct connections between their understanding of Islam and their actions, so the designation is not something fabricated by the person constructing the comparison. Yet, this willingness to accept self-descriptions of the violent offenders is a choice rather than something automatic. For example, a member of the KKK who connects their ideas and practices to Christianity is often seen as shocking, and commentators clarify or critique those claims in ways that are not always done in relation to Muslim self-descriptions. Accepting self-representations only works when the identification allows the dominant communities to distance themselves from the perpetrator.

The New York Times last month emphasized a different comparison of extremist violence in the US. A study from New America concluded that non-Muslims engaging in “ideological violence” have committed more attacks and killed more people in the United States than attacks attributed to Muslim extremists. Of course, to make that claim, they restrict the analysis to events after 9/11, thus their choices also influence the outcome. The New America study also limited attacks to those identified as ideologically-driven based on their presentations of radical ideological views in social media posts or online manifestoes or something of that sort. The New York Times further noted that violent attacks that the study excluded because no ideological motive was evident “have cost more lives than those clearly tied to ideology.” So, if those non-ideological attacks (as determined in such studies) are more of a threat than ideological attacks by any group, why should we focus on “Muslims” or the broader category of “extremists”?

We can easily identify a different commonality (and others have said this before). From the bombings in Oklahoma City and the 1996 Olympics to shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech, and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, the most obvious commonality is gender. Another data set that focuses on US mass shootings (thus excluding events like bombings) finds over 90% of the incidents involved male shooters, and around 75% were in the age range from teenagers to 40. So, perhaps instead of suggesting greater law enforcement scrutiny for people who are identified as Muslim or efforts to counter “radicalization, law enforcement should be profiling all young men, and society should question the ways we socialize males.

Neither politicians nor social media posts, though, focus much on young males in the rhetoric following such events. The identification of patterns in these horrific events often serves to distance us from the perpetrators, and this commonality fails to do that, as most of us who are not young men have young men whom we know and love (significant others, children, siblings, nephews, etc.). It is much less emotionally satisfying to see ourselves or our loved ones in the image of the perpetrators, so instead of focusing on the most obvious commonality, we emphasizes their radicalization, their mental problems, or their minority religion. In that sense, the ways we construct the comparison is often more about us than about the data that we analyze.


Photo credit: Gun Wall by Michael Saechang (CC BY-SA-2.0) via Flikr

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