Ali Safawi: Mass shootings have a gender

Wednesday, February 21, 2018 - 5:10pm

Ali Safawi

Ali Safawi Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

When I first decided to write columns on mental health, I knew I would eventually have to write one in the wake of a mass shooting. In fact, it was the only column I was positive I would write, because, like clockwork, mass shootings keep happening again and again. Last year in America, a mass shooting — which is defined as an attack in which four or more people are killed indiscriminately in a public space — occurred about once per month.

In fact, the two deadliest mass shootings in American history (Las Vegas and Orlando) have occured during my time as an undergraduate. This is insane.

What is also egregious is the use of mental illness as a scapegoat by the National Rifle Association and their political vassals. People with mental health problems are easy targets for those looking to wash their hands of blood without actually doing anything.

According to the Scattergood Foundation, one of the most common stereotypes about people with mental health problems are that they are dangerous and unpredictable. Per a 2006 national survey, 60 percent of respondents thought a person with schizophrenia was likely to be violent, and 32 percent of respondents thought the same of those with major depression. This, of course, flies in the face of reality; Jessica Henderson Daniel, president of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement after last week’s shooting that, “it is important to remember that only a very small percentage of violent acts are committed by people who are diagnosed with, or in treatment for, mental illness.”

Despite this, President Donald Trump and the NRA have repeatedly associated mental health problems with mass shooters. For instance, in the aftermath of the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the President tweeted: “So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled from school for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again!” Mind you, as a candidate, Trump once boisterously claimed that he could shoot someone and not lose any voters.

Like with most of the president’s sage tweets, my eyes rolled. First off, the FBI received a tip in January concerning the Parkland shooter. Furthermore, when law enforcement is called to the scene of an incident where someone is having a mental health crisis, that person, usually a person of color, may well end up being shot, as was the case of Quintonio LeGrier in Chicago and Bobby Bennett in Dallas. Not surprisingly, the victim has a mental health problem in 25 percent of all police shootings in the U.S.

But I digress. If Trump, the Republican Party and the gun lobby want to talk about populations who pose a greater risk of committing a mass shooting, then we need to talk about men, not people with mental health problems.

You have probably heard the term “toxic masculinity,” which is the harmful manifestation of social norms associated with masculinity, such as aggression and entitlement. Mass shootings are a particularly bloody manifestation, but toxic masculinity also drives sexual and domestic violence. For instance, classmates of the Parkland shooter say that he stalked and abused his ex-girlfriend and was expelled for fighting her new boyfriend.

If you want to know more of what I mean, look no further than the final video manifesto posted by the shooter who killed six people near the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014.

“For the last eight years of my life, since I hit puberty,” the shooter says, “I've been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, never to me.”

The transcript of the video is hard to read but the shooter’s message is crystal clear: He believed that he was entitled to have women fulfill his desires. What was he to do when his entitlement was denied, something he considered “a crime I can never get over?” The answer was, of course, violence.

The dangerous sense of male entitlement these shooters feel and the wrath that consumes them when they feel rejected extends beyond women’s bodies. In 1991, a former postal worker killed three people in Royal Oak, Michigan because he felt entitled to a job. In fact, approximately 30 percent of mass shootings occur in the workplace, usually by angry or recently fired male employees. Whatever these men feel entitled to, they use extreme acts of violence as retribution once they perceive themselves to have been slighted.

Toxic masculinity is learned. About five years ago, I had a jarring conversation with an 11- or 12-year-old boy and his father, who had gone through a rocky divorce. During our conversation, the boy casually asserted, to his father’s approval, that all women were deceitful and out to trick men. Here was this young boy who was already harboring sexist sentiments because of his disgruntled father, who was probably scorned because the divorce challenged his perceived entitlement over his ex-wife. I am not saying that this boy will grow up to be a mass shooter, just that one does not have to have a mental health problem to fall under the influence of toxic masculinity.

Discourse on mental health in the wake of mass shootings is just a red herring in a sea of bullets. In order to create a truly safer country, we need gun control as well as a movement to challenge and empower men to unlearn what we have been taught about aggression, violence and entitlement. Imagine if the president had tweeted that toxic masculinity is a national problem in the aftermath of this latest school shooting. Perhaps that will happen when our president is a woman.

Ali Safawi can be reached at asafawi@umich.edu.