When I was younger, I believed for a long time that terrorists are terrorists, regardless of their race. The men who crashed their planes into the Twin Towers were terrorists. The man who shot children in Newtown, Conn. was a terrorist. A terrorist was any person who committed criminal acts in order to make themselves heard.
Directly after the recent mass shooting in Sutherford Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead and 20 injured, the response of many was to blame the occurrence of this massacre on the mental health of shooter Devin Patrick Kelly.
Agreeing with others, Trump along opined, “Mental health is your problem here. This was a very, based on preliminary reports, this was a very deranged individual, a lot of problems over a long period of time.”
Similarly, after the Vegas shooting, Trump referred to Stephen Paddock, the white shooter, as “demented,” suggesting a connection to mental health. No comments were made on the character of the shooters. In my book, anyone who murders innocent people, execution style, is a terrorist.
Although the semantics of Trump’s speech may seem unimportant since he also referred to the Texas incident as “an act of evil,” they reveal a tension that has resurfaced many times in the past decade in American society: when a white person commits an act of terror, they are seen as lone wolf and the act is attributed solely to their mental state.
On the other hand, when it is a person of color who commits an act of hatred, the media portrayal is starkly different and they are immediately linked to terrorism.
To this point, Martin Luther King wrote, “For centuries, when an act of violence has been committed by an African-American, racist tropes follow – and eventually, the criminalization and dehumanization of an entire ethnic group.” His ideas echo the media’s representation of Islamic terrorism. For example, after the recent NYC attack, Trump stated that the“NYC terrorist (an immigrant from Uzbekistan) was happy as he asked to hang ISIS flag in his hospital room. He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!”
Headlines screaming “terrorist” popped up on every news site.
The difference in Trump’s response to the white shooter, a lone wolf, versus a person of color, a terrorist, is also reflected in the media narratives of these events. I don’t mean to say that Sayfullo Saipov isn’t a terrorist, my point is that all three are acts of terror and despite that only one man has to face the societal repercussions.
Even if mental health played a factor in the Texas shooting, it should be left to professional psychiatrists to decide, and should not sway popular opinion ONLY when the shooter is white. Since the term “mental health” and its negative connotations are often thrown around, it is easy to demonize the “few lone wolves” with mental health issues who are truly “crazy.”
In reality, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Services, that “small” group of people who suffer from serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, is actually closer to a quarter of the population. And despite that large proportion, only three to five percent of violent crimes are attributed to people with serious mental disorders. And people with mental illness are ten times more likely to be victims of a crime.
“There is no real connection between an individual with a mental health diagnosis and mass shootings,” stated Bethany Lilly from Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “That connection according to all experts, doesn’t exist.”
It is high time our country stops blaming mental issues for the development of our home-grown terrorists. By solely blaming mental illness for these acts of hate, and refusing to call these men what they are, not only does our media– and our president– further stigmatize mental illness, but it further ingrains racism into our country. Have we reached a point where whiteness is protection from being called a terrorist?