Can Americans come to grips with the underlying causes of gun violence, which cross party political lines?

On August 5, in a speech responding to the back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump stated that “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.” This claim, which on the surface may seem simplistic, rational or even a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from calls for gun reform in the US, is in actuality far more complicated because it is intertwined with the notion of American ideological superiority.   

To explain this, let us consider the discourse that occurs when a Muslim reputedly commits violence on the scale as the recent mass shootings. A case in point is the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, where the focus of the discourse on the perpetrator’s motive was ascribed to his ideology.

In this case, it was claimed that he was driven to commit a mass killing based on his "Islamic" beliefs and thus the shooting was described by the then president Barack Obama as an act of terrorism.

Interestingly, Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, attacked Obama for not going far enough and describing the mass shooting as "radical Islamic terrorism." He proclaimed in a tweet, “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn't he should immediately resign in disgrace!"

In fact, during his presidential campaign, Trump championed the use of the term "Islamic terrorism" to describe terrorist attacks reputedly committed by Muslims. His rationale is that there is a causal relationship between the beliefs of the perpetrator and their actions, and therefore, this belief should be highlighted when describing the event. Thus, according to this rationale, it is the ideology that pulls the trigger, not the gun.

Accordingly, Trump used the term at the very first opportunity after assuming the role of president. In his inaugural speech, he asserted, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilised world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”

Trump’s apparent refusal to describe the El Paso mass shooting as an act of "radical white supremacy" — or words to that effect — could be dismissed as hypocrisy and double standards. Trump's omission is more obvious, especially considering that in a widely circulated online document the gunman posted minutes before the shooting, he asserted that the attack was "a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas."

However, the issue is far more complex and extends beyond Trump’s agenda. This is because the belief that affects the language used in describing such events is intertwined with notions of American ideological superiority. It is the case that a prevailing opinion in America is that the American ideology is superior to competing ideologies. It is on this basis from which American exceptionalism stems. A representative example of this, which is worth quoting at length, is the following statement made by Ronald Reagan in a speech he gave in 1974. He stated that:

“We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind. We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

A consequence of this belief is that America’s successes are ascribed to its superiority while the failures of other countries or competing political movements are attributed to their ideological inferiority.

Likewise, acts which are considered to be barbaric and committed by those who are opposed to American ideals are ascribed to their inferiority.  From this perspective, it is asserted that acts of terrorism reputedly committed by Muslims, such as the 9/11 attacks, are caused by their beliefs.

Hence, there is no merit in considering the potential of the existence of other causal factors such as mental health, political agendas (independent of Islam) or retribution. Moreover, this belief is manifested in the language used to describe these events; for example, rather than referring to a mass killing, such as the 9/11 attacks, as simply an act of terrorism, it is referred to as Islamic terrorism or Islamist terrorism.

It is also worth mentioning, beyond the superior and inferior paradigm, there is a degree of political currency in reducing the causes of violence committed by Muslims to solely Islam because it means other potential contributing factors do not have to be addressed. For example, the impact of America’s one-sided policies towards Israel on creating an anti-American sentiment or animosity created by the American led war against Iraq and the continuing devastation it has caused can be ignored in understanding the motives of mass killers. Instead, it is far more politically expedient to reduce the causes of their violence to Islam.

However, this belief of American superiority and its language are disrupted when white non-Muslim Americans commit seemingly identical acts. This is because the belief relies on the assumption that it is Islam which created acts of terrorism and thus if a person committed the same action but is not a Muslim it leads to the possibility that the acts of violence ostensibly committed by Muslims may also have nothing to do with Islam.

Moreover, another more fundamental factor which disrupts the belief of American superiority is that if it is argued in the cases of a mass killing committed by white non-Muslim Americans that ideological beliefs are the cause of their acts of violence, it leads to the possibility that American beliefs may cause terrorism.  This is hugely problematic in the case of the El Paso shooting because it is difficult to separate white supremacy from American nationalism, especially the brand of nationalism Trump is propagating.

On this basis to maintain the belief of American superiority, there is a need by politicians such as Trump to describe a mass killing committed by white non-Muslim Americans as being caused by mental illness.

This use of language distances the act of violence from the ideology of the perpetrator. Conversely, in describing a mass killing ascribed to Muslims the language emphasises the ideology of the perpetrators supporting the claim there is a causal link between Islam and violence. However, beyond ideological bias and political agenda and regardless of the ethnicity and belief of the perpetrator, there is a necessity to consider all the possible factors in determining how a seemingly normal person is transformed into a mass killer. Without doing so, the ability to prevent future mass killings may be limited or even hindered.

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