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18 June 2016

The shadow state, hip-hop founding fathers and the gold-standard rifle for spree killers

Why so few women turn to Islamic extremist terror is just as interesting a question as why some men do.

By Helen Lewis

Every time there’s a mass shooting in the United States – and God knows that’s fairly often – we rehearse the same arguments. Was it terrorism? This answer depends heavily on whether the gunman turns out to be Muslim. If he’s just a common-or-garden white supremacist killing black churchgoers, or a frothing misogynist slaughtering women, different rules apply. Then we get to Could it have been stopped? Some NRA idiot will pop up to suggest that more guns would have done the trick. Could anyone have predicted this? Well, yes. Even if not this particular tragedy, certainly we can all imagine the likely outcome of a toxic combination of homophobia, resentment against the West, male violence and easy access to assault rifles.

Talking of which, the NS contributor Owen Jones walked off Sky News on 12 June after the presenter tried to claim that the slaughter at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was an attack “against human beings” rather than a homophobic hate crime.  Owen was right to push back against this. The gunman’s victims were not randomly chosen, and that’s something we should acknowledge in our coverage. Yet here’s something else we should talk about whenever the US has a mass shooting and we ask “why he did it”: it’s almost always a he.

Female spree killers are vanishingly rare; the handful there are – such as Brenda “I Don’t Like Mondays” Spencer or Tashfeen Malik, one of the two San Bernardino shooters – stick in the mind precisely because of their rarity. Why so few women turn to Islamic extremist terror is just as interesting a question as why some men do.


Copycat danger

When writing about the Orlando shooting, I’m going to try not to name the perpetrator. There is now a solid body of research to suggest that spree killers are motivated by a desire for fame, and that they can inspire copycats. At the end of last year, the left-wing US magazine Mother Jones carried a harrowing report from “inside the race to stop the next mass shooter”. Their team recorded 74 plots that claimed to be inspired by the Columbine killings, with 14 cases planned for the anniversary of the 1999 massacre. (Twelve were thwarted and two eventually took place on a different date.) Last year, Malcolm Gladwell suggested we could think about the US school shooting epidemic as “a slow-motion, ever-evolving riot”, in which the threshold of disturbance required to carry one out becomes lower with each new, notorious example. Violence begets violence.

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Ditch the legacy tokens

During its investigation, Mother Jones drew up a list of suggestions for media coverage. Not all its recommendations are practical, and different rules might apply, say, to 24-hour TV coverage and long features. The fundamental tenets are: minimise use of the perpetrator’s name, particularly in headlines; avoid publishing a gunman’s manifesto except where necessary to the reporting; don’t use “legacy tokens” such as quasi-commando photos that the perpetrator has previously posed for, which flatter their ego. The media should also resist any attempt to make a mugshot iconic, as in the case of the man who killed 12 people at a screening of Batman, who appears with orange hair and staring eyes in his police photo. Instead, we are urged to use pictures of him at his trial: heavy-set and mousy-haired, he looks like a sad loser rather than a criminal mastermind.


Man cards

One more thought: there is another thread that unites almost all the recent spree killers in the US. They bought their weapons legally. In the case of the Batman screenings killer, that meant a Glock handgun, a Remington pump-action shotgun and a Smith & Wesson M&P15 rifle, plus 6,000 rounds of ammo and 350 shotgun shells.

The AR-15 assault-style rifle is now considered the “gold standard for spree killers”, according to the Washington Post, having been used by the San Bernardino and Sandy Hook killers. Bloody hell, you might think, that’s not the kind of thing you’d put on your posters. Until, you realise, that is how Bushmaster – the brand of choice of the Sandy Hook killer – was promoted, in an ad campaign that declared: “Consider your man card reissued.”


Tales of casual cruelty

My friend Alan White, now at BuzzFeed, started blogging for the NS in 2012 about what he called the “Shadow State” – the outsourcing companies quietly hoovering up all kinds of public-sector contracts. His new book of the same name lays bare the lack of transparency and accountability.

There are shocking stories of casual cruelty, such as that of Rose, a Nigerian who came to Britain legally to study and needed a kidney transplant here in 2009. She fought for the right to stay in Britain, as the drugs she needed were not available in Nigeria, but in 2012 was told she was being detained and taken from Leeds to Yarl’s Wood.

In the van she repeatedly asked to use the toilet but was told to wait. “The officers told her she’d have to stay in the back, and tried to find a plastic bag into which she could urinate,” White writes. “They eventually handed her the one used by male detainees. It didn’t work: she urinated all over her hands and inside the van, in full view of the CCTV cameras.” (The Home Office eventually stopped trying to deport Rose to her death.) White writes that her story left him with a question: “Why does the government really want private firms to do this kind of work . . . is it all about keeping unsavoury incidents at arm’s length? The most obvious answer is a simple one: it’s a good way to save money.”


Burr, sir

In a miserable week, I was overjoyed to see Hamilton, the blockbuster hip-hop musical about the “ten-dollar Founding Father” Alexander, win big at the Tony Awards in New York. The soundtrack is full of catchy songs, and I’ve learned a surprising amount about the US election of 1800.

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink