First things first: Prayers for the good people of Chattanooga. This is appropriate in every instance of tragedy or horrific crime, but the murder of four Marines on Thursday hits a little closer to home for me. I have probably spent more time in Chattanooga than any other city I haven’t lived in. I grew up about 30 miles south of there, and it was often said that the only thing to do in Dalton was to go to Chattanooga. It’s a lovely city that over the past two or three decades has re-imagined itself in a way most other places can only dream of, an achievement that speaks well of the people who live there. Those people need prayers right now, even, of course, if you’ve never set foot in Hamilton County.
After the prayers will come, as usual, a deep look at how something like this could happen, and what we could do to prevent another one. And if past experience is any guide, this examination and any debate it sparks will look and sound different from what comes after many other mass shootings. It won’t focus mostly on gun control.
That’s because the shooter, identified by authorities as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez of nearby Hixson, Tennessee, is presumed by many to have committed an act of Islamic terrorism. Any links between Abdulazeez, who also died Thursday, and terrorist organizations are still being explored. But Abdulazeez reportedly traveled to Jordan for several months last year, and may have made other trips to the Middle East; he is also said to have been born in Kuwait, so that could explain at least some of the trips. Exactly which weapon Abdulazeez used, and how he got it, will be of some note. But that will almost certainly get less attention than his motives as a likely jihadist, and we are unlikely to see the crime used as a rallying cry for clamping down on gun sales.
Similarly, last month’s terrible shooting in Charleston, which left nine people dead, has led to the end of a decades-long presence of the Confederate battle flag at South Carolina’s state capitol but caused barely a blip regarding gun control. President Obama brought up the issue almost immediately, yet it has scarcely received attention since then. Instead, the focus is drawn to Dylann Roof’s motives based on his public embrace of the symbols of white supremacists.
So there seems to be a significant degree of public acceptance that, when Islamic terrorism or racial hatred is at work, the type of weapon used is almost a footnote. This is probably because it is widely documented that Islamic terrorists have used a variety of weapons to carry out attacks, as have white supremacists. The most infamous attack on a black church, recall, was a bombing: of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls. Instead, however superficial the object of focus might be — the battle flag didn’t make Roof kill nine people at Emanuel AME Church, even if it was time for it to be taken down in Columbia — it seems to be broadly understood that we should prioritize addressing the reasons someone might do something so awful, not the tools they would use to do it.
By coincidence, the attack in Chattanooga took place on the same day James Eagan Holmes was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2012 massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, which left 12 people dead and many more wounded. While jurors rejected Holmes’ defense that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting, there is little question he suffered from some kind of mental illness — just like the killers at Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Tucson and so many other places.
Why we focus on racism and jihad more than guns in some shootings, but guns more than mental illness in others, is something of a mystery. Severe mental illnesses like the ones involved in those shootings are difficult to address, no doubt. But their existence is no more intractable (and arguably less so) than the scourges of racism or jihad, or the prevalence of guns. If we reluctantly accept that terrorists or white supremacists will find some means of killing the objects of their hatred, it is hard to believe schizophrenics would be held in check without access to an arbitrary list of certain firearms. It’s a kind of national schizophrenia on our part that we recognize it’s the motive, not the means, in some cases but not others.