Why Are Acts of Evil Always Attributed to "Crazy People" or "Muslim Terrorists"?

A terrible, wrong thing happened in Denver this morning. And in response, people are perpetrating more violence and more harm with their rhetoric about crazed killers.
Publish date:
July 20, 2012
mass shooting, tragedy, mental illness, racism

Early this morning, 12 people were killed in the Denver suburb of Aurora at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Numerous others were injured and medical teams are hard at work saving lives to keep that death toll from rising any higher. My thoughts and those of the rest of the xoJane team are with all of those affected by the shooting.

To say that this event is a tragedy is not really an adequate word. It was horrible. It was senseless. It was violent. I don’t really have words to describe mass killings of innocent people going about their daily business, and these events occur with devastating regularity. Every time they happen, I am angry and horrified by the amount of violence in our culture, and my heart aches for the victims.

And every time they happen, I am reminded of other sinister things woven deep into our culture.

When I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter feed, I didn’t know about the shooting yet. But I did see an uptick of people on my feed talking about “the crazies,” and I said to myself “Oh no, there was another mass shooting committed by a white person somewhere in the United States.” I wasn’t surprised to have my suspicions confirmed when I scrolled down and started reading about the shooting, and started reading the usual abuse.

Even before a suspect was positively identified, people were speculating that the killer was “clearly insane,” and they were more than happy to take to the Internet with this carefully considered diagnosis. They told each other, as they always do in the case of a white killer, that he was crazy. This allowed them to wash their hands of the event; a tragedy, to be sure, but what else can you expect of crazy people?

Had the killer been a person of color, people would have been saying that he was a Muslim, and a terrorist. Had I woken up to people on my timeline talking about domestic terrorism, I would have told you with 100% accuracy that a person of color had killed a group of people somewhere in the United States. Again, a rapid categorization allowing people to dismiss the killer and move on.

Both are distancing tactics, stories white people tell themselves to assure themselves that ordinary people, people like them, don’t commit acts like that. So instead, they attribute them to objects of fear and hatred. To crazy people, to people of color, most particularly Muslims of color, and the public seems to think any person of color who commits a mass murder is a Muslim. This dichotomy emerges within minutes of the news of a horrific event like this, even when there’s almost no information available. Because without that rapid attribution, people have to admit that the capacity for violence lies in everyone.

I can't come up with a witty caption today.

Many people do not seem to realize that they would label the exact same act as that of a madman or a terrorist solely on the basis of the perpetrator’s skin color and religious affiliation. There is a profound reluctance to label shootings and bombings committed by white people as terrorism -- look at Timothy McVeigh, who is considered crazy, rather than what he is, which is a domestic terrorist. Look at scores of clinic bombings and threats, which are attributed to “crazy anti-abortion people” rather than domestic terrorists, because the perpetrators are white.

Acts of evil like this are committed by people who are evil, and skin color and mental health status are no predictors of evil. Some mentally ill people (very few, statistically) do kill people, and some do so violently and horribly. Many more, though, are victims of violence; often horrific crimes are perpetrated against them because they are crazy. People claim to live in fear of mental illness, of people like me, but really we are the ones living in fear, because we are far more likely to be harmed than they are.

Some people of color (very few, statistically) do kill people, and some do so violently and horribly. However, they’re far more likely to be the victims of violence, especially racist hate crimes perpetrated against them because of who they are. Remember the rash of crimes in the wake of the 11 September attacks against Muslim-Americans and people with brown skin, especially Sikhs, mistakenly identified as “terrorists” because they happen to wear turbans? Or the ongoing epidemic of police shootings of young Black men across the United States?

People kill people, sometimes violently and horribly, because some people do terrible things.

The rush to categorize killers as crazy or terrorists reflects a deeper human desire to have things nearly explained, in categories that are easy and comfortable to understand. In the face of such horror, people are quick to find a way to tell themselves it won’t happen to them, and to assure themselves that it wouldn’t be committed by someone they know. Because otherwise, they have to fall down the rabbit hole, and admit that bad people cannot be so readily and neatly identified and slotted away.

The demonizing that happens in the wake of such events presents a very real threat to the people at the other end of the rhetoric. As people rush to say that a killer was crazy, mentally ill people are further marginalized and isolated. Those of us who are out to some degree and challenge that kind of rhetoric are told, “Well obviously we didn’t mean you, we meant the crazy people over there.” When white people rush to condemn a person of color as a terrorist, people of color are reminded that they are not safe in a white-dominated society, that they can be killed just for walking down the street on the way to the grocery store.

We are reminded that we are not safe, not even among “friends.” And we are reminded of the policy implications of such attitudes: stop and frisk laws, forced treatment for mentally ill people, racial profiling.

A terrible, wrong thing happened in Denver this morning. And in response, people are perpetrating more violence and more harm with their rhetoric about crazed killers, and perpetuating a cycle that won’t stop until society acknowledges that evil can lurk anywhere.