The first news alert reporting a mass shooting usually contains just two pieces of information: a body count that will invariably be revised upwards, and the status of the shooter. If not dead, it is “active” or “at large” or “in custody.”
Information is released in a slow drip after that. In the first hours we’ll learn when the shooting began, what kind of room the gunman burst into, what he was wearing, what he said, the things the first panicked 9-1-1 callers told operators.
The piece of information we crave the most is the one we’ll be forced to wait the longest for: Why?
At Columbine we were told the shooters did it was because they were bullied. At Newtown, because he was mentally ill. In Charleston, because he was a racist. In Colorado Springs, because “baby parts.”
After San Bernardino, there was even more confusion than usual. What looked at first like an instance of workplace violence, officials are now investigating as an act of terrorism possibly motivated by the so-called Islamic State.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, we should admit it doesn’t matter either way. In at least one critical sense, motive doesn’t matter when it comes to gun violence: No matter the reason a crime was committed, a powerful faction of our society has no interest in preventing another such massacre from happening.
There is, apparently, nothing we could ever learn about a shooter that would compel members of Congress funded by the gun lobby to make guns less accessible to individuals who use them to kill other people.
Assigning motive rationalizes violence, and shifts the focus from the facts — 14 dead, 21 wounded, with guns that were acquired legally thanks to the sustained efforts of the National Rifle Association — to speculation about individuals and their individual motivations.
America’s problem with gun violence is not about individuals. We do not have isolated incidents of gun violence in this country. San Bernardino was the 355th mass shooting in the U.S. so far this year; 355 is a critical mass.
It doesn’t matter whether alleged shooters Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were motivated by hatred for Farook’s co-workers, or hatred for America, just like it would not have mattered if the people gathered in the room at the Inland Regional Center were, instead of co-workers, members of a rival gang or members of their own family.
The victims in San Bernardino would be dead regardless, and, recent history tells us, this country’s leaders would still be doing nothing to prevent more people like them from being killed.
Want proof? Just one day after this week’s shooting, the Senate voted 45 to 54 against an amendment that would require terror suspects to undergo background checks for gun purchases.
Maybe instead of searching for the gunmen’s motives this time – and next time, and the time after that – we should investigate our own motives. Maybe we should interrogate the extremist ideology we’re clinging to, the one that allows mass murderers unfettered access to the tools they need to kill.