By Lindumuzi Ndlovu
Since Columbine in 1999, mass shootings have become a lived everyday risk for students and civilians alike across America. With many of these attacks happening in schools, children of the 90s have been dubbed the “mass shooting generation,” growing up having had to partake in “code red” drills from as young as elementary school. The purpose of these drills is that in case there is an active shooter, the kids are best equipped to protect themselves. Due to America’s preoccupation with freedom and its nuances, the issue of gun control often emerges as the subject of discussion when confronting the epidemic of mass shootings. In tandem with gun control arguments, discussions of the shooters often revolve around mental health, harassment from peers, and detachment, ensuring that mass shooters are seen as anomalies in society. The construction of mass shooters as abnormalities operates with the same invisibility cloak that white masculinity has enjoyed for years. On Wednesday 21st of February, Nikolas Cruz, a former student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school, opened fire on his former classmates, claiming the lives of 17 people. This essay will purposely avoid attempting to understand the motives for a mass shooting, to not further saturate the discursive sphere with convoluted arguments about mental health and gun control. Rather, it will look at the varying constructions of mass shooters, and ask: what do these media constructions render invisible about white masculinity in America? What narratives of victimhood are privileged and constructed? In this paper, I use theoretical frameworks from the work of Bell hooks, Michael Kimmel, and Sally Robinson to interrogate white masculinity, the culture of manhood in America, and their relation to mass shootings. I focus particularly on the community that Nikolas Cruz inhabited, taking accounts from his former classmates, the family he was staying with, and major national media coverage of the shooting to trace the discursive construction of a mass shooter.
It is no mere coincidence that all the mass shootings that have occurred in America since 1999 were committed by white men. In a post-911 society where state surveillance to counteract potential acts of terror is more pervasive than ever, what allows the state to hold such an attitude of benevolence towards white mass shooters? Arguably, at the very basis of the state’s benevolence is the construction of each mass shooter as an individual, different from others before. In the case of Nikolas Cruz, his peers always described him as a “loner” and being “obsessed with hunting, guns, and knives.” In and of themselves these do not represent precursors for a mass shooter, however similar descriptions have been applied to many other mass shooters. It is within the privilege of white men to be disconnected from these trends, allowing for each mass shooter to be narrativized as a unique societal anomaly. As Robinson theorized, “what is invisible escapes surveillance and regulation, and perhaps less obviously also evades the cultural marking that distances the subject from the universalizing constructions of identity and narratives of experience” (1). It is the very un-marking of whiteness and its intimate connection with mass shootings that fails the formulation of mass shooter narratives. Within three articles from The New York Times, Vanity Fair and USA Today, there is no mention of the shooter’s name, let alone his ethnicity and cultural disposition, markers that are often the first to be presented when racialized bodies commit crimes. White maleness has seeped so deeply into mass shooting discourse that it now benefits from the privilege of being invisible, uncomfortably universalizing mass shooters (Robinson 4).
Mass shootings and the contemporary discourse surrounding them have shifted dramatically in an age of neoliberalism. Part of the work of this essay is to side-step the convoluted dominant discourse of gun control rights, safety measures in schools and mental health, to instead privilege the narratives of community members who had intimate relationships with Nikolas Cruz to illuminate the normalizing rhetoric that allows masculinity to brood and relish in its destruction. Unlike the usual aftermath of mass shooting, Nikolas Cruz’s shooting in Parkland Florida elicited a response from students across the nation. Tired of being spoken for, many students of the “mass shooting generation” mobilized across the nation to show their solidarity and to protest state benevolence. Carrying signs that said “It Could’ve Been Us”, “Your Silence is Killing Us” and “We Stand with Stoneman Douglas.” These are all parts of the “never again” campaign launched on Facebook (New York Times). Despite the validity of this campaign and the benefits of youthful voices entering the discourse as contributors to, rather than objects of, discussion, the rhetoric employed is one that gestures at the anxiety of reproductive futurity (Edelman 19). The figure of the child and the universal desire to protect children is seen throughout the rhetoric employed around mass shootings. The coupling of children and guns invokes a sense of impending terror. The preoccupation with saving the children and reducing the issue to one of legislative gun control does not hold white masculinity accountable for its role in mass shootings. In fact, it deflects the anxiety that it is the patriarchs of the nation that are slaughtering their own children. In another display of deflective tactics there is often a false equivalency of mass shootings to “terrorist attacks”. Not only does this invalidate the charge of a racialized term such as ‘terrorist’ but within the selective use of this term the rhetoric further distances the acts of mass shooting from white maleness and posits it in the sphere of terrorism. The anxiety of the future encapsulates the majority of the discourse around mass shooting, with the height of neoliberalism and the rise of children to speak for themselves, the objects of reproductive futurity have taken up space in discourse to ensure their own futures.
White hegemonic masculinity must be addressed in order to confront the issue of mass shooting. The desire to narrativize each shooting as particular, in order to qualm the anxiety of looming future acts, does an active disservice to the mission of counteracting mass shooting. Nikolas Cruz struggled in high school as a troubled orphan, he kept to himself and spent his time hunting, detached from his peers. In the matrix of masculinity this is not out of character. As explained by Kimmel, “some withdraw and become depressed, alienated, or despondent. Some self-medicate, few explode. As each adolescent knows ‘doing a columbine’ means exploding in a murderous rage” (244). The construction of the reasons for exploding such as mental health and gun control, and the defining of these explosions as singular is what allows the inherent hegemonic white masculinity, the real catalyst of these, to brood. In this way males who do not explode are valorized and those that do detached from masculinity so as their failure to avoid explosion does not begin to characterize all males as explosive. Although I may not agree with the totalizing nature of bell hooks’ theory that “all boys are being raised to be killers”, in the case of white maleness in The West there seems to be some validity to this statement (44). It is within the way boys are raised and socialized to believe that as long as they do not ‘explode’ they have successfully navigated masculinity and the way that mass shooters are constructed in the discursive sphere that allows the legacy of mass shooters to persist.
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