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Stop blaming mental illness and start blaming men

This week, Stephen Paddock, surrounded by dozens of lethal firearms, shot 59 people dead and injured hundreds of others in Las Vegas, USA.

In May of this year, Salman Abedi blew himself up in Manchester, UK, surrounded by people who had just enjoyed an Ariana Grande concert. He killed 22 and injured over 100 people.

In June of this year, Darren Osborne shouted that he wanted to “kill all Muslims” and drove his car into a crowd outside a north London mosque. The Cardiff-based man killed one person and injured 11 of the people who had gathered to help an elderly man who had collapsed.

In July 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a 19-tonne lorry into Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, France. 86 people were killed and over 450 were injured.

These were people of different nationalities, different religions, who each had an urge to kill and destroy people’s lives. They had different methods of attack and different motivations for the chaos they wrought but, despite all these differences, they had one thing in common: they were men.

We look desperately for patterns when terrible things happen. Is this terrorism? Was it a Muslim? What did the killer want? What can we do to prevent this from happening again? How can we help our community?

We hope that our authorities will carry out culturally sensitive investigations into allegations, and we – rightly – gently remind people that one killer being a Muslim tells us nothing about the vast majority of Muslims in the world.

Funnily enough, we don’t really question whether Stephen Paddock and Darren Osborne and their ilk are Christians. Instead, we question their sanity. Trump declared Paddock “a very sick, demented man” and journalists investigated whether he was talking psychotropic medications (and, if the reports are true, it seems highly unlikely that a sedative like Valium, known to calm people down not rile them up, would have contributed anything causative towards the terror the retired accountant induced in Vegas).

But mental health activists are all too familiar with this discourse. We insist on the statistics: that one in four people experience mental health problems in any given year, to normalise this experience, and that those of us who do experience this are far more likely to be victims of violent assault than to commit it. We point out that to instantly blame mental ill-health is stigmatising and damaging to people who experience struggles with mental illness, and that it is an inaccurate approach to understanding what has happened. If we want the truth, we need to leave the stereotypes of madness behind and look for the truth, not imprecise guesswork.

The paler the man, the more likely his ‘lone wolf’ attacks are to be pinned onto his delicate state of mind. Nobody will look for a group that radicalised him, and his friends and colleagues will probably not be studied in any depth in relation to the attack. The darker the man who carries out a killing spree, the more likely his religion or culture will be blamed. His friends and family will be arrested, researched and blamed and any religious groups he has been involved with, or countries he has visited, will be implicated.

But, if we can disregard these often-incorrect and commonly damaging assumptions and stereotypes, we are left with men. Men who are hurting, killing and maiming as many people as they can.

And their public attacks are not always their first indication of violence. There is a pattern that is coming to the surface and it is most concerning; men who kill in high numbers have often been investigated by the police before for crimes of domestic abuse. According to the Washington Post, “While research has shown that domestic violence is not universally a factor preceding public attacks, it has cropped up often enough following high-profile incidents to constitute a disturbing, recognizable pattern.”

James Alex Fields Jr, who ploughed his car into protesters in Charlottesville had been accused of assaulting his mother; James T. Hodgkinson, who shot at Republican members of Congress in June, had previously assaulted his teenage daughter; Esteban Santiago, who shot and killed five people in Fort Lauderdale international airport, had been reported for domestic violence. Other cases where allegations have arisen include the Orlando Pulse shooter and Nimer Mahmoud Ahmed Aljamal, responsible for a shooting in Israel.

Stephen Paddock, while not (yet?) publicly accused of domestic abuse, has been called out for being “notorious for verbally abusing his girlfriend in public” and “frequently berating” her. “He didn’t let her talk”, a barista familiar with the couple reported, a scenario that anybody acquainted with patterns of controlling behaviour will recognise.

When we look at a mass killer and ignore the blatant fact of his gender – every single time – we are missing a trick and failing to act on what could be the most significant background detail of them all. Of course we want to prevent future attacks and that does not involve profiling school children or searching for hints of mental ill-health in somebody’s past and behaviour.

These people are men. Masculinity is in crisis, but not in the way that misogynists believe; the pressing needs to demonstrate and perform masculinity and avoid all indications of fragility are patriarchal and damaging. If we ignore this, we are sentencing ourselves to more terror – for that is what it is, even when the shooter is white – in the future.

Photo: Governor Tom Wolf/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women’s issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.