Eight years after the gun rampage at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia that killed 32 people and injured 19, another shooting tragedy occurred in Roanoke, Virginia. This tragedy involved a disgruntled former WDBJ-TV news reporter, who gunned down a female reporter and a male photographer as they worked a news story. As usual, the news media covered the tragedy extensively with details of the shooting and background information of the victims and the shooter.
What we know exactly about this tragedy is that involved the use of a gun; the shooter, Vester Flanagan was black; the two victims were white; and the shooter claimed in his manifesto he sent to ABC TV that racism and sexual harassment pushed him to the critical point where he was ready to go “boom.” Although it appears that Flanagan did not have a diagnosed mental illness, his manifesto suggested he was emotionally disturbed.
Mass shootings have a long history and because of ineffective gun control, they are happening at an alarming rate. Racial conflict also has a long history and it too is occurring more frequently as noted with the spate of recent incidents involving the fatal shooting of young black men by the police. Two such incidents triggered massive protests and riots in Fergusson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland this year.
Although Flanagan in his manifesto cited his experience with racism and sexual harassment, his former employer, WDBJ-TV labeled him as a disgruntled employee who was always looking for trouble. The media focused on this and used it extensively in their news coverage. As usual, the claim of racism in these tragedies is ignored or is pushed in the background. Instead, the media overshadows this claim with factors like mental disorder or even terrorism.
This article is not advocating the idea that racism is responsible for Flanagan gunning down two people in cold blood. Instead, this article is to bring awareness to the fact that racism whether real or perceived can result in serious emotional problems for individuals who claim to encounter it. There are studies that link racism to depression and mental health problems. For many of the mass shootings that occur, the shooter was said to have some history of mental health problems and in some cases mentioned racism as a factor.
Flanagan is not the only person to have killed people and claim racism as the motive for their atrocity. Colin Ferguson, a black man opened fire on a Long Island, New York train on December 1993 killing 6 people and wounding 19 claimed he did it because of racism. On the other end of the racism spectrum, there are white people who have killed non-white people. Three months ago, Dylan Roof a young white man entered a church and killed eight people who were doing bible study. Roof own comments about black people and his social media posts showed he hated black people.
The synergism of guns, racism, and mental health issues manifest itself too often in the tragedy of mass shootings. While guns are popular with people being passionate about their constitutional right to have guns, racism and people with mental illness are not popular topics for public discourse. These three issues become political issues only when a mass shooting or shooting like the one in Virginia occurs. Once the public shock and news media coverage fades away, they disappear off the political radar.
Tragedies like the one in Roanoke, Virginia will continue to happen because of the failure to address gun control, racism, and mental illness. Two reasons why it is difficult to implement effective gun control is the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a powerful organization that manipulates and controls politicians and Americans interpret the Constitution as their God given right to bear arms. Any regulation aimed at gun control is therefore, strongly resisted as it is seen as a violation of the Second Amendment. As for racism and mental illness, these are issues are kept in the shadows and only get the light of day when the media focus on them.
The mass shootings that have occurred in recent years seem to give Americans a temporary shock that fades away after the media fades out the coverage. This makes it easy to conclude that society in general is not learning any lesson from these mass shootings.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy had the difficult task of notifying an African American audience of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. In his eloquent comments that revenge was not the answer and that it was time to show understanding, compassion, and love, he quoted Aeschylus the Greek writer of tragedies:“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
Nearly 50 years after Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus, America is still unable to find the wisdom from the destroyed lives and pain the tragedies of mass shootings causes. This failure occurs because we are not trying to practice what Robert Kennedy pleaded for – understanding, compassion, and love. Instead, the conversation goes back and forth with denial of racism, our constitutional rights to own guns, and on the mental status of the shooter.
The combination of guns, racism, and mental illness is a deadly one that manifests itself in the pain and tragedy mass shootings. The task of dealing with guns and racism without fear is incumbent in all Americans. Political, religious, academic, civic and other leaders must meet the challenge of leadership to resolve unreconciled these problems.
It is time for America to reconcile racism and it is time for America to implement effective gun control measures that will make it difficult for anyone (especially those with a history of mental illness) to own a gun. Failure to do these things will only result in more tragedies.
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