It always starts the same: a solitary stranger, a vicious vendetta, and a firearm to match. With lives forever changed and a country thrown into panic once more, another tragedy is added to an ever-growing list. Mass shootings have become commonplace, run-of-the-mill headlines when the country accounts for 31 percent of all public mass shootings while making up only 5 percent of the world’s population. even horrible tragedies like these can begin to blur together and appear run-of-the-mill. The nation’s prolonged exposure to these events has led to horrible side effects, the most insidious one being a phenomenon that goes unaddressed — the myth of the lone wolf.
The lone wolf narrative is a tried and true strategy used by American media to humanize white mass shooters and brush past the crimes they commit. The mechanics are simple enough. Once the gunman is identified as white, media outlets hit the ground running on their ingenious two-step plan.
Phase one involves distancing the gunman from all of the other angry white men that have committed similar crimes. “What do you mean he’s a reflection of toxic masculinity deeply ingrained in our society?” they’ll ask incredulously. “No, he’s just a poor, misunderstood lone wolf who is completely different from all of the other lone wolves we’re always talking about.” James Holmes, who killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, was called a lone wolf. Dylann Roof, who killed 9 people in a Charleston church, was deemed a lone wolf. These are only two examples of numerous cases — more than 200 have occurred this year. Could it be that these “lone wolves” come from the same pack? According to media coverage of mass shootings involving white perpetrators, the answer is always a resounding no. In fact, there’s this intense need to cast him as an outlier; there’s no point in delving into something that’s never going to happen again…until it happens again, of course. However, if the perpetrator were a member of a marginalized group, the exact opposite would take place. The gunman’s actions would get tied immediately to his identity. When Micah Xavier Johnson, an African-American man, shot and killed five Dallas police officers, he was immediately labelled a “black militant.” His crime was implied to have links to Black Lives Matter — referred to as a “terrorist” organization — despite Johnson having no ties to the group whatsoever. When Omar Mateen killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, his actions were attributed to Islam because of his Muslim background. Whenever the gunman is from a minority group that fits a media stereotype, it’s his race or religion that goes on trial, and it’s always up to innocent members of the community to defend their identities.
Phase two of the plan involves humanizing the shooter at any cost. After all, who’s going to pay attention to the details of the atrocity committed by the gunman when CNN reports that he was an Eagle Scout? The rebranding process is swift. One hour in and friendly, all-American photos of him are plastered onto every news network. Another hour goes by and they have his fourth grade English teacher singing praises and talking about how “bright” and “reserved” he was. By the next day, nothing of any real substance has been addressed about the tragedy because the news is too busy discussing “pertinent” questions. Did the intricacies of the gunman’s favorite color reflect some hidden truths about his psyche? Did anyone consider how his fourth grade playground bully had an effect on his proclivity to violence? News networks bend over backwards to make white gunmen more palatable to the masses, masking it as an attempt to “understand” the shooter. But learning what the shooter’s favorite subject was in elementary school is hardly useful information in a news report that’s supposed to educate the public about the details of a tragedy. When the Las Vegas shooter — responsible for killing at least 58 people and injuring over 500 — was identified as a white man, news networks became more concerned with the story of Paddock, the elderly gambler extraordinaire than the one of Paddock, the murderer.
By actively rewriting the narrative and depicting white shooters as misunderstood lone wolves while demonizing marginalized ones and marking them as evil and unredeemable because of their inherent identities, the media subconsciously creates a dichotomy of shooters. There is the “sympathetic” shooter: the one with hobbies and dreams, who is just misunderstood and had a tough go of it. Then there is the “evil” shooter: the horrendous monster that has no human qualities at all, whose very nature is to be demonic and irredeemable. Take a wild guess at which is which.
This isn’t to say that marginalized shooters are any better than white ones. However, the media shouldn’t be dictating which ones deserve to be portrayed in a kinder light. The need to consume media more critically and to be aware of a narrative being spoon-fed to the masses has never been more necessary. It’s finally time to dispel the myth of the lone wolf.