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Holding the culture accountable

By Emily Phillips
Mar 28, 2017

On February 22, Adam Purinton walked back into Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe after leaving to get his gun. He yelled, “Get out of my country” before shooting two Indian men and one white man who attempted to intervene. One of the Indian men was killed in the attack. After the attack, one of the first comments about Purinton from the managing editor of the Kansas City Star was to point out that Purinton had been recently diagnosed with a mental illness. In other words, inferring that Purinton’s actions were not the product of the ideologies and patterns taught to him within his culture, but were solely the outworking of his poor mental health. This propensity to jump to mental illness as the motivating cause for white shooters is a pattern, and it’s a problem.

Police respond to a shooting at Pulse, an Orlando Nightclub, on June 12, 2016. Omar Mateen was classified a terrorist, and no statement on his mental health was provided by the media. Photo by The City of Orlando Police Department, via Wikimedia Commons.Police respond to a shooting at Pulse, an Orlando Nightclub, on June 12, 2016. Omar Mateen was classified a terrorist, and no statement on his mental health was provided by the media. Photo by The City of Orlando Police Department, via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a problem because attaching mental illness to a shooter is something we only seem to do with white men, while being equally quick to write off black and brown shooters as thugs and terrorists. Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were identified as terrorists by news anchors around the country well before the FBI had completed their investigation in San Bernardino, and no mention to their mental health status is found anywhere in the investigation. There is an inconsistency here. Brown shooters are called terrorists born from a culture that encourages terror. Black shooters called are thugs born from a culture that encourages violence. But white shooters are called lone wolves born from a culture that simply tried its best. Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston identified Dylann Roof, the 20-year-old who killed nine African-Americans during a prayer service, as “one hateful person,” and suddenly the system’s ideologies are off the hook yet again.

This propensity allows racist and misogynistic ideologies to continue spreading without becoming accountable to their outcomes. It excuses the system and refuses to admit that the shooter may have been acting as a product of the culture rather than only as one deranged outsider. Arthur Chu writes, “mental illness never created any idea, motivation, or belief system. The ideas, however distorted they become, still come from somewhere.”

Adam Purinton is a terrorist. His crime was a “violent act to frighten people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal,” which is how Merriam-Webster defines an act of terrorism. Purinton’s words, including the racial slurs he maligned the Indian men with before leaving to get his gun, give every indication that his decision to perform a violent act was to cause immigrants to leave his country. But the word “terrorism” sounds too harsh to attach to a drunk white man. White supremacy isn’t seen to be as serious as radical Islam, but the outcomes of each ideology seem to be the same. If we are going to attach cultural blame to brown and black shooters, then we must be consistent with the white ones as well. Yes, these people are bad people making their own choice to do bad things, regardless of what ideas were instilled into them. But we cannot continue to hold differing standards for the motives of Omar Mateen and those of Adam Lanza.

Bigotry is not a mental disorder. It is taught and internalized. Regardless of how a person’s mental health influences the ways in which ideologies are processed and acted out, we must begin to take responsibility for the culturally accepted ideals that lead to these atrocities, and tolerate them no longer.

Emily Phillips

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