Let’s take the Dallas shooter at his word: he hated white people. But is that all there is? Lots of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans hate each other. They don’t all open fire on each other with powerful weapons. Maybe there’s something else at work here.
The current narrative is that Micah Johnson, as a young African-American man, was enraged by police brutality against African-Americans. An Army veteran and a “quiet” young person—these shooters are never described as “loud”—he was finally pushed over the edge either by the police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana (if you’re sympathetic to the most militant black nationalist line) or the irresponsible rhetoric of groups like Black Lives Matter (if you’re an adherent of the view that BLM is essentially a terrorist organization).
There’s another possibility, one largely ignored because it doesn’t fit either narrative: maybe Johnson, like Charleston murderer Dylann Roof and Orlando terrorist Omar Mateen, was a screwed-up weirdo with a ton of anger who went looking for a cause to support his desire to kill.
Always Something of a Misfit
Superficially, it looks like Johnson turned to violence after returning from Afghanistan, a fact that seamlessly plays into a perfect narrative of racial injustice: black veteran returns to Texas from a war zone—“he managed to bring his war back home,” as the New York Times put it—where he finds black men are in more danger in America than in Afghanistan, so picks up a rifle in defense of his community.
Except that’s not quite what happened. Johnson never saw combat, and he didn’t “return” so much as he was “sent home.” For stealing panties.
As the Daily Beast reported, Johnson was shipped back to his reserve unit just ahead of a restraining order and a less-than-honorable discharge from the Army.
As reported by one of his bunkmates in Afghanistan, Johnson suffered a particular shame.
‘We all knew he was a pervert cuz he got caught stealing girls’ panties,’ the bunkmate later said in a Facebook post.
Johnson’s military lawyer, Bradford Glendening, says that a female corporal mentioned Victoria’s Secret underthings when she filed a sexual harassment complaint against his client.
The lawyer further reports that the corporal was worried enough to seek an order of protection against Johnson and to recommend that he receive mental health treatment.
Somehow, Johnson escaped punishment: he got an honorable discharge, which surprised even his lawyer. “Someone really screwed up,” Glendening said. “But to my client’s benefit.”
Johnson, as it turns out, was always something of a misfit, much like his would-be White Power and ISIS counterparts Roof and Mateen. Like other “loners”—a word that popped up within a day of the shootings—he was fascinated by military hardware and macho endeavors, including enrolling at the “Academy of Combat Warrior Arts” near Dallas.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s perfectly normal for a young man with “anger issues” to enroll in an academy that trains young men in combat tactics, rather than wasting his time with boring things like jobs or girlfriends. (When he wasn’t honing his urban guerilla skills, he shot hoops literally for eight hours a day.)
A Victim Avenger
None of this is to deny that when Johnson finally opened fire on Dallas law enforcement officers, his head was full of racist poison. The outsider who was obsessed by military weapons as early as high school, whose stepmother was white, whose time in the Army came to an end with a handful of stolen panties, found an ideology that made him the victim of a race war and placed him in the role of a powerful avenger.
This is what Roof and Mateen did as well, like so many other “lost boy” killers. Roof, for his part, said he was sick of black men raping white women. Like Johnson, his friends said he made the occasional racist remark, but no one thought he was serious about violence. Mateen, likely a closeted gay man, lashed out at the gay community after a history as a difficult boy stretching back to third grade and more recent events in which his temper scared those who knew him.
In every case, we must study the professed motives of the shooters and hold those responsible who made the propaganda who inspired them: white nationalists, black nationalists, Islamic extremists. At the same time, we should not assume these young men are avatars of the ideologies they espouse. Rather, they are part of a new strain of violent losers, men driven by a combination of narcissism and insecurity and who latch on to heroic narratives in which they are the central figures in a morality play of justice and retribution.
Defending the white race, defending the black race, avenging Islam: all of them are the same story played out by the same type of man. In other cases (John Salvi attacking abortion clinics, Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building) the targets or the ideas may be different, but the actors and narrative are the same. The hero, spurned in his own community, takes matters into his own hands, and kills—usually in the most cowardly way possible.
Crazy Loners Shouldn’t Control Us
In every case, we zero in on the message, because normal human beings link actions with words. We also do this because the alternative is even more frightening than terrorism: we cannot seriously believe that an aimless life of too much weed, or a burning shame and anger about getting caught as a panty thief, can eventually produce the slaughter in Charleston and Dallas. It’s too random, too uncontrollable, and too close to home. Terrorism, in a way, is actually the more comforting explanation.
It’s true, of course, that hateful propaganda always targets the weakest and most insecure among us. It’s not meant to turn men and women of virtue into killing machines; it’s meant to sift through the lost and disturbed, and to instruct them in how to focus their vaporous fears and formless rage into a weapon.
It’s also true that groups of people with the same ideology create cells of terror and violence. These groups make plans and sustain networks, and must be pursued and broken up wherever they’re found. But to conflate radicalized losers with actual terrorist organizations is to risk spreading law enforcement and intelligence too thin: the battle against terrorism and the firefight with a disturbed loser who was part of nothing and who spoke to no one are not part of the same war.
Johnson’s ramblings are no more and no less important than Roof’s racial theories or Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to ISIS. These men, in retrospect, seemed likely to kill at some point. White supremacy, black nationalism, and Islamic extremism lit the fuse, but in the twenty-first century, there is no way to empty the trough of toxic Internet sludge on which these damaged boy-men feed. They wanted a reason to commit murder. They found one. The next killer will just as surely find his own.
The more pressing question is whether we will allow ourselves to be dragged into social warfare by these pathetic failures. Racism and terrorism are real problems, but are we going to let panty thieves and chronic stoners set the terms of the debate?
Rather, if we’re going to have another dreaded “much-needed national conversation,” it should not be about guns or racism, but about the human time bombs our culture is creating and nurturing among us. Unfortunately, that’s not only a discussion for another day, but one so uncomfortable to think about that we’re likely never to have it at all.