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The Atlantic
The Atlantic
26 Jan 2023
Graeme Wood

NextImg:The Motiveless Malignity of the California Shootings

A few years ago, a photographer in China captured a sign in a government office with one of those amusing translation errors. The sign said, in Chinese, 伤残评定办 (“Disability Assessment Office”), which was rendered in English as “Office of Mayhem Evaluation.” I found this phrase so charmingly bureaucratic that when I started writing about terrorism, I considered having it posted on my office door.

We at the American bureau of the Office of Mayhem Evaluation have suffered through a busy and perplexing few days. On Saturday, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran allegedly shot and killed 10 people in Monterey Park, California. On Monday, 66-year-old Chunli Zhao allegedly shot and killed seven people in Half Moon Bay, about 400 miles up the California coast. The first shooter is dead and left only fleeting traces of a motive. Zhao is in custody, and his motives are similarly resistant to evaluation, although according to early reports he is an ornery type. Apparently he was once accused of threatening to attack someone with a knife, and of attempting to smother him with a pillow (that most comfy of deadly weapons). Adding to the perplexity are these men’s age and ethnicity: both senior citizens, and both ethnically Chinese.

Humans are by nature self-obsessed and prone to seeking meaning and patterns, especially in atrocities. I chalk up some of the early reactions to these tendencies: Commentators saw that Asian Americans were murdered, and speculated (wrongly, it appears) that the shootings were the most recent in the string of random, racially motivated attacks against Asian Americans, especially old folks. Surely when someone commits mass murder, he has a reason, even a bad one. So we speculate, sometimes in ways that inflame our anxieties, and wait for someone to discover the killer’s manifesto or rants on social media.

Sometimes that discovery arrives. But in my career of mayhem evaluation, I have found that a manifesto, or indeed a coherent motive, is a courtesy many mass killers fail to pay. The expectation that killers will explain themselves in clear, grammatical prose, as Anders Behring Breivik did, or in poetry, as members of the Islamic State did, will lead us on many a snipe hunt. Most shooters don’t think straight. For that matter, most nonshooters don’t either.

That is true even of those who meticulously plan their massacre. To date, the highest body count in an American mass shooting is held by a 64-year-old professional gambler at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay in 2017. Like the men suspected of this past weekend’s killings, he was unusually old. When the Las Vegas police issued their report on the atrocity, they came up with no motive whatsoever: no hatred of country-music fans, of particular races or religions, or even of humans in general. He was indiscriminate in all senses. Still others on the psychopath spectrum seem to have killed purposelessly, like the German who lethally injected several dozen care-home residents out of “boredom.” Coleridge called this species of evil “motiveless malignity,” and it describes minds far less sophisticated than Iago’s.

Such vacuous mayhem leaves little to evaluate. But in the aftermath of these horrors, we can at least try to maintain standards of decency by observing a few precautions. The first is to show restraint in drawing conclusions based on the killer’s or victims’ names, ethnicity, race, or religion. Yes, a shooter named Abdelhamid Abaaoud is more likely to be a jihadist than one named Huu Can Tran. But there are irritable loners of many races and creeds, and there’s little harm in waiting a day or two to make sure that you’ve distinguished the ordinary lunatics from the ideological fanatics.

The second is to remember, contrary to all instincts, that the story might not be about you—not about your pet subject, not about your community, not about the issues that affect you and occupy your thoughts, no matter how important or worthy those issues may be. When five staff members of the Capital Gazette were murdered in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2018, I watched the news and assumed that journalism was under attack. More precisely, it turned out, journalists were under attack for reporting accurately on a violent creep, who responded murderously. The beef was mostly personal. The victims died in the line of duty, but my preoccupation with press freedom—for which I make no apology—made me assume that the massacre was an attack on the profession itself.

Similarly, Asian Americans can die without Asian Americans as a class coming under attack. I grieve for the individuals slain in California; I am outraged about the beatings of Asian grannies on city streets. But decency forbids my treating the first group’s apparently unrelated deaths as an opportunity to bring attention to the second.

These recent killings, which may or may not remain in the “motive undetermined” category, do raise one issue that is salient irrespective of motive. Americans continue to arm themselves as if the apocalypse is coming in a matter of months, and as if the police have gone on permanent sabbatical. Recently, a relative of mine in New England went to a local bank branch to get documents notarized for her concealed-carry permit. The nice man at the counter, who also offered her favorable intro rates on a new checking account, told her that he was on intimate terms with the application process. “Since the pandemic, everyone’s been coming in to get their gun permits,” he said. Then he confided, probably in contravention of some Bank of America customer-service policy, that he was licensed to carry his Glock in 37 states.

Ideological killers will find guns, one way or another. They’re hard to stop, because they never stop thinking about killing. And as guns become more ubiquitous, the motiveless and impulsive spree killers will be more likely to have one nearby when the impulse strikes—and so they will make up a growing share of these awful incidents. We need to be ready to evaluate both types of mayhem with caution and restraint. And as a matter of policy, the government should try to ensure that the embittered psychos who live among us are armed with nothing more dangerous than a pillow.

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