WDBJ shooting reveals the importance of nuance


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

For most mass shootings, the harm caused extends far beyond the immediate, gruesome effect of the act. The way media discusses the event, the way it is contextualized, can have broader social implications.

The case of last week’s WDBJ shooting has proven to be no different. I already knew, upon learning that the gunman had been a gay, black man with a history of racial grievances, what was coming.

The Washington Post recently compiled a sampling of the conservative reaction. From Pat Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh, the basic sentiment was the same: ‘Why is this not being treated like Charleston? If Dylann Roof was representative of a wider social phenomenon, why is the same not true of Vester Flanagan?’

The answer here is pretty simple. While Roof’s actions fit very well into a long line of racist violence this country has seen throughout its history, the same is not true of Flanagan.

Flanagan did feature his race and sexual orientation in this manifesto, so it is fair to bring those up when discussing motive. But it should be pointed out that the type of killing with this motive is atypical. That few, if any, incidents in our far too rich history of mass killings match the motives in this shooting.

There are grounds in this case for treating it is as an isolated incident and as the product of mental illness. Based on the materials he released, it is evident that Flanagan was a deeply disturbed person.

Many media outlets are wary of focusing too much attention on the killers in these cases, for reasons that are understandable. The way that these shooters thrust themselves into the public eye, however, make it necessary to handle them in some way.

The way it is handled matters. The narratives that surround these incidents affect our perceptions of larger issues.

Right now, we are at a period of time that has seen important steps forward for gay rights. Also, the contemporary problem of societal racism is receiving a greater spotlight, and with that, the potential for greater action.

At the same time, there are those in this country who have long opposed these social advances. Now that a black, gay man has not only committed another shooting, but cited perceived discrimination as a motive, there is an opening for them to cast doubt on all claims of discrimination.

We should all resist those attempts. It comes down to acknowledging that the world is complex and context matters. Even when an evidently psychotic person claims discrimination as a motive, it is still possible to understand that discrimination exists.

Yes, perceived discrimination played a role in our latest mass shooting. And yes, discrimination is still an actual problem.

Griffin, a junior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.