Is America missing the point?

Last Wednesday evening, nine people were shot dead at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Last Wednesday evening, nine people were shot dead at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The shooting was considered a hate crime.

Politicians and media outlets have approached this tragedy from different angles. On Thursday, president Barack Obama’s speech addressed the shooting by pushing for a change in gun laws, or at least a change in public opinion regarding gun control.

“Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people,” he said. “What’s different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns.”

Other politicians went in a different direction and talked about the long-lasting presence of racism in America.

“It’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today’s America bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists,” Hillary Clinton said in a speech in San Francisco. “But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”

But it seems that while some are discussing gun laws and others are talking about racism, we might be missing the point entirely. Not all mass shootings in America have been motivated by racism; and although restricting access to guns in the United States would be a smart first step, there’s no guarantee that doing this would put an end to these kinds of violent acts.

What all these mass shootings have in common, however, is that they were committed by individuals who had mental health issues. Although it hasn’t been proven that this shooter, Dylann Roof, was mentally ill, most forms of extreme hatred are in themselves forms of mental illnesses. It takes more than racism to walk into a church and shoot nine human beings. Being racist, although it is completely unacceptable, does not make you think it is okay to shoot nine people in a church. Mental illnesses do. Maybe what we should be talking about is how to recognize signs of mental illnesses in the people that are close to us. What we should be asking is – when do behaviours become worrisome? What are the steps people can take when they suspect someone might present a threat? Who can they talk to? How should families act? How should teachers act when they spot a suspicious behaviour? Someone must have been close to this Charleston shooter, as well as all the other shooters that have committed similar kinds of crime. Maybe a parent, a family member or a teacher spotted a suspicious behaviour.

So the main question is – how do we identify these worrisome behaviours and how should we act when we recognize them?

This might be a complicated and sensitive subject (which is exactly why we should be discussing it). We can’t simply invade someone’s privacy or accuse someone of something they haven’t even done. However, there should be mechanisms in place to address these sorts of concerns and help us take appropriate action.

Every time these mass shootings take place, the media always talks about the lives of the perpetrators. The stories seem very similar – the person was isolated, had extremist beliefs, or had even committed small crimes. When we hear these stories, we always think that someone should have intervened.

Mock school shooting exercises are becoming fairly common in North America. I even participated in one when I was studying in Newfoundland.

One student in our college had refused to be a part of the exercise. I spoke to her afterwards and she said something that stuck with me. She said she “refused to be trained to be a victim.”

The point she was trying to make was that instead of training people on how to behave as “victims,” we should be expanding the discussion about mental illnesses – how to recognize worrisome behaviour and how to proceed when we suspect something might be wrong.