Mass Violence and the Motive Fallacy

We Need to Set Aside “Why” and Focus on “How”

Another day, another mass shooting. The media kicks into gear, giving us ARRESTING HEADLINES, *LIVE UPDATES*, and enough overall coverage to convince the next nutcase that the Search Engine Ranking for their name will undeniably increase if they commit a similar atrocity.

The cycle can be numbing, but still always manages to sting anew. We’re nauseated and tired of it, but we can’t look away from the carnage. And just when we might be tempted to, the media tries to snag us with one last hook: motive. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve noticed it:

The desire to understand motive plays at one of the most fundamentally human responses to things that shock us or that we can’t explain — why would this happen? Why would someone do such a thing? If we can explain it — mental illness, terrorism, personal dispute, gangs, drugs, loner, bullied, rejected — we can compartmentalize. We can tell ourselves that the odds are in our favor of such a thing never befalling us.

“Motive” is a term borne out of our criminal justice system and popularized by Dick Wolf and detective novelists. Motives help determine the charges a given crime receives — and are the stuff of lawyers, judges, and juries.

Understanding motives for certain crimes across a period of time can also create datasets that can be useful for policing tactics, public safety programs, and even preemptive social programs. But the dataset for mass shootings in the US in 2015 alone is too broad to come to any rational conclusion except…

The supply and type of guns and the ease of their acquisition has largely facilitated our current crisis.

The criminal justice system has a word for things like guns — means. “Means” are part of a trinity that investigators use to understand a crime: means, motive, and opportunity. To assess means, you ask the simple question, “If someone has the intent and chance to commit a crime, do they actually have a way of doing it?” There are surely many people out there who would like to blow the whole world up with the click of a button. The catch, thankfully, is that most people won’t ever have access to such a button. They lack the means.

Guns are the primary means of mass violence in America. The motives, on the other hand, are all over the map: religion, bigotry, fantasy, insanity, and on and on. Got fired? Feel rejected by women? Believe that an increased number of people speaking Spanish at the grocery store is the sign of the apocalypse? Mostly just suicidal but play a lot of video games, have lost all brain activity resembling empathy, and think it would be great to take a bunch of innocent people with you?

These are the motives. And there are many others. In fact, if we are to take their online manifestos, Facebook posts, suicide notes, and YouTube videos at face value — many of our killers could each list about 100 different motives for a single act.

So why do we keep talking about it? Reporting on it? Studying it?

Perhaps part of the current obsession with motive stems from the rise of ISIS and the attacks it’s inspiring. There’s genuine concern that enemy combatants and ideology — not just crazy Americans — could be amongst us. But focus on this threat seems like media hysteria when you consider the backdrop of all the violence already happening without ISIS’s help.

Instead, I’d argue (and fear) that the main reason we focus on motive is because many feel that to talk seriously about the means is somehow a nonstarter in this country — for the media, for elected officials, and for holiday party small talk. The heavily armed elephant in the room. Yes, there is a growing chorus for gun control — but we’re not singing the same song. And we’re missing some key, powerful voices.

This has to stop. We must have a rational, open conversation about this as a country. Not as the NRA on one side and a small group of gun control activists on the other. And not only when mass shootings occur. Let’s also not leave it all to the crusaders, who have been touched by these tragedies in some way, to carry the load themselves. Or until we too are forced to become crusaders when probability and luck turns against us.

Because what is scarier than knowing that that is 100% possible in this country right now? What else could we be possibly be more afraid of than getting massacred?

There’s irony to the fact that these things continue to happen as world leaders are meeting to discuss climate change — because I have no confidence that we’ll be able to face the difficult future ahead if we’re constantly watching our backs.

I have no confidence that America won’t continue to slide from “Number 1” to “Watch Your 6.”