I’m a journalist — a former foreign correspondent — now based in New York City.
As someone who’s covered political violence overseas, it’s clear to me that as Americans, we need to change our vocabulary. We have one set of vocabulary for events that happen overseas, and a “Rated G” vocabulary for American soil — and we’re doing ourselves a profound disservice.
This rings true in the coverage of the apparent suicide attack at UC Santa Barbara.
Hold that thought for a moment.
I’ve got at least a dozen friends in Bangkok at the moment, covering Thailand’s coup d’etat. A decade of political crisis may — thanks to this coup — send the nation spiraling into civil war.
But it wasn’t my “journo” buddies chasing the coup story who were the ones I was worried about on Saturday morning. Rather, it was my friend Karen, whose son Leighton goes to UC Santa Barbara.
A news-app on my phone alerted me to the latest “shooting incident” — oh, how I hate that term — before I had even woken up. It followed a now familiar template: a socially awkward loner guns down as many people as he can, before it appears, turning the gun on himself.
I wanted to take a red pen and fix them all.
I sent Karen a brief email. “You saw the horrible news, I assume. Leighton’s OK?”
The Thai military had shut down CNN and BBC as part of the coup d’etat, so it was a few hours before I got a reply. Karen had only just heard about UC Santa Barbara. To make matters worse, Leighton wasn’t answering his phone.
Now — let’s pause the story there. It’s time to play with some geography.
Let’s say the news-app woke me up with a report from the streets of Bangkok.
Someone goes to a crowded area intending to kill as many innocent people as possible — and die in the process. That may be because he kills himself. Or it may be because he’s already decided not to surrender to authorities.
What would the headlines be screaming? “Suicide attack on the streets of Bangkok.” Or Baghdad. Or Tokyo. Or London. Foreign countries are scary!
The UC Santa Barbara massacre is far from the only apparent suicide attack on American soil. Columbine. Newtown. Virginia Tech. The Sikh temple in Wisconsin. The Washington Navy Yard. The 2014 Fort Hood attack. (For the record, it is still possible to have a “mass shooting” in which the gunman did not intend suicide.)
It remains unclear whether the UC Santa Barbara attacker shot himself, or was killed by police. Again, if it were the latter, one must still be open to the possibility that it was “suicide by cop.”
If I’ve pissed you off, you must bear in mind: the term “suicide attack” is both secular and generic.
While many suicide attacks that take place overseas have a political goal and are therefore designated as “terrorism,” many US suicide attacks appear to have their roots in mental health issues. (The suicide attack on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, was designated “domestic terror” by the FBI. The 2009 Fort Hood attack, a terror attack, was exceptional, in that the gunman was captured alive.)
It’s also generic because the weapon used is irrelevant. Mass killing is the result of a suicide attack, whether you build a bomb in the backstreets of Kabul; or you use a gun — your own private arsenal, even — that you bought legally thanks to the Second Amendment.
Many will say the heart of the issue is a lack of mental health care in the US, which no doubt is a factor. But nor can it be denied: the widespread availability of guns in the US clearly makes a going out in a mad man’s blaze of glory — a suicide attack — infinitely easier to accomplish.
Hell, guns are so prevalent in the US, why even bother to build a bomb?
With 70 attacks in the past 30 years, massacres and suicide attacks are undeniably a pattern of American life. Sadly, the rate appears to be speeding up — and all too often, suicide attackers target schools.
We’re never going to get past them, if we don’t ditch the denial-ridden, Rated G vocabulary of “shooting incident” or “gun violence” or even “school shooting” and start calling out suicide attacks for what they are. We won’t get past them until we use the same vocabulary we apply to extremist acts overseas to those that take place on American soil.
And that’s true whether you believe its guns or mental health upon which our now routine massacres rest.
It’s a start.
Back on Saturday morning, Karen and I started working the phones, and independently got to the same place: we both called Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where victims of the apparent suicide attack were being treated, to ask if Leighton was admitted as a patient. They had no one by his name. Still, you have to wonder about the amount of chaos they were facing…
It was an hour or two more before Karen’s phone rang. Leighton had been at his fraternity house all night. For Karen’s family, all was well.
The school year at UCSB wrapping up, Leighton is returning to Bangkok this summer — where who knows? — this week’s imposition of martial law may give way to a violent civil conflict.
Still, it might be safer than hanging out at an American school. Fewer suicide attacks.
Originally published May 27, 2014