“How did nobody know that kid was going to kill someone? I mean, look at his Facebook picture. He looks like a murderer.” -a friend of mine, on Dylann Storm Roof
It’s a question that I hear a lot these days, in the aching 20/20 hindsight that follows a mass killing. The shooter spoke, frequently and loudly, about his hatred for the target. How he wished they were all dead. Posted to social media. Dylann Roof did it. Elliot Rodger did it. They were visible, obvious, apparent. And nobody thought it was odd.
In hindsight, the pictures are sinister. Dressed in military fatigues or camouflage, the subject grimaces into the camera, weapon pointed. How can any viewer not feel instinctively that this is the photo of a potential murderer?
Oops. Wrong picture. That’s Miss Kansas.
Sorry. You can see how I’d be confused, though, right?
This is exactly how you didn’t see it coming. We as a society normalize these pictures. Normalize those conversations. Tell people who object to racialized or sexualized threats that they’re too sensitive. That they should stay off the internet.
As a society, we don’t see aberrant behavior coming because it looks too much like the behavior we accept.
See, right up until he killed nine people, Dylann Roof looked exactly like your Racist Uncle Jim. You know the one. He shows up at Thanksgiving every year and won’t stop calling Brazil nuts “N—- toes” and everyone’s a little uncomfortable but “it’s just Uncle Jim” and “he won’t learn, just ignore him.”
Stop ignoring Racist Uncle Jim. Because he can learn. He doesn’t shit his pants at the dinner table, right? Then he can learn to stop saying racist things, too. In fact, it’s your job as a decent human being who likes preventing hate crimes to tell him to stop. Because every time you permit Racist Uncle Jim to get away with dropping his N-bombs at the dinner table, you personally are contributing just a little more camouflage to the Dylann Roofs of the world.
From the outside, there is no difference between your friend who gleefully makes jokes about running over sex workers in video games to get his money back and Elliot Rodger.
From the outside, there is no difference between your buddy posting a picture of himself with a Confederate flag and this:
No. Difference. Every time someone posts a picture like this, it’s a little easier for the mass killers of this world to hide. Every time someone posts a diatribe, a hate manifesto, a racist slur, a gendered taunt. Sorting the wheat from the chaff becomes incredibly difficult.
More difficult when you say “it’s just Uncle Jim. He’s harmless.” Uncle Jim is not harmless. Uncle Jim is the protective coloration of murderers.
As a society, we need to express that threats are not harmless. Racism is not a performance. It’s not entertainment. If we could get a lid on “harmless” people’s threatening behavior, threatening behavior would become anomalous and obvious- we could do something about it. But we don’t. We don’t take threats seriously.
“He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.” – Dalton Tyler, acquaintance of Dylann Roof
And yet. Judgment is how a healthy society develops and perpetuates mores. Social disapprobation is a deterrent to behavior. When you fail to judge, when you fail to condemn or disapprove, vocally, someone’s inappropriate or antisocial behavior, the message you’re communicating is that you, as part of society, finds this behavior acceptable.
Yes, when you don’t tell your sister that commenting “well, police don’t pull you over with no reason” on your Facebook post is a problem, you’re sending the message not just to her but to everyone who reads the comment that you endorse her opinion. When enough people do this, it sends the message that society as a whole endorses this opinion. Because people act in accordance with perceived social approval, they will tend to agree with or endorse that opinion even if they originally held a different opinion. Think about that for a minute.
So cast judgment. Tell people when they’re wrong. Say when their behavior is harmful. If you don’t know whether a behavior is harmful, defer to the people who say that they are harmed by it – their lived experience trumps your theory about what it would feel like if someone said that about you.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to be the only one who says “That’s racist, shut up.” It’s hard to say, in a room full of laughing people, “Actually, rape jokes aren’t funny.” Does your discomfort trump the safety of others? Let’s try another hypothetical. There are a hundred people in a room holding knives. One person has a real knife. If you put your rubber knife away, and start telling other people who you know have rubber knives to put theirs away, the real knife becomes visible very quickly.
It’s the same thing with racism. Mass killers. Rapists. When antisocial behavior is anomalous, it becomes obvious and easy to detect. Do your part. Speak up. Judge. Being one of the good guys means more than just not killing people. It means not helping hide the people who do.