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Mass shootings — when the ‘war on terror’ comes home by Priya Satia

A row of AR-15 style rifles manufactured by Daniel Defense sit in a vault at the company’s headquarters in Georgia. American civilians own nearly half the firearms in the world.


Lisa Marie Pane / Associated Press 2017

Even as gun control advocates celebrated election gains last week, the country was in the grip of terror following mass shootings in Pittsburgh and Thousand Oaks. This terrorism is not purely a domestic phenomenon, but a product of America’s relationship with the world: Terrorism in American life is inseparable from American violence in the world.

Easy access to firearms makes trauma and bigotry related to the “war on terror” lethal at home as much as abroad. Even for mass shooters seemingly uninvested in that conflict, the attraction of assault-style weapons lies in the image of combat-style American masculinity associated with it.

The Pittsburgh shooter harbored venomous hatred for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which offers aid to refugees, including, recently, Muslims from Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East — what the shooter saw as “filthy evil jews Bringing the Filthy evil Muslims into the Country!!” These refugees emerge from conflicts unleashed by the American “war on terror” that began in 2001, accompanied by widespread Islamophobia. The Afghanistan war is American’s longest war, without end in sight. The Thousand Oaks shooter had served there.

Whatever the emotional motivations behind mass shootings — loneliness, trauma, hatred — at a deeper level they are coldly impersonal. They are not about personal enmity but random slaughter, mimicking the violence of the war zone with weapons designed for impersonal mass violence.