Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
On Saturday, a young man traveled halfway across New York to shoot people at a grocery store in Buffalo — specifically Black people, according to an abundant set of evidence. The evil plan worked. Ten people are dead, all of them Black. Though the shooter apparently had ambitions for even greater violence, he surrendered to police.
In a commentary first published by the Washington Post, two professors from the Twin Cities area responded to the event by reminding us all not to make too much of motive. James Densley of Metropolitan State University and Jillian Peterson of Hamline University have developed a comprehensive database of mass shootings and often are called upon to provide context when one occurs. Their services are needed with dismaying regularity.
Densley and Peterson point out that, in the aggregate, perpetrators are angry with the world and in search of a reason and a way to manifest it. "Hate comes late along this pathway," the professors write. Perpetrators' understanding of their cause is typically "shallow and contradictory" and "simply convenient."
Yet mass shootings are a visible pattern, and the motive of racism at least seems like a trend within the pattern. People could try to take heart in the knowledge that most trends eventually collapse under their own weight, but racism has proven to be a permanent flaw of humanity. What cycles is its visibility — and, worse, its acceptability.
So, here we are again: What to do with these problems?
Regarding guns, some steps are both obvious and improbable, like reducing the number in circulation or at least modifying our national mindset. People will argue correctly that most gun owners handle their weapons responsibly, but bad behavior expands from a default. The starting point in the U.S. is that guns are heroic and in need of defense. A change in attitude would make a difference.
Other solutions, like background checks, are obvious and attainable but frustratingly ineffective. This particular shooter modified his weapon illegally to make it more deadly, but only after buying it within the confines of the law. A background check failed to reveal that he'd earned a mental health evaluation a year earlier after claiming — a joke, he said — that he wanted to commit a murder-suicide.
Perhaps demonstrating the argument of Profs. Densley and Peterson, the Buffalo shooter also immersed himself in the conspiracy theory that an effort is afoot to "replace" white Americans with other races and ethnicities. This line of thinking regurgitates closer to the surface of mainstream discourse than we'd care to see, but the shooter appears to have found it in the recesses of the internet and is alleged to have produced his own manifesto there.
In this as in many cases, then, there were warnings. If such signs can be identified in retrospect, they can be spotted in advance, and there is a hope of prevention.
This is where we'd like to pose a fresh idea — or, more specifically, a renewed one.
Countering Violent Extremism was a program established a little over a decade ago to help the government identify people susceptible to being seduced by hateful ideologies. It focused primarily on the foreign terrorism concerning at the time. The efforts were controversial, but there were successes, both through convictions and preventive outreach. In Minnesota, the work was pioneering. Much of it took place under U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger, who after five years away is in that role again and should renew the focus. On the whole, however, the effort has diminished into remnants.
How might this approach work for domestic terrorism? CVE coordinated a range of community groups and leaders to identify those vulnerable to breaking bad. That's a start. No, it's a necessity. No individual, not even the most alienated, exists in a vacuum.
Another strategy is to monitor activity at the places online where the worst ideas percolate. In the case of the Buffalo shooter, that could have identified a pattern of interest in mass shooters of the past.
There's a legitimate tendency to recoil at any kind of government intrusion into the freedom of association and the flow of ideas, but the nation cannot let blind First Amendment idealism prevent it from taking steps to stop those bent toward violence from gaining the encouragement, confidence and know-how to carry it out. The world changes. Americans must constantly be talking through their options and calibrating among rights, permissiveness and public safety. The nation cannot be hostage to fear, either, so it must always be a vigorous debate.
Our obligations aren't limited to what the government can and can't do. As with guns, racism exists at a default level in America, and the manifestations flow from there. While a mass shooting gets attention, Black residents of Buffalo have reported longstanding discrimination and neglect of their concerns. Both collectively and individually, we must change the default.
Meanwhile, the 18-year-old shooter has pleaded not guilty. His next court appearance is scheduled for Thursday. So an initial task for all of us, as disturbing and counterintuitive as it may seem, is to at least entertain the case his attorneys offer in his defense. That, too, is our nation's default — and one that can't change.