Each mass shooting is followed by speculation about its cause and the motivations of the shooter(s). As would be expected, people tend to speculate within the framework of their world view and ideology. The recent shootings in Dayton and El Paso are no exception.
Many have endeavored to place some of the blame for the El Paso shooting on Trump and his allies. Trump and his allies have endeavored to place at least some of the blame for the Dayton shootings on Elizabeth Warren. While there are the specific issues of sorting out whether these claims of blame are true, there is also the broader matter of sorting out how to place blame in such cases. This is important for assigning moral responsibility but also for assisting those who wish such help to avoid contributing to mass shootings and violence in general. I will begin by addressing the case for Trump’s influence on the El Paso shooter.
While there are many who insist that Trump is not a racist, no one can deny that he speaks very negatively about Hispanics and migrants from the south. He began his campaign talking about Mexicans being criminals and rapists. He has fixated on the made in America MS 13 gang and uses it as a tool of fear. He has consistently presented the migration across the Mexican border as an invasion and has even laughed at the suggestion that migrants should be shot. His defenders will contend that he was not seriously agreeing with shooting migrants, but he clearly did nothing to show that he condemned the suggestion. He has told American congresswoman to “go back home”
In addition to his rhetoric, his administration has taken harsh action against migrants, separating parents from their children and keeping migrants in terrible conditions. Whatever one thinks of Trump, it is evident that he has presented an unrelenting attack against migrants and Hispanics.
The shooter in El Paso apparently posted a manifesto that echoed Trump’s language, thus showing he was both familiar with and influenced in his writing by Trump. This, of course, does not entail that Trump was a causal factor in the shooting itself—the author could simply have liked Trump’s rhetorical style and content and emulated it. However, it certainly shows that Trump’s words had an impact on the author.
The shooter drove over eight hours to reach El Paso, which had been often mentioned by Trump in his attacks on migrants, and targeted a Walmart well known for having Hispanic and Mexican customers. While Trump has not explicitly called for shooting migrants, the targets of the shooters gun were those targeted by Trump’s rhetoric. But can Trump be held causally and morally accountable for having a role in the shooting?
To state the obvious, Trump did not tell anyone to kill the migrants and he did not make the shooter kill anyone. However, the concern is with Trump’s influence—did he influence the shooter in a morally culpable manner?
Interestingly, the Republican claim that video games and the internet cause mass shootings is oddly relevant here. The stock argument is that people are influenced by violent media and thus become violent. If this line of reasoning is accepted, then we would know why the shooter engaged in violence. But this would not explain the chosen target—there are no major video games that task the player with murdering migrants at Walmart. Sticking with the hypothesis that media causes mass shootings and considering how the shooter mirrored Trump’s rhetoric and views, then the logical conclusion would be that Trump was as much a cause of the shooting as video games.
I, of course, do not blame the video games for the mass shooting. Being consistent, I also must hold that Trump did not cause the shooting—however, it is reasonable to accept that the shooter was influenced by Trump. That is, while Trump did not make him shoot anyone, Trump did help shape his views and they determined his targets.
It could be objected that while the shooter echoed Trump, there are so many other influential sources of anti-immigrant and white supremacist ideology—so why blame Trump? This is a fair point—the shooter might have still engaged in the shooting if Clinton had been elected or if Trump did not use such rhetoric. However, there is correlation between Trump’s rhetoric and the increase in hate crimes. While one should always keep in mind that correlation is not causation, there is evidence for a causal connection between Trump’s rhetoric and hate crimes. Researchers have conducted a study on this effect, the study can be reviewed here. While defenders of Trump will probably dismiss this as liberal fake news, such a study cannot be dismissed by a mere ad hominem and can only be countered by due consideration of the evidence and refutation of the arguments. Considering the above, it does seem that Trump most likely influenced the shooter and is thus morally accountable to the degree of his influence. Now, what about Elizabeth Warren; is she accountable for the Dayton shooting?
The Dayton shooter identified himself as a pro-Satan leftist who supported Elizabeth Warren. While some might argue about whether he was a true leftist and supporter of Warren’s views, let it be assumed that this is the case. Giving this assumption, to what extent is Warren accountable for the shooting?
While Warren does speak out against those she sees as guilty of economic injustice, her rhetoric lacks Trump’s vitriol and efforts at scare tactics. She has not called for violence nor laughed at suggestions to murder anyone.
Warren does, like Trump, target specific groups of people. However, her criticisms are not based on race or county of origin—she tends to be most critical of the ultra-wealthy. But her call is to tax and regulate; she never even suggests hurting people.
As this is being written, there is no known manifesto written by the shooter—so the only link to Warren is the shooter’s claim that he supported her and his liberal postings. These, however, do not seem to involve violence. If a manifesto does appear, then this matter will need to be reconsidered.
While the El Paso shooter clearly targeted Hispanics, the Dayton shooter seemed to simply engage targets of opportunity, even killing his sister. His targets do not seem to belong to any of the groups that Warren has criticized nor do they seem to be people who are targets of liberal hate. If the shooter had gone after the ultra-rich, shot only right-wingers, or targeted something to do with finance then perhaps one could contend that there was a political angle to the shootings. However, there seems to be no evidence of such an angle. At this time, the best evidence points to the other explanation of mass shootings used by Republicans—mental illness. The shooter apparently struggled with mental illness and had a history of problems (he apparently had a kill list and a rape list). While people with mental illness are far more often victims of violence than perpetrators, the Dayton shooter does seem to fall into the category of someone who is both violent and mentally ill—but further evidence is needed before making a definitive claim. What is clear, however, is that the shooting lacks any clear political motive.
But one might insist that because the shooter posted liberal views on social media and supported Warren, it follows that he did the shooting because he was liberal and supported Warren. The obvious problems with this claim are that Warren does not advocate violence, that the shooter did not make any claims that they were acting from political motives, and the targets were not linked to the alleged political agenda. Even if the shooter were obsessed with Warren, to blame her would be analogous to blaming Jodie Foster for John Hinckley, Jr.’s attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan. As such, while a case can be made that Trump influenced the El Paso shooter, it would be a false equivalence to blame Warren for the Dayton shootings.
This discussion provides something of a guide for determining blame. As noted above, key factors include a similarity in rhetoric between the alleged influencer and the influenced, attacks on and fear mongering about a group by the alleged influencer, and a clear link between the rhetoric of the alleged influencer and the targets of the violence. By these standards, Trump deserves some blame while Warren deserves none. If Warren had been savagely attacking people with hateful rhetoric and laughing about violence, then it would be a different matter—but as it stands the effort to blame her is an attempt at a red herring through a false equivalence.