In the mind of the shooter

Moving from dehumanization toward examining motivation


Somebody keyed my parents’ van today.

We noticed it at dawn on the way home from the mosque, which we sometimes attend for morning prayers. I slid my fingers along the groove that ran across both passenger-side doors and looked down our quiet street. My family moved into this home 22 years ago, when I was getting ready to start kindergarten. It couldn’t have been our neighbors, I think to myself. We have the nicest neighbors in the world.

>Facebook/Inland Regional Center
>Facebook/Inland Regional Center

There’s an image that haunts me. A young boy wearing glasses and a striped blue shirt looks to be about 7 or 8 years old. His smile is huge, but why wouldn’t it be? He is sitting on Santa’s lap in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree. The photo is from a holiday party hosted by the Inland Regional Center’s Intermediate Care Facility, a state-run center for people with disabilities in San Bernardino, California. It is jarring to know that a massacre took place there just one day later, in the very building where this kid is just so happy to be on Santa’s lap.

Violence once snuck up on us, froze us in our tracks, demanding moments of reflection and quietude as we tried to regain balance from its trauma. Today, it feels fluid, constant, unending, similar to the groove running like a river beneath my fingers on the door of this car. San Bernardino is in this tiny river. Aggression, grief, anger, confusion, ISIS, Syria, Paris … they are all with me in this moment, on this driveway.

Headlines emerged the day after the shooting about suspect Syed Rizwan Farook’s violent home life growing up. His father is reported to have been an abusive alcoholic who repeatedly threatened suicide in front of his children. Farook himself had stopped attending his mosque weeks earlier. The second shooting suspect, wife Tashfeen Malik, had reportedly pledged allegiance to ISIS on Facebook under another name just before the young couple left their 6-month-old at home with Farook’s mother on the morning of the shooting. At the fateful holiday party, Farook allegedly argued with the very colleagues who had thrown his baby shower just a few months earlier. He stormed out and returned with his wife to shoot the place down.

In June, the Washington Post reported that Dylann Storm Roof, who killed nine congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, dropped out of school in ninth grade, around the time of his father and stepmother’s bitter divorce. Roof’s father was reportedly physically abusive to his wife, who had vocalized fear and submitted photos of bruises and scrapes that she said her husband had inflicted on her.

James Holmes, who in 2012 killed 12 people and injured 70 after he opened fire at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, had reportedly stopped talking to his parents months before. The Los Angeles Times reported that Holmes’ parents attended his trial day after day, but that Holmes never engaged them, turned around to look at them, nor acknowledged their presence in any way while the judge and jury underwent the process of determining whether he would live or die (he received multiple life terms in prison with no eligibility of parole).

The very same year, Adam Lanza shot 20 children and 6 staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Three years prior, when he was 17, Lanza had reportedly barricaded himself long-term in his bedroom. He covered his windows with trash bags and refused point-blank to ever see his father again.

There is so much out there right now about San Bernardino, so many expert opinions and think pieces and roundtables on cable news, but we still fail, shooting after shooting, to prioritize in our discussions that common link woven into almost every shooter’s narrative: evidence of domestic violence, instability or alienation at home, and the impact of poor psychological and emotional wellbeing that characterize the shooters’ formative years.


In my own experience working with victims of domestic violence, I’ve learned that it is a universal illness rooted in the same oppressive structures of patriarchy, misogyny, hypermasculinity, and social and economic injustice that are simply deployed differently and contextually across borders, languages, cultures and ethnicities. With over 15 million victims each year, the United States suffers as much as any other nation. Yet we still do not seem to recognize this link, nor prioritize efforts aimed to eradicate domestic violence in light of our country’s escalating problem with mass shootings, which are often perpetrated by domestic violence victims. The rise of domestic violence in America is no doubt complicit in our growing culture of fear and paranoia. We are all affected by fear, regardless of race, class, immigration status and other divisions that random stray bullets do not recognize.

To address domestic violence as a national issue absolutely requires a look at the state of mental health in the U.S. Over 20% of American children will experience, at some point, a debilitating mental illness in their lives, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. In light of this fact, certain questions must be asked. Is it time for American public schools to discuss incorporating mandatory mental health screenings or counseling sessions with students? What about investing in training programs for parents on at-home communication and children’s mental and emotional wellbeing? Holmes’ mother said she did not know her son had homicidal thoughts because his psychiatrist, whom Holmes had stopped seeing, had not told her. Lanza’s mother, whom he shot just before walking into Sandy Hook Elementary, reportedly ignored experts’ calls for drastic measures to be taken to treat her son over concerns about his mental state.

The dialogue about domestic violence and mental health in relation to mass shootings also directly relates to the ongoing call for stricter gun control laws. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, of the American children exposed to domestic violence each year, about 90% are eyewitnesses to the violence itself. The coalition also reports that the presence of a gun in a household where there’s domestic violence increases the risk of homicide by 500%. There’s not a lot of math to do here.

The overall lack of emphasis on these realities is disturbing, especially with the increase in mass shootings. Instead our culture is bombarded by waves of dehumanizing sentiment, currently against Muslim Americans, which spread fear rather than seek actual solutions for this terrifying phenomenon.

Mobilizing collectively against the issue of random mass shootings requires us to see a name like Syed Rizwan Farook and change our patterns, stepping away from the instinct to label him inherently as an agent of violence simply because he is Muslim. Rather, the onus is on American media and society to allow for the entirety of Farook’s life narrative to factor into his story and better understand what propelled him to murder. Only then can the radicalization of Americans by terrorist groups such as ISIS be understood for what it is: a poor and misguided life choice made by select people as an outlet for their deep-rooted suffering.

The impulse to dehumanize by failing to take into account the entirety of a gunman’s life story, ironically, is one we use to exploit other shooters as well. The “lone, disturbed gunman” narrative, which mainstream media assigns white mass murderers, is lazy and inhumane. What are the individual factors that contribute to the shooter’s condition, and what are the solutions and lessons we can take as we work to move forward and end this phenomenon?

Dehumanization is such a funny thing. I was pumping gas the Friday after the Paris tragedy when a white man drove by and rolled down his window, yelling: “IS THAT ISIS?!” He stared into my face and revved his engine. Terrified I yanked the nozzle out of my car, slammed it the pump, jumped in and drove away. My hijab was bright blue and covered in orange and yellow polka dots … something tells me ISIS wouldn’t have approved of my fashion choice.

Muslim Americans have become reduced to an entity of reaction over the past 15 years. If they speak, they are heard solely within the frame of response to a reductionist narrative rendering them intelligible only as agents of violence. This plays out every time Muslims are called upon to denounce and condemn acts of domestic and international terrorism, such as the tragedies in Paris; San Bernardino, California; Newtown, Connecticut; and Aurora, Colorado. It also plays out when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump publicly lies about witnessing “thousands and thousands” of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks or says he would ban all Muslim immigration to the U.S. Nevermind that random acts of violence have targeted the American Muslim community along with those mistaken to be Muslim, such as the Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting three years ago in Wisconsin. Muslim Americans have been dehumanized to the point that, in national dialogue, it is as though they exist simply as the other half of a conversation that was never designed to engage them at all.

You are terrorists, Muslims are told. We are not, they reply. Everything Muslims do will be laced with the effort to prove the narrative of being “peace-loving.” But placing the burden of proof on Muslim Americans to ascertain their love of peace, time and time again, is actually to strip Muslims of their identity on all fronts. Not only does it directly contradict the American right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but for adherents to a faith etymologically rooted in the Arabic phrase “submission to God,” it strips them of their religious identity as well. One of the 99 names of God in the Islamic faith is “As-Salaam,” or (The Source of) Peace. Labeling Muslims as terrorists or inherent supporters of terror based on their affiliation to Islam is to negate their tie to Islam itself. And enforcing that patronizing title “peace-loving Muslims” is simply redundant, like chai tea and naan bread.

It may seem as though this detail is unimportant, but it emphasizes what Muslim American groups have been saying all along: There is no connection between Muslims and militant groups such as ISIS, which Muslims do not even recognize as part of the global Muslim community itself. Such patterns of dehumanization are not new and date back to the very inception of this country. But they have failed, time and time again, and they are as violent and problematic as the recurring traumas they are often deployed in response to.

Do we continue to address our growing internal problems by lashing out with the same failed methods of “otherization” to maintain some pretense of order and control? If nothing else, Trump’s example makes clear that the culture of dehumanization affects everyone, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of privilege. We are positioned in a moment prefacing a change of leadership and potential change in our social climate, and it is time for Americans to be honest with ourselves about what lies beneath our increasing domestic problems. A growing culture of reflexivity, not fear, is what Americans need if we want to heal our wounds and move forward with stability and security. As a Muslim American, I am doubly responsible to do my part to ensure that my society is thriving. Let us not waste this time, but rather embrace the opportunity for introspection and cooperation for the sake of protecting our very lives.

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  • About the autor
    Hiba Akhtar

    Hiba Akhtar is communications professional and a graduate student of gender studies in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area. @_7iba

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    • O. Locke

      this author is deluding themselves.

      this guy recieved money and it has now been exposed that he was radiclaized along with his hispanic pal to murder Americans in an act of msolem terrorism.

      the reason for his violence was religion and had zero to do with racism, his past, or anything else.

      islam needs a reformation. attempting to bind the muslim inability to confront its moslem fundamentalist elements is part of the problem. muslims MUST confront the moslems. muslims MUST reform their faith. man made books and made up beliefs do not give authority to adherents to kill.

      this article wasted time and is just more apologetics and hand wringing.