Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Shooting Tragedies Exploit Military Stereotypes

Wade Michael Page, 40, has been identified as the lone murderer at the Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last Sunday.  A strong element in the reportage of this senseless tragedy is that Page was an Army veteran.  His identification in the news reports with the military is mentioned repeatedly and practically in the same breath with his name, yet the more telling aspect of his personality, that he was a neo-Nazi white supremacist, receives secondary billing.  This includes news reports from ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.  Lakeshia Copeland of the site in Atlanta identifies him as an Army veteran in the headline and the first words of the nine-paragraph story, yet never speaks of the Nazi affiliation, despite a photo of him in Aryan regalia.  This afternoon, Shepard Smith of Fox News led the story identifying Page as an “Army veteran and neo-Nazi”.  The Huffington Post leads off its report about his veteran status but doesn't get to his "white supremacist and skinhead" affiliation until the middle of the post.

"Army veteran"

What exactly is it about Page’s Army enlistment that is so germane to the story?  He served from 1992 to 1998, beginning with boot camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, then a stint as a Hawk anti-aircraft missile system repairman at Fort Bliss, Texas, before his final assignment as a psychological operations specialist at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (essentially an administrative posting).  Nothing in his time in the Army involved combat training or support beyond the standard boot camp introductory experience.  He was never assigned overseas, much less to a combat area.  Page was finally discharged from the Army against his will with a General Discharge (less than an Honorable) due mainly to repeated cases of being drunk on duty and other unspecified infractions.  Yet somehow in the minds of the Commentariat, this connection with the Army is something that they cannot help but mention, and frequently, despite the fact that he left the Army fourteen years ago.

Consider also how the police started putting together information about Page, starting immediately after he was put down by responding officers.  The first clues they would see upon approaching his body would be the large, obvious, and numerous white supremacist tattoos.  The police were able to ascertain his name rather quickly, and a quick check of the internet would yield his association with his racist, heavy metal rock group, and thence to such neo-Nazi categories like Hammerfest, an annual white supremacist event, and such groups as Hammerskins and the National Alliance.  That is the information that would figure most prominently in the early phases of the investigation, and which holds the most promise for the warped motivation behind his killing spree, but the media nevertheless has to give his veteran status top billing.

I have written before about the persistent stereotype of the veteran within the popular culture, directly influenced by the media (here, for example, and here most recently).  Reporting on the recent shooting in Aurora was abuzz with speculation about whether the shooter was a veteran, and after that was discredited, the stories continued to comment on the fact that the shooter was not a veteran, constantly repeating the idea that it was reasonable, even expected, that there must be some military connection.  This is not a perception that is based in reality, even though by the luck of the statistical draw, a vet will turn up from time to time, but for other reasons.  Let us examine some of the more celebrated examples: 
  • James Holmes, Cinemark massacre, Aurora, Colorado, 2012 – not a veteran
  • Adam Lanza, Sandy Hook school shooting, Connecticut, 2012 – not a veteran 
  • Jared Lee Loughner, mall shooting, Tucson, 2011 – not a veteran
  • Michael McLendon, Geneva County, Alabama shooting spree, 2009 – not a veteran
  • Carlos Bledsoe (aka A M Muhammed), Little Rock recruiting station, 2009 – not a veteran
  • Seung-Hui Cho, Virginia Tech massacre, 2007 – not a veteran
  • Matthew Murray, church shootings, Arvada & Colorado Springs, 2007 – not a veteran
  • Charles Carl Roberts, Nickel Mines Amish school massacre, 2006 – not a veteran
  • Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Columbine massacre, Littleton, Colorado, 1999 – not veterans
  • Colin Ferguson, Long Island Railroad shooting spree, 1993 – not a veteran
  • George Hennard, Luby’s Cafeteria massacre, Killeen, Texas, 1991 – not a veteran
  • James Edward Pough, GM offices, Jacksonville, Florida, 1990 – not a veteran
  • Ramon Salcido, killing spree in Sonoma County, California, 1989 – not a veteran
  • David Burke, shooting and crash of PSA Flight 1771, 1987 – not a veteran 
  • Pat Sherrill, Post Office shootings, Edmond, Oklahoma, 1986 – not a veteran
  • James Huberty, McDonald’s massacre, San Ysidro, California, 1984 – not a veteran
You have undoubtedly heard the phrase "going postal", associated with the rash of shootings involving postal employees starting in the early 1980s.  Here is how that stacks up in regard to military service: 
  • Perry Smith, Johnston, South Carolina, 1983 – not a veteran
  • James Brooks, Anniston, Alabama, 1983 – not a veteran
  • Steven Brownlee, Atlanta, Georgia, 1985 – not a veteran
  • Warren Murphy, New Orleans, 1988 – not a veteran
  • John Merlin Taylor, Escondido, California, 1989 – not a veteran
  • Joseph Harris, Ridgewood, New Jersey, 1991 – Navy 1974-1977, electrical repair
  • Thomas McIlvane, Royal Oak, Michigan, 1991 – former Marine, dishonorable discharge
  • Larry Jasion, Dearborn, 1993 – Army 1967-1969, unfit for service, demoted twice
  • Mark Hilbun, Dana Point, California, 1993 – Air Force radar tech
  • Bruce Clark, City of Industry, California, 1995 – not a veteran
  • Charles Jennings, Las Vegas, 1996 – not a veteran
  • Jesus Antonio Tamayo, Miami Beach, 1997 – not a veteran
  • Jennifer San Marco, Goleta, California, 2006 – not a veteran
  • Grant Gallaher, Baker City, Oregon, 2006 – not a veteran
  • Kevin Julius Tartt, San Francisco, 2006 – not a veteran 
True, there are cases that involve a military background:
  • Nidal Hasan, Fort Hood massacre, Killeen, Texas, 2009 – Army Psychiatrist, not associated with combat duty, never deployed
  • Itzcoatl Ocampo, Santa Ana, California, 2012 – Marine, psychiatric derangement prior to enlistment, Iraq War veteran
  • Abel Gutierrez, Gilroy, California, 2012 – Army, apparent PTSD, Iraq War veteran
  • John Allen Muhammed, mentor in the Beltway Sniper attacks, 2002 – National Guard 1978-1986, Army 1986-1994, Engineers – mechanic and water truck driver, discharged after 17 years, short of retirement, more focused on al Qaeda than his failed military career
  • Richard Farley, ESL Inc. shooting, Sunnyvale, California, 1988 – Navy computer tech
And this admittedly does not detract from the most celebrated case of a veteran involved with mass murder: Timothy McVeigh of the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City in 1995.  McVeigh was a veteran of the First Gulf War but was disqualified from entry into Special Forces training due to his Psyc Eval.

But how many cases are balanced by veterans saving lives?  That is data that cannot be accumulated to its full extent, often in the same category of trying to prove a negative.  But one such example was at Appalachian State University in 2002, when Peter Odighizuwa (not a veteran) started a shooting spree but was subdued by three veterans, some of whom had to retrieve their personal handguns from their parked cars. 

Another is the case of Luke Woodham (not a veteran) in a shooting spree at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi in 1997, who killed two and injured seven, but was subdued by Assisstant Principal Joel Myrick (Army Reserve) who had to run to his car and remove his .45-calibre pistol, unlock a case with ammunition, load the pistol (all in accordance with the law), and run back into the school while Woodham was shooting his victims.  Woodham was subdued but later confessed that he was en route to the nearby Pearl Junior High School to kill more victims before Myrick ran him down and put his pistol to his head to stop him.

Is the media so blind to their own faults that they simply cannot recognize their own (shall we say it?) bigoted attitude about the military?

Update:  The military satire site Duffel Blog recognizes the same problem.
Graphics are already being distributed across the AP Newswire of his boot camp photo from 20 years ago for use in tonight’s stories – with the caption “Solder’s Extremely Delayed PTSD Results In Domestic Terrorism.”
Read the whole thing.

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