Thoughts on the Buffalo mass murder

After an atrocity such as Saturday’s mass murder at a Buffalo supermarket, in which ten people were killed and three others wounded, it takes time to gather all the information, as investigators mobilize to gather evidence, interview witnesses, and figure out what motivated the killer. Initial reports tend to be incomplete or inaccurate, and the impulse to instantly fit moments of national shock, grief, and anger into a political agenda should be resisted.

This much, though, we can say with confidence. Police arrested an 18-year-old male, and the evidence that he is the shooter and that the massacre was motivated by racial hatred appears overwhelming. He wore camouflage and body armor, and allegedly carried out the attack with an AR-15-style firearm. Of the 13 victims, eleven were African Americans, including 55-year-old Aaron Salter Jr., a former police officer and grocery-store security guard who lost his life heroically confronting the gunman. Also among those senselessly mowed down were elderly women who were just shopping on a Saturday afternoon: 88-year-old Ruth Whitfield and 65-year-old Celeste Chaney.

The suspect has been convincingly associated with a 180-page manifesto, oozing with anti-black racism and a conspiracy theory to “replace” whites. 

While more investigation must be done for a clearer picture to emerge, we suspect it may be at least equally relevant that the alleged shooter was referred to a hospital for a mental-health evaluation last year, after making what Buffalo police describe as “generalized threats” at his high school. The threats are said not to have been racist in nature, and he was released after a day and a half of examination and observation. Police say he thereafter remained off the radar of state and federal law enforcement. But it is not yet clear what (if any) meaningful follow-up investigation was done. Nor is it clear whether more could and should have been done under existing laws to prevent him from having access to firearms.

As investigators press these questions, the authorities will sort out whether state prosecutors or the Justice Department will take the lead. A state murder prosecution would be the most straightforward choice, and thus the one with the best chance of convicting a mass murderer. The Justice Department has, however, been very aggressive in using the civil-rights laws to invoke federal jurisdiction, and quirks of New York law give the feds the upper hand if they want to take the case. A federal civil-rights murder prosecution is more complex, but it could also result in capital charges, which are not available under New York law. For that, the Biden administration would have to overlook its stated aversion to the death penalty (as Democratic administrations reliably do when horrific killings happen on their watch).

The Buffalo massacre has revitalized calls for domestic-terrorism legislation. But penal statutes, including those that are commonly used in terrorism cases, are enforcement tools, not political labels. There are more than enough laws on the books to prosecute terrorists, whether domestic or foreign. Federal and state prosecutors have done that with smashing success for decades. Calls for additional terrorism legislation are transparently political, a ploy to brand an ideology as “terrorist” and then tie that label to political opponents one claims are somehow tied to the ideology, and hence the “terrorism.”

It is an especially noxious element of today’s tribalism, together with the frank disparity in how such massacres are discussed and handled.

The Biden administration has been right to condemn the racial hatred that appears to have fueled the carnage in Buffalo. But it was tongue-tied a month ago when racial hatred appeared to fuel a black man’s shooting spree at a Brooklyn subway station, omitting abundant evidence of that shooter’s racist rants from the complaint it filed in district court. The Capitol rioters are portrayed as white-supremacist domestic-terrorist insurrectionists, while Black Lives Matter anti-police demonstrations are presented as “mostly peaceful protests” no matter how violent they get.

The occasional rioters who do something heinous enough to get charged — such as the left-wing radical lawyers who firebombed a police squad car in New York — are regarded as overzealous activists who merit our sympathy rather than throw-the-book-at-’em condemnation. In a routine that would be comical but for the egregious circumstances, jihadist aggression is met with bemusement over whether we’ll ever know the motive, and progressive admonitions that “violent extremism” is the preferred label since “terrorism” is so “Islamophobic.”

How much easier and healthier it would be to condemn all such violence, whatever the rantings of the perpetrators — to convey a single message, applicable in every such case, that the use of force is the redline in our democracy, warranting universal vilification and vigorous prosecution.

The atrocity in Buffalo raises serious issues: how fringe ideologies interact with mental illness to cause violence; whether our law-enforcement agencies are taking enough action on warning signs; whether they are hamstrung by law and mores that need to be rethought. We would be in a better position to answer these fraught questions if we avoided the farce of politicizing an event when we have barely begun to understand it.

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