A crazed young man walked into a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and opened fire, killing 10 shoppers. Later, authorities found an online screed he’d posted spouting racist conspiracy theories and expressing his desire to kill black people. Most of those murdered were African Americans.
I braced myself for the usual brow beating and hair pulling about how, once again, a clearly insane perpetrator had “slipped through the cracks” of America’s ailing mental health system. And, sure enough, it turns out that 18-year-old Payton Gendron had openly declared his intention to kill himself and others in an online high school economics class last year. In fact, he’d been sent to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation that, apparently, judged him sane enough to release within a day-and-a-half.
“I had to spend 20 hours in that ER waiting for somebody to give me 15 minutes to talk,” the future murderer later wrote. “This proved to me that the US healthcare system is a joke.”
I share that assessment, having spent years struggling with the same mental health establishment on behalf of my own potentially dangerous mentally ill son. And yet the loudest reaction came, not from critics of the system that had released an alleged killer and allowed him to buy a gun, but from politicians with a political narrative to sell.
“White supremacy is a poison running through the body politic,” President Biden declared in Buffalo. As far as I know, he never mentioned the two other race-related shootings that occurred the same week: an attack by a Chinese man on a Taiwanese church in California killing one and critically injuring three, and a black man who shot three women at a Korean hair salon in Texas. “I call on all Americans to reject the lie,” Biden said, “and I condemn those who spread [it] for power, political gain and for profit.”
Several of the President’s political allies quickly chimed in, pointing fingers at conservative politicians and pundits who, they claimed, had helped spread the racist “great replacement theory” that racial minorities are replacing white people in America, an idea cited by Gendron to justify his murders. What they failed to mention, of course, was that Democratic leaders have gleefully touted the same claim for years, creating a paranoia inflamed by the current administration’s apparent inability or unwillingness to control massive illegal immigration at the country’s southern border.
But never mind, I’m not here to deny there are white racists in America. One of the many articles published in the wake of the Buffalo tragedy, in fact, quotes a young Filipina who, several years ago, emigrated to a small town near the shooter’s birthplace. “I see people’s eyes looking at me because I’m not white,” Osha Mabilog told the Los Angeles Times. “In the white Republican areas…I won’t say that they’re all racist, but a good chunk of them are.”
And yet the same article quotes a local history professor attesting that his close relatives in a mixed-race same-sex marriage feel “very safe,” though they too sometimes elicit stares.
Similarly, a column elsewhere in the paper attributing the Buffalo massacre solely to white racism begins with a quote from the shooter’s 700-page diary, expressing his reluctance to engage in violence. “What I want right now,” he wrote, is “someone to do something so I don’t have to kill these people.”
Which very much reminds me of my own mentally ill son who once spent six months in jail for attacking a cleaning woman he erroneously thought posed a threat. Why did he believe that? Because, we later deduced, the delusional voices in his head told him to.
So here’s what I see as a far more odious threat to America than white racism: mental illness. It’s a flickering flame fiercely fanned by COVID lockdowns and heated political rhetoric on both sides. “They are everywhere,” Daniel Henninger wrote in a Wall Street Journal column inspired by the Buffalo shooting. “On the streets, in our homes, our schools and prisons…America is overflowing with people suffering from a broad range of mental disturbances. Mental illness is the US’s next pandemic.”
In fact, that pandemic may have already arrived. Just 10 days after the Buffalo massacre, an 18-year-old high school dropout stormed a Texas elementary school, horrifically murdering 19 children and two of their teachers in cold blood. Friends later described him as a bullied loner who frequently fought with classmates, enjoyed cutting his own face with knives and sometimes drove around randomly shooting at strangers with a BB gun.
“I think he needed mental help,” one former friend told the Washington Post. “And more closure with his family. And love.”
Unlike the last one, I fear, this pandemic will require more than vaccines to cure.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection entitled “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning author, journalist and radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.