What Do You Do If You Suspect A Potential Mass Shooter?
Updated: Mar 12
And even worse, he's a good friend. And black.
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Weeeeeeeelllll...not sure I'm happy about that, even as I agree with your political assessment. Not crazy about you owning a gun being suicidal and all. Even as I recognize you might NEED it living in AmeriKKKa...
Charley and I met over Twitter, at the beginning of lockdown. I live in Toronto, he lives in a major U.S. city I'll call BigMetro. Our friendship spanned phone calls, Zoom, and Whatsapp.
We dissected the pandemic, toxic Trump culture, and America's racism and crime problems. I'd left the U.S. fifteen years previously; he, an African who'd immigrated in the '80s, now wanted to live anywhere but.
"Is there any place that doesn't hate black men?" he asked.
No, he claimed Africans hated each other.
"You don't have to move back to the mother country. Pick a different one.
Africa has lots of countries."
He was a little racist, not the kind you'd expect in a black man. He blanket-disliked Africans along with African-Americans. He found the latter backward, anti-intellectual, and claimed they'd made fun of him because he was a nerd--educated, well-spoken, with an interest in geek culture like comics and superhero movies. His African-American assessment wasn't off-mark. I'm not black, but I lived in the US for over forty years, including the South. I've observed some racially self-destructive attitudes.
Charley was especially un-fond of black women.
One night he confessed he'd twice had dreams in which he strapped on C4 explosives, prepared to go out and end it all, taking others with him.
We came with an expiry date
That conversation happened either on a phone or Zoom call. It's not in our lengthy, thousands of WhatsApp texts. I saved the year-long exchange, in case the BigMetro police might one day need it.
The C4 dreams bothered me not because I was concerned he would perform a suicide bombing - how easy was it to procure or make C4? - but he'd also expressed some sympathy and empathy with mass shooters, saying he understood why they snapped.
I could tell from the beginning our friendship came with an expiry date.
We struggled with mutual unemployment, both of us depressed, stressed, and anxious, Charley even more so as a black man living in Trump's America. He suicidally ideated, so I counseled against buying a gun, knowing two-thirds of American gun deaths every year are male suicides. Almost all are white males, but black male suicides were increasing as America deteriorated under pandemic lockdown, a recession, Trump, George Floyd and anti-masking protests, and skyrocketing crime rates, especially in BigMetro.
The person most at risk from an armed Charley was Charley. He didn't want to pack heat on the street, just keep it locked in his house in case of a break-in - not only thieves but, perhaps, racists coming for a successful black man living in his own home in a middle-class neighborhood.
He didn't know his neighbors. Charley found it difficult connecting with others, and while he'd likely encountered discrimination from his fellow humans, I pushed back on blanket statements, particularly about blacks and black women, and I hadn't been the first. His personal narratives slowly unraveled, like an uncut loose thread.
Our friendship ended over a failed roommate arrangement with a young black woman. (What could possibly go wrong???) When I questioned his vague dispute with her and got too close to the problem - his misogynoir - he ended the friendship with a long rant on everything wrong with me on WhatsApp, followed by blocking me.
What became clear was his history of quitting early - jobs, two short-lived marriages, a roommate arrangement and at least one friendship. I suspected there were several others given his inability to stay connected long with anyone. He could never articulate whatever the problem was. After receiving enough vague answers, I fully recognized where it lay.
Few of us can meet a threat to our self-image. Many of us choose to let the offending party go rather than face the challenge.
I mentally bade Charley good-bye and, as we say in Paganism, 'Go in perfect love and perfect trust'. We'd passed our sell-by date.
Revenge of the nerd
Those C4 dreams bothered me, along with incel language that crept into his speech during the roommate fiasco, and the occasional mass shooter empathy. Sometimes he'd said he thought he might snap like that. As far as I knew, he didn't own a gun, but I wondered what might happen if he did.
What nagged me was I was 95%, maybe 96% certain he wouldn't turn into a mass shooter, but not 100%. I knew him as a good guy with a big heart, a great brain and a deep desire to connect with others. But angry aggrieved men with guns rarely end well.
How would I feel, I wondered, if he acted? What if he pulled a black man's George Sodini and walked into a public place and started shooting innocent representatives of his grievances? What if I might have stopped it if I'd told someone?
He'd sometimes sound like the abusive males profiled in the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.
Male therapist Lundy Bancroft writes of men in abusive partnerships and explores the intense entitlement these men feel. While I didn't think Charley was an abusive guy, (not that I knew his ex-wives' sides of their stories), he'd begun to express certain sentiments I recognized from the book. Lots of self-aggrandizing talk about how wonderful he is, with so much love to give and women just don't want it. He spoke with entitled jealousy of his three-week-long roommate, suspecting her of being a side hustle sex worker, using incel slang like THOT (That Ho Over There). He thought she was getting way more sex than he was, but denied spending time in incel forums.
He created what looked distinctly like a performative video of how terrified he claimed to be after an unspecified threat she allegedly made (he 'couldn't remember' the exact words, or any of them, when I pushed). The incel language increased, and I wondered if he'd perhaps pulled something on her.
Nothing like a sexually frustrated male to impel shooting at strangers.
Would he or wouldn't he?
In the months after our split (the spring of 2021) I mentally debated whether I should do anything. Should I warn someone, but who would I call? The police?
He was a black man in one of the most dangerous cities in post-Trump's America. What if the police went in there with guns blazing and killed him just on a tip that he might be dangerous? I didn't even know if he had a gun.
But what if he did and went Sodini? Who would he kill? How could I know he wouldn't go to some black 'hood and start shooting? Or shoot a group of black women? What if I could have prevented those deaths by telling someone? How could I look at the victims' photos on a news site and not feel horrified guilt?
Google offered nothing on dealing with the early nuances of a potential mass shooter. I didn't know who to talk to, who would listen. I considered maybe talking to someone at BigMetro's Black Lives Matter chapter but I didn't think they'd take me seriously - a white woman calling from Canada wondering whether to tell the police about an otherwise really great black guy who might snap and kill black people. What do you do when the potential shooter isn't a young white male, but a black man?
Would the police even care if his gravest threat was to black people? My choice was to potentially save lives, or maybe get my ex-friend killed.
I didn't want that on my conscience either. Especially as he has a child he was helping to raise.
I tried following him online. He had a blog he didn't update much, and he'd blocked me on Twitter, his most active account. Later, it got banned. If he's got a new account, I don't know what it is.
I kept an occasional eye on his YouTube channel. He posted nothing radical, or much at all, and when he did it was usually about his long-distance child. I kept thinking about him though, although I didn't call the police. I just couldn't.
This is where the Divided States of America has gotten us. I want to protect innocent lives, but I can't trust the police not to overreact to a potential black male threat and kill a man who may have only been popping off.
I still consider him my friend even if he doesn't return the sentiment. We were there for each other during a very dark time in our lives, and for that I will always hold a very large soft spot in my heart for him.
What I have since learned
The Internet still offers almost no discussion of the early stages of someone who hasn't yet taken his first step down the mass shooter path. Charley ticks several profile personal history boxes, like past trauma, mental health struggles, and suicidality. But that describes a sizeable chunk of Americans. A less common sign is empathy for previous rage killers.
Charley, like most of us, has personal trauma, but no violence as far as I know. He spoke well of his parents, and never of school bullying. He did think his brain might have been damaged or altered by a near-death illness when he was a child (supported by some medical evidence). While he never expressly said he would hurt others, I regarded the C4 dreams and shooter empathy as warning signs.
What he doesn't share with mass shooters is youth: He's comin' 'round the mountain to 50. Another thing: He's a laudable maverick, in therapy at the time of our split. It's unusual for a man to seek therapy, and even more so for black men.
Recently he posted an interview he did with a podcaster. I didn't listen to it all as it was nearly an hour of the same-old-same-old, but he mentioned a plan to move to another country, one I think is a good choice.
It's something for him to work toward. It won't solve his human connection problems until he recognizes his own role, but his mental health struggles should be partially alleviated with not having to worry about white racism or becoming a crime victim. I don't worry about him going Sodini as much now.
When I wrote a recent article on mass shooters I learned when to call the police, and when not. You call when something seems imminent, or might shortly, and not just a few warning signs. Lower-level resources can be drawn upon - family, friends, clergy, and community groups (like ones focusing on violence prevention). I Googled his brother based on details he'd told me, who lived elsewhere in the U.S. That might be my first stop if I had to tell someone.
I won't know if Charley spirals again since we're no longer friends, but I've Googled a few community/mental health organizations in BigMetro to whom I will reach out if I discover he might be at risk again. They'll be in a better position to know whether to intervene, and how.
I've considered reaching back out to Charley in friendship but his interview proves he hasn't changed his self-pitying and I don't have the patience or energy anymore.
As mental health spirals downward in the Ignited States and mass shootings become almost not-news, I wonder how we can better help the Charleys of the world - with the knowledge that they can include any American.
Mine was a particularly tough decision to wrestle with. I would have called the police last year if Charley was white.
When to seek intervention, and from whom, strikes me as a new discussion we should add to the public debate on reducing rage murders, whether they're in the workplace, schools, or public venues. What do you do before they start making plans and buying guns? How can we politely intervene to alleviate their distress?
Discuss. Debate. Explain.
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