In various ways, some subtle and some more overt, the notion is gestating and being nurtured along that the shooter must have been mentally ill as a way to explain the causes for the whole episode without further probing. Whether that was the case, and if so, what behavioral characteristics his mental illness might have carried with it may never be known. But the lack of certainty, or even clear suggestion to prompt inquiry in a particular direction, is no impedance to those who invoke this mantra because it is a useful political device, and is thus purposefully employed.
To label someone mentally ill immediately shrouds that person in a mantle of unknowability and irrationality. It is unfortunate and misguided as I understand from mental health professionals I have listened to or whose work I have read, to assume, as stereotyped perceptions might have it, that mental illness perforce entails odd behavior that is out of the norm, peculiar, disturbed, and potentially dangerous to society as a whole. Mental illness in and of itself does not consign a person to “oddity” status and in particular mental illness does not equate to a disproportionate tendency toward violence.
Yet it is these very notions based on lack of awareness about mental illness and its myriad characteristics and subtleties, that those who, without evidence or corroboration in hand, readily rely upon as a way of dispelling any suggestion there might have been actions they could have taken that would have lessened the numbers of shootings or their impacts. In the one sweeping gesture of dismissing the shooter as mentally ill, politicians and anyone else who so chooses, can encapsulate all that happened and the causes for it in one person who is portrayed as, or implied to be, fringe or deranged. It becomes a convenient sop to say there was nothing that could have been done because his behavior (as a mentally ill person) could not have been predicted and his actions could not have been anticipated.
I would posit that perhaps this shooter was not mentally ill but he may have in fact, using an ancient religious concept, been possessed. Rather than being out of his mind such as the term mental illness implies in the vernacular, his mind may have been taken over by material and ideas and concepts that are dark and malign but widely in circulation in society today. Or he may have been possessed by his own rage born of what may never be known. At eighteen years old and however old he was when he may have first begun absorbing frightening and propagandist material, or subject to warping circumstances, his mind was yet malleable and open to influence, and vulnerable in a way unseasoned youth especially can be. This certainly seems to have been the case with the also eighteen year old shooter in Buffalo. He was possessed of ideas of racial superiority and conspiracy concepts he had absorbed from third party sources.
If the anodyne of mental illness as an explanation for what explains these two shooters’ behaviors is removed from the equation, then so too is the pass that politicians and others would rely on for not taking either responsibility for the causes of what happened or future remedies.
If possession is the issue and not mental illness, then that casts a whole different aura on the role of politicians, along with the rest of society. To take the position that one derailed, i.e. mentally ill, mind executed innocent people in a school or shopping center is ostensibly exonerating because it dissociates that person from all the rest of normal, ordered society, which on balance is protective of its members. If the violence, however, traces to the absorption of malign, corrupted, tribal, antagonistic and elevated perceptions about who each of us is and our status in the social order, including the particularly corrosive notion that any of us is free to exercise our will however we choose irrespective of the common good, then there is no absolution when violence becomes a means, warped to be sure, of discourse, and the politicians in particular who would write the events in Uvale and Buffalo off to the actions of a mentally ill person are dancing a jig in order to distract from their own culpability in promoting divisiveness and lack of meaningful action to diminish violence.