He Didn’t “Just Snap”


This was the headline at the top of the 6 o’clock hour tonight on CNN–the proclamation that the Navy Yard shooter, Aaron Alexis, who killed at least twelve people on September 16th–simply “snapped”.  In this quick post I’d like to highlight the rhetorical importance of choosing to identify the behavior of Alexis as just “snapping” both in terms of what reality such phrasing constructs and in terms of what realities such phrasing simultaneously obfuscates.

Communication scholar Marian Meyers notes in her book, News Coverage of Violence Against Women: Engendering Blame, that the use of phrases that define a violent perpetrator as simply “snapping” serve to frame the violent offender in ways more favorable than they often should be. For example, the notion that Alexis “just snapped” belies the likelihood that his actions were probably planned in advance and offers an excuse and rationale for his behavior because if his actions were pathological, they weren’t in his control and thus he’s more likely to be perceived as someone not as responsible for his behavior since he’s a victim of his own pathology. Such a framing has serious consequences for how we deal with future Aarons who may need help but who don’t get it because they “don’t look like a mass shooter” since we’ve identified the pathology of mass shooters as behavior that is spontaneous and disorganized as opposed to planned and coordinated.

In addition, by framing Alexis as someone who “just snapped”, we shift focus of off some important concerns that this event should cause us to address. First, it takes the focus off the fact that after a long series of violent actions it seems likely that in order to rid itself of Aaron Alexis quickly, the Navy decided to give him an honorable discharge if he agreed to leave the Navy early. This honorable discharge probably allowed him to be employed by a defense contractor, which definitely permitted him to get the kind of security clearance needed to enter the Navy yard as an armed assassin without warning. The laziness of the Navy, the desire to “get rid of the problem” easily but not correctly, is partly to blame for this tragedy and one has to wonder how many other people with violent backgrounds have been “honorably discharged” in exchange for just going away quietly. Unfortunately, as the Navy has just learned, sometimes they don’t go away quietly at all.

Second, by labeling him as someone who just “snapped”, it lets us all off of the responsibility to challenge the incredible level of violence we see in our country. See? This isn’t an institutional or cultural problem, he just snapped. Nothing to see here, move along. Except we all know that this isn’t true. He didn’t just snap. He was a violent offender who seemed to get more violent as the years went on. He was someone that friends say could shift from likable and fun to dark and scary in the same day. If that’s the case, by calling him someone who “just snapped” we can also ignore that our system of mental health care (especially as it should relate to criminal behavior) might have let him down (the red flag of a dishonorable discharge might have helped here, but we’ll never know).

And finally, defining him as someone who “just snapped” lets the NRA and its ilk (who aren’t the majority of the country, you’ll remember) argue that there’s nothing that common sense gun laws could’ve been done in this situation. He was pathological, after all. He “just snapped”.  A guy “like him” would’ve found a way to get those weapons and thus the fact that he was able to get those weapons legally after a series of violence issues, some including guns, should, by their logic, not even enter the conversation.

So, let’s not let CNN or any other news organization (or even our friends and family) talk about Aaron Alexis as someone who “just snapped”. When we allow Alexis to be framed in this way we make a big mistake by constructing a reality that impedes our ability to use such tragedies as a means by which to argue for better mental health care in our country, common sense gun laws, better military processes for dealing with soldiers and sailors whose aggression (whether already in them or whether crafted by their military training) they cannot control, and a real conversation about the high levels of violence in our culture and what we can do to turn the tide for future generations.