Tuning Up - Autumn 2022

The Pathogen of Hate

Subscription required

It’s time we took a medical approach to dealing with a different epidemic

By Harriet A. Washington | September 1, 2022
A memorial of 40,000 white flowers on the National Mall honors victims who lost their lives to gun violence. (Geoff Livingston/Flickr)
A memorial of 40,000 white flowers on the National Mall honors victims who lost their lives to gun violence. (Geoff Livingston/Flickr)

“I have no idea how he could have gotten caught up in this. I blame it on Covid,” speculated Sandra Komoroff, referring to her cousin Payton Gendron’s slaughter of 10 people earlier this year at a supermarket in an African-American neighborhood of Buffalo. At first blush, invoking Covid-19 as a factor in Gendron’s rampage seems like yet another attempt to explain away white supremacist violence with exculpatory claims of  “mental illness”—especially when he wrote in his manifesto that he was targeting African Americans. He also claims mental competence: “I was never diagnosed with a mental disability or disorder, and I believe to be [sic] perfectly sane.” To contend that Covid-19 transformed Gendron into a killer seems absurd, not to mention offensive to his victims, their families, and their communities. Should we be so quick, however, to dismiss the link?

After Uvalde, after Highland Park, after every mass shooting, gun-rights advocates trot out mental illness as the cause, dismissing the abundance of firearms in this country. They also dismiss the clear link between racial hatred and domestic terrorism, such as the racist incitement and murder at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the mass shootings at the Emmanuel AME Church, the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, and the El Paso Walmart. Lawyers, meanwhile, have long defended serial killers by proffering mental illness diagnoses. The grisly 1950s exploits of Ed Gein were ascribed to schizophrenia. Arthur Shawcross’s Upstate New York killing spree, which spanned nearly two decades, was blamed on his XYY genome. Jeffrey Dahmer, whose victims were chiefly African American, Asian, and Hispanic, was said to have suffered from borderline personality disorder. And the attorneys for Dan White, who in 1978 shot and killed San Francisco mayor George Moscone and politician Harvey Milk, argued that White’s overindulgence in junk food was a sign of his mental illness. The “Twinkie defense” has become an umbrella term for exoneration pleas based on dubious assertions of mental instability.

Login to view the full article

If you are a current digital subscriber, login here.

Forgot password?

Need to register?

Already a subscriber through The American Scholar?


Are you a Phi Beta Kappa sustaining member?

Want to subscribe?

Print subscribers get access to our entire website

You can also just subscribe to our website for $9.99.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus