A gunman in Louisiana killed three, including himself, and injured nine during a showing of the Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck in Lafayette on Thursday. Police, emergency workers and the state's governor Bobby Jindal rushed to the scene in an effort to contain the chaos.
Police described the 59-year-old gunman, identified as John Russell Houser, as a "lone white male." While the designation is technically correct, it was a characterization that rankled many late Thursday and early Friday morning.
This tweet highlights how the police's language changes with the race of the lawbreakers. During riots in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, police, the media and even the city's black mayor used the word "thug" to describe protesters who were largely peaceful. Many said the word was a racist code since the majority of protesters were black men. Local city councilman Carl Stokes openly called out CNN, telling the network's Erin Burnett to "just call them niggers."
When Kuwait-born gunman Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire at a military recruitment center and another military site in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, police and media wasted no time attaching the terrorist label, with some even going so far as to erroneously link the shooting to the Islamic State terrorist group. When the Tsarnaev brothers wrecked havoc at the Boston Marathon, the same applied.
The reluctance to use words like terrorist and thug toward white transgressors was on full display after a biker gang shootout in Waco, Texas, that left nine dead. Despite claiming more lives than Chattanooga and the Boston bombing combined, there was nary a mention of thugs or terrorists. Photos taken in the immediate aftermath showed a notably blasé atmosphere among arresting officers.
Strictly speaking, Tsarnaev and Abdulazeez were terrorists, the gunman in Louisiana appears to have been a lone white man, and thug technically only means "a violent criminal" or "a cruel or vicious ruffian, robber or murderer." Language, however, can take on more than its official meaning, especially in these sorts of national news events. All mass violence is terrible and should be looked at case by case. Placing people into arbitrary boxes only plants the seeds for future conflict.