The larger mission in front of us

By Douglas J. Usiak, May 27, 2022

As I presume was the case with you, I was shocked, horrified beyond words, and immensely saddened to learn of the race-based mass shooting at the Buffalo East Side Tops market on May 14th that took 10 lives and wounded three more. The tragedy, its analysis and its ramifications have continued to be explored in local and national news for many days.

What also distressed me was that, in the immediate news coverage afterward, police officials, elected leaders and journalists simply described the shooter as a mentally ill racist with a gun. By assuming, “if he does this, of course he must be crazy,” this dismissive characterization tends to group all individuals with mental health challenges into one stereotype: living on the cusp of violence.

But, if we take a hard look at ourselves, do we not want to know why people turn to this particularly horrific way of making their point?

Statistics demonstrate that the person with a mental health disability is many times more likely to be a victim of violence that to start it. And, if you include every type of this concern, one out of every four American families include a member who could be formally diagnosed.

Mental health advocates have agreed that a person with a violent history should be managed in the context of criminal statutes and not Mental Health Law. To quote a leader in the field, Harvey Rosenthal, CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, "Sometimes we look for a mental health response instead of a more appropriate criminal justice response." Unfortunately, the first choice of law enforcement here was to address whether the shooter had underlying mental health issues, or just assume that he did.

But what does the rising rate of hate crimes in our country say about us as the citizens of this great democracy?

It has been stated that while the suspect's manifesto described his own preparations in detail, the conspiracy theories and hate speech were just lifted from other people's writings. It included just enough introspection and self-doubt to encourage other disaffected young haters to identify with him. While it appears he was prepared to take his own life when cornered, he let white officers talk him down. I am not a psychologist, but rather than insanity, it seems to me that he was slyly preparing to make himself an icon, if not a martyr, to white supremacy in a race war that he wished to instigate.

So, what makes me think that this might be possible? In examining my own region, I was shocked by reports from Investigative Post and elsewhere that Erie and Niagara counties form the sixth most segregated metropolitan area in America! So, what does that say about our community?

We need to find a way to police and rein in ourselves, take a hard look at what our society has been accepting, if not promoting: false conspiracy theories, and slanted information that is fostering hate against others, and can even make becoming a domestic terrorist the path to immortality!

We cannot view this crime against all humanity as a simple act of violence due to a mental health disability. We must take a hard look at ourselves, our community, and our country. For our own survival as a society, we need to grow up, assume responsibility for, and face, the ugly side of ourselves, and stop the mindless hate that is based on our differences.

POST-SCRIPT: This was written just before the even more tragic mass shooting of 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday — but that reinforces the need for our proactive action.

Douglas J. Usiak is the chief executive officer of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. family of agencies that serve individuals with disabilities. For more information, call 716-284-4131, extension 200.