A tragedy by two different names.
Robert vs. Ahmad. What the differences and similarities between these mass shootings teach us about the narrative of violence in America, and what we have to do to end it.
As I watched the news about the second major mass shooting in six days, my heart sank. Ten human souls who loved—were loved—are now grieved. As I hear the stories of their lives, and of those who loved them, I can’t imagine the pain and anguish living within the gaping holes their absences have created. We grieve their loss, as well as the country that keeps allowing people like them to suffer.
When I learned of the identity of the shooter, my heart sank once more. He is a 21 year old man with a history of anger and violence who weaponized them with a high-powered assault weapon he purchased just six days before he used it to take 10 innocent lives. His name was also Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa. That’s the kind of name that people with names like his—names like mine—hope and pray are never associated with his actions.
This murder spree comes on the heels of another one, committed by a white man who targeted Asian-American women, just six days before. Together, they’ve left our country reeling. Side by side, their contrast reminds us about the fundamental inequities that shape how we process life, death, and murder in America—and how we learn from this moment to prevent this in the future.
A murderer by any other name.
Moments after the name of the gunman was revealed as Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, Fox News and other rightwing media began essentializing this man’s violence to his ethnicity and faith. This builds on a long, dangerous, damaging orientalist narrative that casts Islam and Muslims as inherently radical—or at least radicalizable.
It’s a narrative that the Bush Administration weaponized after 9/11 to rob Americans—particularly Muslim-Americans—of their civil liberties through the Patriot Act. They used it to turn the “war on terror” into an exportable commodity, transposing it from Afghanistan to Iraq, lumping the two together on the loose association that both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were brown Muslim guys who hated America (despite the fact that they also hated each other). And they used it to launch a ceaseless drone war that has been extended and exported by every president since. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost—millions more livelihoods destroyed—to this narrative.
Beyond being named Ahmad, this man had had a long history of violent anger issues. “Whenever you went up to him, he was always so joyful and so nice. But you could tell there was a dark side in him. If he did get ticked off about something, within a split second, it was like if something takes over, like a demon. He’d just unleash all his anger,” a former wrestling teammate told the Denver Post.
Then there’s Robert Aaron Long, the gunman charged with targeting three Asian-owned spas killing eight people, including six Asian-American women. The Cherokee County Sheriff’s office minimized his atrocities as a “really bad day” for him. They promoted the shooter’s assertion that he was “lashing out” on account of his “temptation,” itself a misogynistic excuse. They actively denied Long’s anti-Asian animus, telling the press that race “did not appear to be the motive.” Later, the sheriff’s own spokesman was found to have promoted t-shirts that read “COVID-19 imported virus from CHY-NA” on his personal Facebook account.
The contrast is stark. Ahmad—by virtue of being an “Ahmad”—was immediately essentialized, his motives imputed from his name and faith. Robert, by contrast, was allowed the privilege of individualism, not just to have his own narrative, but to have that narrative broadcast by the very law enforcement supposed to bring him to justice.
Who gets cuffed—and who gets killed?
But there’s another contrast—the one between both Ahmad and Robert and the dozens of Black men murdered by law enforcement. Neither Ahmad nor Robert were killed by police—even after Ahmad murdered an officer who responded on the scene. But then, neither are Black.
George Floyd was killed by police for allegedly “passing counterfeit currency.” Tamir Rice was killed by police for playing with a toy gun. Stephon Clark was killed by police in his grandmother’s backyard for holding a cellphone. Breonna Taylor was killed by police for...sleeping in her apartment. The difference? All of them were Black.
The murders of Black people at the hands of law enforcement becomes that much more shocking when you contrast them with the ends to which law enforcement often goes not to kill—even comfort—people they perceive to be white.
Think Dylan Roof who massacred a church in South Carolina and got a fresh delivery of Burger King in jail. Think Kyle Rittenhouse who shot and killed protesters (protesting another shooting of an unarmed Black man) in Wisconsin after getting a high-five from police. Think the January 6th terrorists who took selfies with Capitol Police inside the Capitol they were violently storming. All white. Compare them with Philando Castile, murdered by police during a routine traffic stop; Rayshard Brooks, murdered by police for sleeping in his car at a Wendy’s; or Kenneth Jones, murdered by police because he was too slow to get out of a car during a traffic stop. All Black.
These contrasts should force us to consider the ways in which race shapes how we value lives—even those who’ve taken them.
Neither man should have had the gun he used to murder innocent people.
Regardless if it was Ahmad or Robert, both obtained the firearms they’d go on to use to kill innocent people just before they did it—clearly premeditating their massacres.
At moments like this, gun apologists like to tell us that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This is true—but they usually do it with a gun. Why? Because it makes murder that much more deadly.
And in America, we make gun access—and the murder it unlocks—way too easy. Between the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, CT in 2012 and the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting in 2019, there were more than two thousand mass shootings that took almost 2300 lives, injuring nearly four times as many.
Congress did nothing after Columbine. It did nothing after Sandy Hook. Will Congress do something now? Already, Democratic Senators are balking at passing obvious, common sense gun reforms that have already passed in the House. Sen. Joe Manchin has already said a House-passed background check bill goes too far because it requires background checks for purchases between individuals—not just from commercial sellers. You know what actually goes too far? Opposing obvious reforms that would protect Americans just days after multiple mass shootings.
Meanwhile, even local action to protect people from gun violence is being thwarted. Just 10 days before the Boulder, CO shooting, a judge blocked a Boulder city ordinance banning assault weapons like the one used in the grocery store massacre.
Examining these murders and so many others side by side, there is one overwhelming conclusion: Whether it was driven by racism, or misogyny, or anger, or hatred—whether perpetrated by Robert or Ahmad—whether at a suburban King Soopers or on an urban street corner: the vast majority of murders are perpetrated by gun.
We have everything we need to stop it...but the courage. I hope people like Sen. Joe Manchin can find theirs. Lives hang in the balance.