After Thousand Oaks, media draws faulty line from PTSD to murder

November 13, 2018
Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

On Friday, before departing to France for a ceremony marking the centennial of the World War I armistice, President Trump offered a candid take on Ian David Long, the 28-year-old who late last Wednesday shot and killed 12 in a country bar in Thousand Oaks, California.

“He is a very sick puppy,” the president told reporters. “He was a very, very sick guy.”

And then: “He was a war veteran. He was a Marine. He was in the war. He served time. He saw some pretty bad things, and a lot of people say he had the PTSD, and that’s a tough deal.”

Trump’s remarks drew fast criticism from veterans’ groups and mental health experts, who warned that equating combat service and post-traumatic stress disorder with violent criminal acts reinforces dangerous and inaccurate stereotypes of veterans as wounded souls with a crazed propensity towards violence.

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Yet the president was not alone in falling for this lazy trope. In a rush to explain the unexplainable, the media also issued story after story that drew simple lines between Long’s veteran status, coupled with conjecture that he suffered from PTSD, and mass murder.

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From CNN: “Thousand Oaks gunman went from Marine vet to mass shooter.”

From Reuters: “California shooting suspect was a decorated Marine veteran.”

And from the New York Daily News: “Gunman in Thousand Oaks bar shooting was former Marine who may have been suffering from PTSD.”

Long served in the Marines from 2008 to 2013, completing one deployment to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, amid the infamous surge. His unit saw relatively little action, according to Marines Long served with. It is unclear if Long was ever formally diagnosed with PTSD; suggestions that he might have suffered from the condition came from the Ventura County sheriff’s office, which became acquainted with Long after a bar fight in 2015 and a disturbance at his home earlier this year. Following the second incident, Long spoke with mental health professionals but was ultimately not assessed to be an imminent danger to himself or others.

Even if the former Marine had been diagnosed with PTSD, it would offer little explanation for Wednesday’s events. PTSD is not a guaranteed pathway to violence, much less homicide; while PTSD can result in increased anger and aggression, those suffering from PTSD are more likely to to withdraw than to lash out at others, according to the American Psychiatric Association. The image of the veteran as a haunted killer, stamped indelibly into the zeitgeist, is a myth. As Elspeth Ritchie, a retired Army colonel and psychiatrist with experience in treating the condition, told The Washington Post, something like a mass shooting usually results from a psychotic episode, in which the perpetrator loses touch with reality, not PTSD.

Still, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times, columnist Steve Lopez frames the Thousand Oaks shooting as a result of inadequate mental health services for veterans. “Let’s reach out to these guys before they get into trouble,” a veterans’ advocate tells Lopez. It’s a fine goal, but one that is far more likely to rescue veterans from more regular symptoms of PTSD, such as depression, alcoholism, domestic violence, and drug abuse. Instead, in the piece, job loss and marital problems appear in uncomfortable proximity to Long’s act of mass murder—as if they are both the inevitable results of war.

“If you’re a combat vet, neighbors have complained about threatening behavior, and police have responded to your home, should you be able to legally own a gun, as the Marine allegedly did?” Lopez writes. “Of course not.”

Whether an individual with a history of unstable behavior should have easy access to firearms is surely a question that deserves debate. But Lopez’s inquiry leads with “combat vet” as a disqualifier in its own right, even though combat experience does not necessarily result in PTSD, and even though PTSD is an inadequate explanation for mass murder.

Gracefully, Lopez offers a caveat: “Most mass shooters are not veterans.”

The New York Times did no better. Under the salacious headline, “Dueling Images: A Smiling Young Marine and a Killer Dressed in Black,” suggestion would seem to equal causation, as the reporters cram in adrenaline-fueled details—people “blown to pieces” and a “bloody campaign” to retake Helmand Province—to craft a similar narrative of predictability to Long’s actions. Multiple members of Long’s Marine unit in Afghanistan are quoted, who might indeed have known Long but who are presumably not experts on PTSD or mass shootings.

“I’m not surprised someone I knew ended up doing a mass shooting,” one Marine who served with Long tells the Times. “Guys struggle. We’ve lost more Marines in our peer group to suicide than we ever lost in Afghanistan.” As if that explains it, and as if suicide and mass shootings follow naturally from the same psychological impulses.

The Times has written with clarity on this issue before, such as in the aftermath of shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge in 2016, in which veterans were implicated. On Friday, in response to Trump’s comments on Long, the Times also published a survey asking readers to share the stereotypes they see around veterans and PTSD. One might consider pasting the full text of “Dueling Images” into the form.

None of this is to say that the facts of Long’s service should not have been reported. The body of knowledge about both PTSD and mass shootings, however, would suggest that they are no more relevant in explaining Long’s motivations than the fact that he had had previous run-ins with the law and that he allegedly assaulted his track coach in high school, before he ever went into the military. At a time when veterans are already misunderstood by the public, the media’s overemphasis on Long’s service only perpetuates the Hollywood Rambo stereotypes. This does a disservice to veterans struggling with PTSD, and it ignores many of the tragic realities of gun violence in America, which surely deserve repeat attention.

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.