On the Monterey Park shooting

January 26, 2023 09:26
Photo: Reuters

11 people. 11 lives lost at the hands of a shooter. Another 10 wounded.

A shooting that occurred in a city known for its large Asian population, coinciding with the Lunar New Year festivities. One amongst the thousands of mass shootings that occur in America each and every year – it was by no means the first this year.

Huu Can Tran – 72 years old.

A shooter with a rather nondescript profile. A Vietnamese-American that had once worked as a dance teacher at the venue where he ended 11 lives. An angry, distrustful, and fundamentally disturbed man that clearly verged on paranoia as he thought himself into a dangerous cul-de-sac. When commenting on instances such as these, it is imperative that we refrain from romanticising the suspect in question, whilst concurrently seeking to understand both their motives, and the structural forces that yielded such abhorrent atrocities.

So how did we get here?

The instinctive response amongst many would be to posit that this was an anti-Asian American hate crime. Amidst the surging racism and virulent nativism that has taken over large swathes of America, Asian-Americans indeed have borne the bulk of undue rage and vengeance, rooted in as much geopolitical insecurity as an unyielding, obstinate sense of cultural superiority associated with the American psyche. Yet whilst anti-Asian hate crimes are indeed on the rise – with casualisation and regularization of verbal and physical assault on Asians being the new normal – it seems implausible to attribute racist motives to this particular shooter.

After all, he was Asian. And as much as internalised Asian-phobia may be an undergirding cause, this strikes me as neither the primary nor most convincing explanation for his actions.

So we could, naturally, turn to the question of gun control. Perhaps the issue here is with the failure on part of the governments to regulate guns – after all, America remains one of the worst countries in the world for violence perpetrated using semi-automatic and automatic firearms. Gun control has remained sluggish at best in progress, and with the GOP-controlled House the push for sensible regulations is as good as dead for the next two years.

Whilst gun control certainly is a valid and salient cause, it is a tad unclear if the shooter had in fact acquired the gun via legal means to begin with; there remains a distinct possibility that he procured the weapons illegally – in which case tighter regulations would have no direct bearing whatsoever on his ability to access these guns. Indeed, the police found him to have been manufacturing home-made suppressors (alongside other gadgets).

None of this is to say gun control doesn’t matter, but it does suggest that we ought to take with a pinch of salt reductionist accounts that seek to frame this as purely a gun control issue.

More generally speaking, both of the narratives above – anti-Asian hate crimes and gun control deficiencies – are exemplars of what I term ‘controlling narratives’. Narratives propagated to sustain and drive home particular political agendas. And truth betold, such narratives are no worse or better in their truth-contents than folks alleging that vaccines are dangerous, or that certain large-scale terrorist attacks were in fact ‘inside jobs’ planted by the state. Short of evidence that robustly grounds the arguments, we’re left effectively spinning and crafting facts into stories, stories into agenda, and agenda into political points to be scored.

I am a firm advocate for both gun control and more protection and legal regulations against anti-Asian hate crimes. Yet I am equally adamant that we should seek truth from facts, and focus on what we know – and what we can know. And in this case, as far as we could know, the shooting was a cruel, wanton act committed by a despicable man, who came to the berserk conclusion that mass, targeted violence could ever be justified.

The incident nevertheless also serves, at large, to send a chilling reminder to all of us Asians living in the West. That we, qua migrants, qua members of the amorphous and often nebulously coopted ‘diaspora’, qua perennial outsiders, may not be welcome in places for which we have toiled away most of, if not all our lives. That our bodies are fragile, and that our status in the society is no more tenable or enduring than the ebbs and flows of mass sentiments dictating immigration policy over the past 60 years in America.

The Monterey Park shooting itself might not have been caused by anti-Asian stigma. But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a serious, gross problem that – as of now – has become structurally embedded and intertwined with the American political system. From textbooks and schools to politicians’ dog-whistles, Americans are exposed to rhetoric that overwhelmingly frames and portrays Asians, specifically the Chinese, as the bogeymen. How could there be justice and equality for all, when such a sizeable demographic group is shut out, dismissed, and silenced whenever and even if their rights are trampled? Where lies the justice for Asian lives?

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Assistant Professor, HKU