Probable Cause

Phoenix Magazine – August 2016

Mike O’Neil

Another mass shooting.

The initial reactions were as predictable as they were speculative. Was the cause Terrorism? Homophobia? Mental Health? The ready availability of assault weapons?

Before the blood dried, every group had an instant explanation.

Those obsessed with terrorism blamed ISIS, mental health advocates saw the acts of a disturbed and possibly homophobic person, and gun control advocates seized upon the ready availability of weapons designed for mass carnage. Even while facts were sparse, each was quite certain they knew the cause.

I thought to the gist of a radio interview I had just conducted with renowned physicist Lawrence Krauss on the nature of scientific proof. Science dictates that we should first collect data, test hypotheses, search exhaustively for alternative explanations (and embrace them if they are a better fit to the data) and only then offer an explanatory theory. Our public discourse does just the opposite: we start with ideological frameworks that tell us which “explanations” are “right.”  Guess what? These always fit our pre-existing world view. The precise reversal of the scientific approach.

What do the known facts suggest?  These are still trickling in, but suggest a more complicated picture. The shooter had anger control issues that were evident as early as grade school. Spouse abuser. Obsessed with gays. Evidence that he was at least “gay curious.” If he harbored such feelings, his Muslim upbringing could have created intense internal conflict.

He did proclaim allegiance to ISIS during the shootings. Such beliefs, however, seem to have been relatively recent.  And if a terrorist impact were the real goal, an attack on nearby Disneyland would have been far more terrifying to the average parent.

But for someone facing intense internal conflict (gay proclivity vs. Muslim upbringing) ISIS would provide a self-effacing ideological justification for his actions. He wasn’t just a possibly gay man violently “proving” his heterosexuality.  Nah, he was a jihadist!

I remember a colleague who was studying prisoner behavior in the 1960s who told me how such justifications worked back then. He observed that black inmates who might have been pimps or drug dealers on the outside, all identified as Black Revolutionaries once imprisoned.  Re-defining themselves (Black Revolutionary, ISIS jihadist) provides a more self-aggrandizing definition of self than the unwanted truth (street thug, gay Muslim?).

And to this mix, we add the ready availability of massively lethal weaponry. Without this, the attack would not have produced anywhere near the same level of carnage.

This explanation seems the best fit to the known facts at this writing. But with more facts I’d be prepared to revise this assessment.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at