July 7, 2022 - 7:00am

In the immediate aftermath of a mass atrocity, there’s an all-too-human urge to know who did it, how they did and why they did it. We loathe and fear the killer, but love the mystery and intrigue surrounding them.  

Before the rise of social media, the task of explaining mass atrocities was discharged by journalists and accredited experts from the fields of criminology, psychology and even sociology. Now, the whole of the internet is in on the gig, or so it seems. Or at least the whole of Twitter, where, whenever someone goes on a killing-spree, legions of amateur criminologists come together to ‘discuss’ the collective fruits of all their sleuthing.  

The response to the Highland Park shooter, who killed seven people, injuring many more, at a 4th July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, sharply illustrates this: there is now a desperate manhunt going on to find the right perpetrator and the right motive. The suspect, who has been charged with seven counts of murder, is a 21-one year old man named Robert E. Crimo III. According to CNN:

Law enforcement have yet to establish a motive, but Covelli [spokesperson for the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force] said there has been no information to suggest the attack was ‘racially motivated, motivated by religion or any other protected status.’

The absence of a clear motive behind Monday’s attack has done little to temper the speculations of the amateur criminologists on Twitter. Two opposing camps have quickly emerged; according to one, the suspect is obviously a Trump-supporting white supremacist. “Sorry he is a trumper. ultra maga,” tweeted one account. The evidence enlisted to support this claim are two alleged photos of Crimo: one in which he’s draped in a Trump flag and another showing him at a Trump rally: ‘You can clearly see him in MAGA gear. He was at rallies and on the streets with them. He has a political ideology and it’ll show.’ 

According to the other camp, Crimo is clearly an Antifa-supporting scumbag. The evidence adduced to substantiate this is that he looks like one: he is rake-thin and has multi-coloured hair and face tattoos: ‘Robert Crimo self-described himself as “woke” He has Antifa tattoos Are we going to see what a threat Antifa/Wokeness is?’  

It is hard to exaggerate just how commonplace this politicisation of terrorist incidents has become: a day before the Highland Park shooting, a 22-year-old gunman killed three people in a shopping mall in Denmark in a seemingly random attack. The suspect is an “ethnic Dane”, which is to say white. But for the amateur criminologists of Twitter he is everything they want him to be. Similarly, when it was reported that the 42-year-old suspect in the Oslo mass-shooting last month was of Iranian origin scores of Twitter sleuths mobilised to find the right blame-apportioning narrative: he was a man, he was a Muslim, and he was a symptom of gun culture.

While it’s tempting to project the sins of our enemies onto those who commit terrible crimes, it is irresponsibly inflammatory to do so until the evidence comes in. And even then we risk demonising a whole group of people based on the heinous actions of one of their number.

Simon Cottee is a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Kent.