Yesterday’s terrible shootings at a Connecticut beer distributorship showed how quickly we move to adopt story lines that suit our respective agendas. In case you missed it, this is what happened, as reported by David Abel and Jack Nicas for the Boston Globe:
A truck driver caught stealing beer from the distributor where he worked killed eight co-workers before turning a gun on himself yesterday morning after company officials told him to resign or face being fired, employees and authorities said.
The man, identified as Omar Thornton by police, went on the deadly rampage at Hartford Distributors, where he had worked for two years. He also wounded two people.
In less than a day, two somewhat competing narratives, drawn from news accounts and Internet postings, have emerged to shape interpretations of this tragedy:
1. Thornton was a disgruntled psychopath who reacted violently after losing his job for good cause.
The scenario of a disgruntled, rank-and-file worker suddenly “going postal” after losing a job due to alleged misconduct has become strongly identified with concerns about workplace violence. News reports about the Connecticut killings frequently referred to past workplace killings that, at least on the surface, appeared to be similar.
Fears of dismissed employees reacting violently have fueled attention to the question of how to terminate people in a way that minimizes these risks. They have led to practices that, in my judgment, can increase the risk of angry and perhaps violent responses, such as “exit parades” whereby workers are escorted out of the premises by security personnel, sometimes in view of their co-workers.
2. Thornton was a victim of racial discrimination whose concerns were ignored by his employer.
According to the Globe:
Thornton, 34, who was black, had complained of racial harassment and said he found a picture of a noose and a racial epithet written on a bathroom wall, the mother of his girlfriend told the Associated Press.
But union officials said Thornton never filed a complaint of racism.
Some are seizing upon this piece of the story to paint another interpretation of events: Thornton was a victim of a hostile workplace that ignored concerns about racial harassment, and he finally snapped after he lost his job.
Let’s see how this unfolds
At this juncture, it’s hard to know whether the “disgruntled psychopath” or the “victim pushed over the edge” story is more accurate than the other. It’s also possible that elements of both are true. In any event, we should be cautious about lumping stories of workplace violence and aggression into easy categories.