We humans are tribal animals. For millennia, we lived in tightly knit, cooperative societies where individuals were rarely alone. As author Sebastian Junger explores in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, tribal identity motivates individuals to sacrifice for the collective good. In stark contrast, modern society deprives people of that essential sense of connection or belonging. Our current technological atomization is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit,” writes Junger. Cast adrift, people feel meaningless and superfluous. Social alienation is producing epidemic rates of depression and suicide. But it is in spree killings that we see the ultimate expression of malignant alienation: Embracing nihilism, the killer finds meaning via symbolically destroying not just himself, but also the social order that rebuffed and humiliated him.
Mark Ames, author of the meticulously researched Going Postal, goes so far as to argue that mass shootings are a form of doomed rebellion against a toxic culture: Otherwise-normal people snap when pushed to the breaking point within decollectivized, militarized and ruthless settings. Workplace sprees occur in oppressive institutional settings rife with surveillance, mandatory unpaid overtime, and humiliating and degrading layoff rituals. Sites of school shootings, meanwhile, are often brutal places where students undergo chronic torment. The more endemic alienation becomes, the more people will snap.
This is perhaps obvious, but setting the stage for a spree killing is cataclysmic failure. Except in warfare, satisfied people don’t suddenly morph into killing machines. The killer has failed a life-stage transition, and his life has gone off track. Dylann Roof had a troubled childhood, marked by abuse, neglect, severe anxiety and academic failure, according to published accounts. He dropped out of high school. As a young adult, he couldn’t get a job or even a driver’s license. He coped by drinking heavily. The lives of other recent mass killers were similarly catastrophic, marked by failures on academic, vocational and/or relationship fronts. Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) had autism-spectrum conditions that left them incapable of forming intimate relationships. Omar Mateen (The Pulse nightclub) was a socially awkward loser: he flunked out of police training, got fired as a prison guard, and ended up doing lowly security work; his wife fled after he beat her.
|Dylann Roof posing in his bedroom.|
Failure alone is insufficient. The failure must be perceived as unfair. Like Roof, whose grandfather was a prominent attorney, the killer often has middle-class roots, inculcating the American mythology of success. Mass shooters often have higher aspirations than are realistic for their station in life. In Hunting Humans, pioneering anthropologist Elliott Leyton argues that the modern mass murderer tends to be especially socially conservative, class-conscious, and obsessed with power and status. Yet in our increasingly fragmented, alienating and high-stress world, a high-quality life is difficult for many a young American to achieve. Recognizing that he is on a dead-end trajectory and that his class aspirations will not be realized produces profound disappointment, personal shame and – ultimately – despair. To reduce cognitive dissonance, he needs someone to blame.
By the time he explodes, the spree killer has amassed an enormous reservoir of bitterness. He feels unfairly victimized. Through a scarcity lens, he perceives less deserving people as stealing away his opportunities and robbing him of his right to happiness. Those perceived as undeserving typically include lower-status or socially stigmatized groups such as people of color, women, sexual minorities or immigrants. This is the politics of resentment that Trump has milked so effectively.
Also feeding into the potent fury of many mass murderers are childhood histories of being bullied and socially rejected. In Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman and colleagues chronicle the tormented lives of infamous school shooters. Many were incessantly harassed, with antigay epithets a common refrain. In high school, Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) was relentlessly bullied over his social awkwardness, speech impediment and immigrant background. Dylann Roof was described as a “bug-eyed boy” with a bowl haircut who struggled academically; we can only guess at his social travails.
Spree killings are exceedingly rare (making them impossible to predict). Not every alienated, bitter loner picks up an assault rifle. But those who do are invariably male. Women are more likely to blame themselves for their misery. As journalist Jamie Bartlett reveals in The Dark Net, hundreds of thousands of young women ages 13-25 flock to the myriad “pro-cutting” and “pro-ana” (anorexia) Internet sites that have sprung up in response to demand from alienated young women.
In contrast to this turning inward, many young men regard violence against others as a way to gain status and respect. Our cultural glorification of male violence is evidenced by the enormous popularity of first-person shooter and warfare games. It is evidenced by the lack of meaningful protest over our government’s modeling of killing as a solution to problems: U.S. military drone strikes in the Middle East have ended the lives of many hundreds of civilians, with little fanfare. After all, we are the good guys, protecting the world against evil. As boys grow up, writes masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”
Mass shootings are a quintessentially American theatrical production, the ultimate display of alienated hypermasculinity inside the world’s leading imperial power. The production is carefully planned and staged, often accompanied by websites, online manifestos and photos that will help it propagate and endure in the cultural imagination. Embittered young men seize upon the restorative potential of violence, which enables them to extract vengeance for a litany of wrongs both real and imagined. Even more powerfully, violence offers the lure of immortality: Rack up enough dead bodies, and you become infamous. You are no longer a nobody; you are a warrior.
To become a warrior, one needs a cause. There is no shortage of alienated young men like Roof, reared on a diet of masculine entitlement and believing that they have been treated unfairly. In another time, they might be like dying trees in a parched forest, standing alone and unnoticed until their eventual collapse. But in the age of the enchanted Internet, such men can simultaneously retreat from humanity yet plug into like-minded online communities where their diffuse rage can find a focus.
|Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) in pre-production selfie: “I am gorgeous”|
Take Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer. A flop with women despite his self-proclaimed “gorgeous” looks, he immersed himself in the misogynist realm of the “manosphere,” where “men’s rights” proponents and “pickup artists” rail against power-mad feminists who are denying men their natural-born right to supremacy (and sex). Such insular communities are like echo chambers, validating and amplifying warped ideologies. Within the manosphere, Rodger transformed himself from an invisible nobody — a “beta male,” in man-speak — into a “true alpha male,” in his words, a heroic warrior standing up for oppressed “incels,” or involuntary celibates.
“Women are like a plague,” he repeats several times in an online manifesto. “The mere sight of them enjoying their happy lives was an insult to me, because I deserve it more than them…. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order to prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such.”
Like Rodger, Dylann Roof retreated into the Web. But instead of the manosphere, his search for meaning led him to the white supremacist channel. Specifically, the Council of Conservative Citizens, aka the “uptown Klan,” which devotes a lot of energy to disseminating propaganda about the menace of black-on-white crime. The atomization of culture into discreet identities has left many white men feeling abandoned and scapegoated, and racist ideology is quick to fill this vacuum. Roof eagerly soaked up the ideology of a white race under siege; like Rodger, he also grew frustrated with the preponderance of rhetoric over action. “[S]omeone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” he wrote. “I have no choice.”
Reducing the world to a stark black and white furthers the killer’s self-image as a heroic warrior battling the forces of evil. In Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning, fascism scholar Roger Griffin calls this “heroic doubling”: fanatics deploy violence as a call to arms to defend an idealized in-group against perceived threat by a demonized Other. Ideologically motivated killers like Roof, Rodger or the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik may act alone in the moment, but they see themselves as soldiers in a larger movement. The growing popularity of online manifestos – Roof had one, too, although at four pages it paled in comparison to Rodger’s 141-page tome – attests to the narcissistic fervor with which spree killers cling to their adopted ideologies as rationale for bloodshed.
What makes the ascendancy of extremist rhetoric so dangerous is this capacity to activate the alienated loner. A direct cause-and-effect relationship is readily observable: Donald Trump spews anti-Muslim vitriol, and in short order attacks on U.S. Muslims spike. Public figures can produce random lone-wolf violence via repeatedly demonizing an out-group, while maintaining plausible disavowal of responsibility. This practice — most well-known for its contribution to abortion clinic bombings — has a scholarly term, “stochastic terrorism.” In Roof’s case, the Council of Conservative Citizens whose ideology Roof parroted in his manifesto was quick to issue a statement deploring the massacre, even while defending Roof’s racist belief system as correct.
In late-18th century Germany, groups of young men could be seen strolling about in identical outfits of blue tailcoats, yellow trousers and high boots. They were imitating Werther, the romantic hero of the sensational novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the idealistic protagonist kills himself over unrequited love. Blamed for a rash of copycat suicides among the impressionable and mentally ill, the novel was banned in Italy and Denmark.
This so-called Werther Fever is an early example of what we now refer to as a cultural meme – an idea, fashion or behavior transmitted like a virus from person to person, often via mass media, that takes on a life of its own as it propagates.
|Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) poses in pre-production selfie|
Spree killings seem to have morphed into just such a cultural meme. Especially with the spread of social media, they often go viral, tempting the next angry and alienated man with the tantalizing promise of infamy and immortality – especially if the body count is high enough.
In truth, however, this immortality is illusory, as the very ubiquity of the mass shooter meme is numbing the public; one killer’s fame lasts only for the brief interval until another pushes him aside. Dylann Roof will have his moment in the spotlight this week, and then it will be on to the next case.
Instead of just dissecting each individual act in this never-ending drama (and emphasizing singular elements such as untreated mental illness, gun accessibility, social media, violent video games, bad parenting, law enforcement failures of prediction, and the like), we might do well to regard young men like Roof as canaries in the coal mine. It is only when the air in the mine is poisonous that the canary will die.
In the award-winning TV show Mr. Robot, there are these ninja assassins who, when cornered, put a bullet in their own brain. A computer-crimes detective refers to this as “erasing their histories.” In orchestrating a dramatic last stand, mass shooters like Roof are doing precisely this, erasing their heretofore empty and meaningless lives and replacing them with a meme.
Related blog posts:
- Newtown, CT: Latest massacre brings more hand-wringing (Dec. 18, 2012)
- Aurora massacre: To speak or not to speak? (July 22, 2012)
- Arizona rampage: Analyzing the analyzers (Jan. 23, 2011)
- Systems failure or black swan? New frame needed to stop memorial crime control frenzy (Oct. 19, 2010)
- Virginia Tech: Can school shootings be prevented? (April 19, 2007)
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Author: Karen Franklin, Ph.D.
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