In the last few weeks we've seen a crazed gunman shoot up people outside a Planned Parenthood, a crazed, gun-happy couple murder 14 people in California (apparently) on ISIS' behalf, and crazed, uh, 4Channers shoot five people at a Black Lives Matter protest, plus several mass shootings in the U.S. not exciting enough to dominate a news cycle. Go back a couple of months and you've got a guy shooting up a community college in Oregon because of ... atheism or something?
What the hell is going on? All these shootings had very different motivations. But they're also all mass shootings. Is it possible that this asshole,
El Paso County Sheriff's Office
... this asshole,
... and this connard (French for asshole) ...
... all have something in common besides their decision to die (or attempt to die) while murdering a bunch of innocent people? I called up former Irish Republican Army terrorist bomber Shane O'Doherty again (since no one with more recent terrorism experience has yet emailed me) and talked to "Jack," who in 1992 showed up at his school with two loaded shotguns and the intent to commit a massacre. I also read a bunch of interviews with attempted suicide bombers. What I found is that most of what we think we know about these people is either grossly simplified or outright bullshit.
#5. Myth: There's A Fundamental Difference Between Mass Shooters And Terrorists
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When Elliot Rodger murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, the news referred to him as a "killer" and called his actions a "massacre" and a "rampage."
Meanwhile, the Columbine killers were described as "gun-toting teens" and members of a "misfit clique."
The Paris attacks, meanwhile, were immediately defined as acts of terrorism, and people started dropping the "T"-word about the San Bernardino shootings as soon as the killer's extremely Muslimicious names were made public. The difference between the two would appear to be that one is the result of crazy people mindlessly unleashing violence because they think their dog told them to, and the other is an organized attempt to terrorize the populace in the name of some ideology. So, the reason America is freaking out so much now is that no one knows how many more attacks ISIS might inspire, whereas the Columbine shootings were awful, isolated events.
Reality: Mass Shootings Are Terrorist Acts (And Inspire More Terrorism)
The FBI defines terrorism as acts "dangerous to human life" that are intended "to influence or coerce a civilian population." It adds that those acts can be intended to coerce governments, too, but that's not necessary. If you think about it, that's the only definition of terrorism that's remotely workable: It doesn't matter who sponsored the act, what ideology it served, or whether or not there was some specific policy the terrorist wanted changed -- if it's an act of violence intended to terrorize a population in order to change their behavior, it's terrorism. If a group of radicals blew up a golf tournament in the name of discouraging people from playing the sport, no one would hesitate to call them terrorists.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images
"Should we ban sand bunkers on courses?" -- Fox News
So now let's look at Elliot Rodger, who said:
"I will deliver a blow to my enemies that will be so catastrophic it will redefine the very essence of human nature."
That's from his stupid manifesto. The "enemies" he's referring to are all the women who wouldn't have sex with him, and also all the men who had sex with those women. That was also apparently part of the Oregon shooter's motive. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the Columbine shooters, left behind tapes where they talked hopefully of kick-starting a revolution (and they also complained about girls). Our source "Jack," whose aborted shooting spree took place around two years before Columbine, didn't have any kind of manifesto. But he did want his shooting to send a message to the popular, athletic kids who'd bullied him. He also wanted to stand as an example for his "people" (other quiet, nerdy kids who got bullied a lot). "I had Bon Jovi's song 'Blaze Of Glory' playing on a loop for a long time. ... There were some thoughts of being regarded as a hero by some people. Or the anti-hero. ... That fantasy was a big driving part."
If you compare that to groups the media thinks of as terrorists, you see a remarkably similar story. In Edna Erez's study of Palestinian suicide bombers, she noted that, "Becoming a suicide bomber is a social process," which requires "a community that extols perpetrators as heroes and embraces their acts as a noble form of resistance." Robert Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter, is just one in a long line of crazy people fighting a war against abortion, all inspired by each other and a community of applauding extremists. There have been at least 74 copycat attacks and attempted attacks directly inspired by the Columbine killers in just 16 years.
At this point, some of you might be saying, "You know what else all these people have in common? They're all fucking loons." After all, isn't there a fundamental difference between a jihadi who believes a bunch of propaganda and a crazed loner whose brain is physically broken somehow? But if you believe these shootings are all caused by craziness, you've bought into another misconception ...
#4. Myth: Mass Shootings Start With Mental Illness
The wake of any mass shooting is a flurry of in-depth analyses of the shooter's motives and sanity. The only thing everyone agrees on about any given shooter is that they were crazy. Whether you're Donald Trump
... or The New York Times,
The New York Times
... everyone agrees that mental illness is a major part of the pattern of massacres that currently dominates the news cycle. But the evidence doesn't exactly back this assumption up. It seems like the popular culture is using a kind of circular logic that goes, "We know mental illness caused this mass shooting, because you'd have to be mentally ill to commit a mass shooting."
But we know that's not true, because we don't say that about Islamic terrorists -- in their case, believing a certain ideology and harboring enough self-righteous hatred is enough. Why can't it be true for the rest? Why can't a perfectly sane person just be that full of rage?
Reality: It's More About Humiliation Than Mental Illness
Jack was very nearly a mass shooter himself. In the early 1990s, before Columbine, he walked into his school with two sawed-off shotguns and the intention of killing a whole bunch of people. (Spoiler: He was stopped at the last minute.) Today Jack is a stable, employed adult with a child of his own. He clearly wasn't in a healthy state of mind at the time of his planned attack, and we're sure he'd have received some post-mortem diagnosis if he'd carried out his plan, but he didn't blame his actions on mental illness. He said, "Absolutely, humiliation was one of the biggest factors."
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images
And this was back when bullying was still analog. Now imagine throwing cyberbullying in the mix.
See, Jack was a small, nerdy kid in school who was tormented by a group of "jocks." One particular incident of abuse came up again and again when he discussed the motivations for his shooting:
"I was 14, walking home from play rehearsal; a group of six football players also followed me. JV, varsity whatever they were -- all of them had an advantage on me individually, and as a group I didn't stand a chance. They held me down on an isolated stretch of the bike path, beat me, force-fed me hand full of grass, and then using a quarter began to rub the back of my hand, and said they wouldn't stop until I screamed. I still wake up with nightmares of that day, feeling trapped and being squished. I refused to comply, until they had nearly cut a hole in my hand nearly to the bone."
In those interviews with Palestinians arrested for attempted suicide bombings, all seven of them mentioned the sense of humiliation they felt at the oppression of their people as a major motivating factor. Variations of the word "humiliation" showed up frequently when I read every issue of ISIS' magazine, Dabiq. I noticed it most recently in an article in issue 12, which came out shortly after the Paris terror attacks. The article is a letter to mujahids (soldiers of ISIS), and it refers to them as men who have rejected the humiliation of Western domination and life in secular society.
And while humiliation shows up a lot, whether you're talking about the motivations of terrorists or mass shooters, what doesn't show up often is mental illness. One study of mass shooters found that just 23 percent had any existing psychiatric history at the time of their attack. Only 6 percent were psychotic. Meanwhile, nearly half were victims of bullying. Likewise, a 2003 study of "suicide terrorists" noted:
Shane agreed that humiliation had played a role in his own radicalization as a young man. "There was always a sense too in Ireland that we weren't allowed to rule our own country, that sense of national humiliation." Still, he warned me against giving that sense of humiliation all the credit. "I don't think humiliation will carry the young person out the door. ... There has to be an overarching, and much higher reasoning."
Shane felt that reasoning was usually religious, the sense that "God is on my side." But not every terrorist does it for God, and the question of what it takes to carry a domestic terrorist "out the door" is exactly what the FBI has been asking since Columbine. I asked Jack, our almost-mass shooter, what had pushed him out the door. His answer surprised me ...
#3. Myth: Violent Media Doesn't Influence Mass Shooters
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Now, here's where things get tricky. Whether or not the popular myth is "violent media turns kids into killers" or "violent media is harmless fantasy" depends entirely on what audience you're speaking to. We're guessing our readers are heavily in the latter group. This, to at least some degree, is driven by a reflexive negative reaction to threats of censorship, which is perfectly understandable -- banning a certain type of movie, song, or game is not going to make mass killings go away.
But the logic seems to be that since approximately 100 percent of kids watch action movies and play violent video games these days, wouldn't they all be killers if media could really affect people in that manner?
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"The only thing GTA killed was my GPA."
Unfortunately, the truth is not that simple.
Reality: Media, Combined With Social Isolation, Can Inspire Killers
Most of us think of Islamic terrorists as being brainwashed. From birth, they're hammered by propaganda that insists suicide in the name of jihad is glorious and that the infidels are inhuman monsters whose lives hold no value. But in the process of saying that, we are quietly agreeing that media, if applied under the right circumstances, can program a person to kill.
So let's say that from birth, another child in another culture was surrounded by media that universally praises the idea of violent revenge as a righteous, noble, and sexy way to solve his problems, and which consistently paints all antagonists as inhuman monsters whose lives hold no value. Why is it ridiculous to believe that a certain percentage of the time, said child would internalize those values? Especially if he perceived that his own life had reached the "no other choice" stage every movie hero needs in the first act to justify the slaughter in the second?
Everyone is the hero of their story in their mind.
Jack didn't blame video games or movies for his crime, but he did say that all the violent media, combined with his extreme social isolation, contributed to his mental state. "The idea to go into my high school with two sawed-off shotguns, a bayonet from the [Boer War], hundreds of rounds of ammo, and pipe bombs did not come to me over night. It started off like most revenge fantasies. Reservoir Dogs had come out that year, and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven [on the other hand]; so did White Men Can't Jump and Sister Act, but I think the violence did help to set the mood."
Video games didn't really exist back in the days when teenage-Shane agreed to shoot and bomb people at the Irish Republican Army's behest. But he did credit the whole genre of Irish "rebel" songs with some influence on himself and other radical young men. He pointed specifically to the case of Kevin Barry, an Irish teen executed in 1920 for taking part in an attack that killed three British soldiers. Barry's death was memorialized in song by Leonard Cohen. According to Shane, Barry "became the ultimate symbol of young Irishmen for decades." Songs like "Kevin Barry," "Fuck The British Army," or "Come Out Ye' Black and Tans" didn't create new terrorists, but they did a great job of reinforcing the angry young men who were already on a certain trajectory.
There's a reason ISIS funds the AlHayat Media Center, their PR wing with a curiously good-looking magazine and a curiously shitty website.
Al-Hayat Media Center
"We just upgraded our font from Papyrus!"
And there's a reason almost every issue of Dabiq includes a fawning story about the actions of some suicide bomber: They want anyone contemplating an attack to know their actions will be remembered and celebrated. You're targeting people with a strong sense of humiliation and no sense of community, and promising them great power and social status -- the two things they've never had. In every circumstance, there was a concerted effort on someone's part to make violence seem cool.
The relatively lonely, isolated status of most mass shooters means any community they interact with and any media they consume will have an outsized impact on their psyche. In the weeks before Columbine, Eric Harris purposefully isolated himself from his family so the shooting wouldn't be "harder to do." (Some 70 percent of mass shooters are described as "loners.") The San Bernardino shooters have also been described as withdrawn loners. Robert Dear, the Planned Parenthood shooter, lived alone in a shack. He didn't spend much time around other people, but he'd apparently watched those Planned Parenthood videos enough that his rambling about them was one of the few things authorities have been able to decipher.
In Jack's case, that isolation came when he was grounded for stealing some computer parts with his friends. His newfound criminal record meant his planned career in the Marine Corps couldn't happen, which left him feeling like he had no future. His humiliation, loneliness, hopelessness, and the garnish of a steady diet of violent movies all contributed to his decision to carry out a mass shooting. He no longer had the social boundaries that keep most people's violent fantasies from ever becoming real.
As the days and then hours ticked by until the date of his shooting spree, Jack experienced something else that seemed at odds with the common perception of a mass shooter ...