What’s Driving Mass Shootings?
Roger Griffin explains why the Isla Vista shooting is terrorism—and what’s inside a killer’s mind
This story originally appeared on May 26, 2014.
Roger Griffin of Oxford Brookes University in the United Kingdom is relatively little known in America, though he’s arguably one of the world’s most influential experts of 20th-century fascism. In recent years, he’s turned his attention to the study of modern terrorism.
In his book Terrorist’s Creed, Griffin argues that modern terrorism is a phenomenon with roots in the larger loss of individual meaning and purpose in the current age.
He also argues that suicidal terrorists undergo a twisted psychological transformation that enables them to regain a sense of meaning … while engaging in acts of remorseless killing.
I recently had a conversation with Griffin about Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old gunman responsible for a spate of drive-by shootings in Isla Vista, California.
We talked about whether Rodger’s murders constitute an act of terrorism, what’s behind our epidemic of mass shootings and what movies like Taxi Driver and Avatar have to tell us about about the things that send mass killers over the edge.
The discussion below has been edited for brevity.
RB: There’s already a debate beginning whether these killings constitute an act of misogynist terrorism. That would seem to be the case. But this hasn’t necessarily been framed that way in much of the reporting.
Do you think this constitutes an act of terrorism?
RG: Well, I think this is a case where you have to look at the intentions to judge whether something is terroristic or not.
For example, if he was just killing his roommates because he was envious of their sexual adventures—and it was a personal thing—and he just hated these two guys, then that’s not terrorism. That’s just murder, right?
But to the extent in his own mind that this was a day of retribution, and he generalized his hatreds to be all the men who make it with women, and all the women who seduce men, and all the women he couldn’t get—to the extent that he generalized and demonized an entire category of humanity—then it becomes, in his own terms, an act of terrorism.
He generalized and demonized an entire category of humanity—then it becomes, in his own terms, an act of terrorism
Now in this case, what complicates calling it terrorism is it’s so bound up with his own personal, individual sense of grievance.
His own individual sense of not being fancied and not being wanted, and being passed over for inferior people, and how he sees himself as an alpha male surrounded by degenerate males who are preferred by women.
RB: The distinctions between mass shootings and other forms of terrorism is a bit blurrier than they might appear. This isn’t to lump in, say, workplace violence.
RG: It is blurred. For example, if we take a classic case like 7/7 in England, why did four British Muslims go onto the underground system and a bus—and blow people up?
Now, it wasn’t personal. They had no grievance against particular English people. It was just a generic attack on the West. They did not cite any individual grievances or personal grudges that happened to them in their own lives.
Whereas somebody who goes to a school where they’ve had some bad grades and starts shooting at people—not as an attack on “the school system” but as a sort of expression of personal hatred of everything—then it’d be very dodgy to call that terrorism. There’s no lucid, idealistic mission there at all.
So I’d say this case is somewhere between the two. Why?
Because he has a manifesto. He has a sort of statement—rationalization. But what interests me most psychologically is that he uses apocalyptic imagery of retribution, which is a biblical concept. And he has an apocalyptic sense that his acts of murder are part of a scheme—an apocalyptic, Manichean scheme in which he embodies the good and the alpha.
You sort of see what I mean. He’s created a narrative in his head that’s more complex than just straightforward killing your roommates and shooting at a couple of people. Without the manifesto, without the video, without the internal monologue, this would be more like the other mass shootings we’ve had.
RB: In your book, you refer to this concept called heroic doubling. These could be subject to some misinterpretation. What do you mean by these terms?
RG: I think Elliot Rodger went through a process which is familiar to all the cases of deliberate, symbolic killings that I’ve come across.
When I say symbolic, what I mean is that in the mind of the killer, they’re not just killing someone as the sole purpose of the destruction. They’re killing someone symbolic of something more general, which is also meant to send a message to the survivors.
What I theorize—is that what happens psychologically—the person has undergone a process whereby a rather confused, pained, ordinary self puts on a sort of mask, which turns them into an actor—or a protagonist—in a personal narrative drama.
In Taxi Driver, where Robert De Niro adopts a mohawk haircut and becomes a vigilante, it’s dramatized as a moment of personal transformation. It’s dramatized in a very powerful way in Fight Club, where the individual shares his life with a double.
The person has undergone a process whereby a rather confused, pained, ordinary self puts on a sort of mask, which turns them into an actor—or a protagonist—in a personal narrative drama
And in the case of Avatar, of course, we are encouraged to identify with an eco-terrorist who’s gone native on another moon and is defending nature and the rainforest from marauding capitalism.
Now, what’s very significant there is that before he becomes the avatar, he is a damaged war veteran with no use of his legs. In his avatar double, he achieves the ability to run and fight. I believe that’s a very powerful metaphor for what happens in the process of heroic doubling.
Because the person who’s previously felt impotent and had no agency—and a sense of physical and sexual impotence is central to Elliot’s video—is made to feel potent and have agency returned to him by adopting this mission.
So in that moment, he becomes a heroic version, or avatar, of himself.
RB: You also refer in your book to this thing called the “Alice syndrome.”
RG: If we go back to historical examples, if we take [Russian nihilist Sergey] Nachayev or the Unabomber, if we focus on the Unabomber’s little bombs left in car parks—they were obviously never going to destroy the technocracy any more than Nechayev was going to destroy “the whole filthy system” with his little movement.
But in the head of somebody who’s undergone heroic doubling—and feels they’re in the driving seat of a cosmic war against some evil—they actually massively overestimate their power and their ability to change anything.
This is even true for things like 9/11 or 7/7, where terrorists confuse their symbolic narrative reality with this messy, chaotic, enormous thing called the world.
If you go back to that Elliot video—it’s very interesting—he talks about his act as if it’s going to somehow be an apocalyptic act which will change history.
I mean, Nietzche had this syndrome. He said the whole of history was divided into two phases: before me and after me. It’s very common, this over-estimation of who we are. But there’s a form of psychological gigantism, which means the person on the verge of his or her mission acquires an extraordinarily inflated sense of the importance and significance of what they’re about to to do.
It’s what enables Elliot to speak so apparently rationally and calmly, and rather like a bad B-movie actor with the little smirky laughs and the way he dramatizes it with the sunlight. The person speaking to the camera is a persona.
At one point, he says he is going to kill all women and all men. So we’re dealing with a very particular form of psychosis. But it’s not a simple form of psychosis. It’s highly rationalized and planned.
The aftermath of the July 22, 2011 bomb attack in Oslo, Norway. Wikipedia photo
RB: One thing I found really chilling in the video was how calm he appeared. And in his manifesto—so to speak—he described this long planning stage. But you describe this deadly calm state as typical of such killers when an attack is imminent.
RG: I think one of the influences here might be Anders Breivik, who left 1,550 pages of manifesto the night before he carried out his killings and his attack on the government building in Oslo.
In a rather similar mindset, he produces this huge rationalize: that he’s fighting the political consciousness which is a form of Marxism, which has allowed cultural and racial mixing which is destroying Europe. And you can see him constructing this killer persona of a Knights Templar—which is a crusader—and he leaves photos of himself with a weapon.
The other thought that comes to mind is that Breivik actually trained himself not to feel anything while he was killing—by playing World of Warcraft.
Young people are now almost encouraged—having been bombarded by fictional violent narratives—to create violent narratives of their own with which they live out
I wonder to what extent we’re yet again dealing with somebody, like Elliot, who has been exposed to many thousands of hours of images of virtual reality, of staged reality, and constructed a sort of fictional narrative which contrasts horribly with the pathetic and gruesome little killing spree he underwent.
And I do think it’s partly a symptom of this age we’ve created for ourselves, where ordinary young people who once would’ve just been miserable or committed suicide, are now almost encouraged—having been bombarded by fictional violent narratives—to create violent narratives of their own with which they live out.
RB: Well, he didn’t feel there was any meaning or purpose in his life. He wrote about there being a void in his life, a sense of detachment from his surroundings—he loses himself in addictive video games—and these home movies where he’s driving around aimlessly.
RG: He is an absolute case study in modern anomie.
Now, there’s nothing that determined him in particular to do what he did. I think it’s complex. But nevertheless, if you look at Breivik and you look at Elliot, they’re loners. In their own terms, they’re losers. They’ve got things, but they’ve also got nothing.
And I think the modern age encourages them to elaborate a complex narrative which ends with a violent conclusion, which perhaps didn’t happen so much before.
Now in the late 19th century, Durkheim analyzed the fate of people living in Christian conurbations. But this was without the massive bombardment by media, photographs, images and by video realities—by being able to move, drive, circulate and be exposed to different thoughts. So I’m arguing that modern anomie is a really special sociological category.
That guy who lost it in the Army base in Washington, or was it a Navy base?
RB: It was the Navy Yard.
RG: He sort of lost it. And instead of just losing it quietly to himself, he lost it in a media-savvy, dramatic way. Like he was living out something from, what’s his name, what’s that whole series of very violent films with Bruce Willis?
RB: Die Hard.
RG: A sort of personal Die Hard. If you create a violent scenario, you’re sort of reflexively watching how it will be in the media, you see? You’re no longer doing it in real time, you’re doing it in anticipated media time.
RB: Well some media critics, I’m thinking of Charlie Brooker, argue we encourage copycats by focusing too much on the killers. It seemed like the media was starting to downplay that in its coverage in some recent shootings, but in this case it appears to have gone out the window.
RG: Well, it’s got everything. It’s got Hollywood, it’s got The Hunger Games, it’s got the BMW and an unhappy rich kid, and it’s got the video and the manifesto.
But also again, media doesn’t really want to go beyond the sensational shock-horror. I remember the Manson killings, which symbolically put an end to the hippies, and there was no attempt to get behind what was going on there. “This satanic sect,” etc. It was almost too good to be true. It was a pure media story.
I don’t know what we or anybody could do. But I think a lot of problems that 19th-century sociologists picked up on—loss of identity, loss of community—are now given almost hallucinogenic dimensions by the powerful force of media, virtual reality, social media, the ability to travel physically from one country to another and back again in a day, which makes everything feel really unreal.
The thing is obviously incredibly complicated psychologically, but also a symptom of a really widespread modern problem
And this guy tragically preferred a “real” death shrouded in his own myth, to a meaningless death or a pointless life. He gave his death a meaning. He knew he was going to get shot. Nearly all of them get killed or shoot themselves.
In his own private scenario, he went down guns blazing as a sort of Nietzschean protest against the mediocrity of a civilization that wouldn’t love him. And the thing is obviously incredibly complicated psychologically, but also a symptom of a really widespread modern problem.
I mean, when you have ordinary kids playing Grand Theft Auto, where if you want to, you can torture and kill and rape, and have prostitutes and steal from them—then what is going on? You know what I mean?
And you have middle-class parents quite happy that their children go to the public school and learn Latin, and come home in the evening and act out violent fantasies.
RB: Well, that’s a very controversial view.
RG: Right. Absolutely. But I don’t mind being controversial, and I wouldn’t ban video games. It’s like saying “ban advertising” or “ban pornography.”
What I’m saying though, is that the front lines are parents and schools—parents especially. Parents and schools have to realize that the people they’re dealing with may look normal and educated and well brought-up. But there are tragic cases of suicide, anorexia, there’s all sorts of psychological disorders and there are occasionally expressions of violence.
Now we pick up on the violence because it’s headlines. But for every Elliot who does it, there are an awful lot of people close to the edge who are satiating their fantasies with violent, virtual realities.
The processes should really disturb us, and the fact that we have such a vast number of people in trouble
I mean take the success of something like The Hunger Games, or even something like the Twilight series. If you analyze what’s going on there, you know: vampires, totalitarian states forcing beautiful young women to become terrorists. I just find it all part of a nexus.
So what I would say is that good journalists should be trying to push the envelope of our understanding and locate these events in bigger processes. And there, the processes should really disturb us, and the fact that we have such a vast number of people in trouble. And these are like little wake-up calls, or cries for help, or surface symptoms of a much, much greater issue.
It’s a bit like when one particular big block of ice falls off Antarctica, and we say “oh … it’s all going.” Well yes, but that’s just one bit of ice. The structural problem is far deeper. These are just symptoms of something much, much bleaker going on.
RB: Kind of just free associating, but I’m reminded of Klaus Theweleit here. [I mispronounce the name.]
RG: Remind me?
RB: He wrote Male Fantasies.
RG: Oh, Theweleit! Yeah, absolutely.
I think he showed quite brilliantly—though it’s a tough couple of books— that becoming a Nazi in the peculiar circumstances of late Weimar solved the problems of “being” for a whole load of extremely dysfunctional, potentially violent, misogynistic, fearful men who were terrified of life engulfing them.
By putting on an armband, and adopting a very symbolically erect arm gesture—and adopting that mental suit of clothes—you suddenly feel the world is back in order.
Maybe in the 1920s or ’30s, Elliot would’ve joined a movement. But we’re beyond that now. Society is so atomized you can’t even do that anymore. He didn’t dress up as a Nazi, but I think you’ve got a handle on what happens when somebody creates their own mini killing cult.
But that energy was also in Weimar in the Nazi movement. You demonize the other and fight a war against them; to the degree that violent, totalitarian, uniform hyper-male movements—and Elliot was obsessed with masculinity—thrive on dysfunctional libidos and lives.