The Link Between Mass Shootings and Terrorism
Young men self-radicalize and become killers because they lack meaning in a modern age
Part of my work is trying to understand why people kill. For years, I’ve studied it and found a resemblance between mass shooters in the United States and many people who become terrorists.
In many cases, such as the recent shooting at a community college in Oregon, the killers belong to both categories. Their personal grievances blur together with a larger cause against society in general or a particular group.
Many mass shooters and self-radicalized terrorists share a pattern. Again, we see a socially alienated young man obsessed with guns and violence. He attacked a public place, but reserved his greatest ire for Christians. His writings indiciated he was “interested in other high-profile shootings, angry at not having a girlfriend and bitter at a world that he believed was working against him,” the New York Times reported.
He decorated his MySpace profile with propaganda from the Irish Republican Army. The IRA is largely gone, splintered and disarmed. But he shared a resemblance to Dylann Roof, who murdered black parishioners in South Carolina and identified with Rhodesia — a white supremacist regime in Africa that went extinct in the late 1970s.
That a small number of mostly young, American men with lonely but otherwise mundane lives become fascinated with vanished wars is something I still don’t quite understand. But perhaps there’s a place to start.
Researchers who study the psychology of extremism say that terrorists often mentally construct idealized images of themselves that are removed from the banal realities of their existence. Instead of a loser, the terrorist now see himself as a soldier serving a higher cause, no matter how bizarre or how terrible their crimes. Movie directors have hauntingly illustrated this phenomenon in films such as Taxi Driver and Fight Club.
For the young, socially alienated man, the Internet is a playground for creating these new identities — ones that are merciless and able to overcome a human being’s inherent inhibitions against killing. We know mass shootings are relatively rare, though they are increasing in frequency. We know this process happened to Anders Breivik, who radicalized himself over the Internet before killing 77 people in Norway.
In a sweeping essay in the May 2015 New Yorker, Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård contrasted Breivik with Islamic State, which arose in war-torn Iraq and Syria:
Breivik’s deed, single-handedly killing seventy-seven people, most of them one by one, many of them eye to eye, did not take place in a wartime society, where all norms and rules were lifted and all institutions dissolved; it occurred in a small, harmonious, well-functioning, and prosperous land during peacetime. All norms and rules were annulled in him, a war culture had arisen in him, and he was completely indifferent to human life, and absolutely ruthless.
That is where we should direct our attention, to the collapse within the human being which these actions represent, and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.
Breivik kept to himself, took a year off from life to play World of Warcraft and gradually came to believe that by murdering teenagers he would spark a religious war in Europe.
“At some point, this fantasy took over Breivik’s reality,” Knausgård continued, “and so, incited by the power of his fantasies, especially by what they enabled him to become — a knight, a commander, a hero — he decided to bring them to life.”
This is a bleak and foreboding vision of our society and future. But there’s a closer connection between terrorists like Breivik and Islamic State, which has recruited, organized and weaponized these men as suicide bombers. To borrow the words of journalist Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, Islamic State is “no mere collection of psychopaths.” Its apocalyptic ideology is deeply appealing to some young, alienated men in the West.
And Islamic State has blurred the boundaries between real war and the simulated virtual reality of the Internet. Its propaganda videos include footage from cameras mounted directly onto their guns like a first-person shooter, layered with ultra-saturated visual effects and hypnotic music. This is deliberate, as the terrorist group is making a promise to potential recruits that this brutal, psychedelic fantasy can be theirs.
Roger Griffin, a professor at Oxford-Brookes University touched on similar themes in his book Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning. I interviewed Griffin after a mass shooting in Isla Vista, California. There, the killer believed he was fighting a war against feminism and “beta” males whom he blamed for his inability to find a girlfriend. Before, he had immersed himself in Internet forums that shared his beliefs.
“I wonder to what extent we’re yet again dealing with somebody … 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,” Griffin told me.
“And I do think it’s partly a symptom of this age we’ve created for ourselves,” he added. “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.”
I expect resistance to this idea. It suggests our society has failed to provide people with much meaning or purpose, and those feeling left out are turning to darker, alternative sources to provide it. And if this is the case, it could upend the way we think about terrorism and how to prevent it.
These men, for the most part, are few in number and keep to themselves. Stricter gun control laws would prevent killings, but not all — many shooters do not have criminal records and would likely still acquire guns even with stringent background checks. Nor does that address the fundamental problem. A hysterical news media should certainly be careful about not turning the killers into anti-heroes and giving them the recognition they seek.
The United States could certainly do well with more mental health services. However, even recognizing the patterns shared by mass shooters and terrorists is extremely difficult. Why? Because these traits — loneliness, alienation and disconnectedness from other people — is common in modern America. More Americans than ever report a high degree of loneliness in their lives, characterized by not having anyone with whom to confide one’s personal troubles or successes.
The fact that somebody has few friends doesn’t make them a potential killer, and they shouldn’t be treated as if they were.
Yet, something is happening. During the past decade, the United States has seen its suicide rate increase as homicides and gun violence fell. As sociologist W. Bradfod Wilcox pointed out in 2013, the male suicide rate rises as men disconnect from society’s “core institutions,” which includes religion, marriage and stable employment.
“The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.”
We’re searching for something — anything — that can fill that void. Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos is empathetic to these men, and I think we should be, even when that is understandably difficult. But I’m not a fan of his solution to return to “patriarchal institutions, if you like, that for centuries provided the sort of structure, order and role models that young men need.”
“Men must be allowed to compete,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “To fight. To shoot things. Today’s man-punishing, feminised culture is creating killers by suppressing these urges. We have to stop it.”
Here’s the problem — highly-competitive, patriarchal societies still produce tons of losers, because not everyone can be a winner. The most extreme patriarchal societies, which are by nature elitist hierarchies, produce a lot of existentially lonely, depressed young men. Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most patriarchal society on the planet, contributes more suicide bombers to the Middle East’s wars than any other.
I don’t have any simple answers. But I don’t think the situation is hopeless, and it’s worth remembering that no one is truly alone all the time. In Germany and the United Kingdom, deradicalization programs have focused on helping family members, because they are the ones most able to pull their kids back from the brink.
Families and friends — in other words, us — are on the front lines. Tell someone that you love them.