In 1998, a high school junior named Eric Harris from Colorado wanted to put on a performance, something for the world to remember him by. A little more than a year later, Eric and his best friend Dylan Klebold would place bombs all over their school — bombs large enough to collapse large chunks of the building and to kill the majority of the 2,000 students inside — and then wait outside with semi-automatic weapons to gun down any survivors before ending their own lives.
“It’ll be like the LA riots, the Oklahoma bombing, WWII, Vietnam, Duke and Doom all mixed together,” Eric wrote in his journal. “Maybe we will even start a little rebellion or revolution to fuck things up as much as we can. I want to leave a lasting impression on the world.”
Eric was a psychopath, but he was also smart.
Despite what media outlets would later claim, Eric Harris was not the victim of bullying any more than other students, he was not a goth or a member of the “Trench Coat Mafia.” Eric was a straight-A student. He read Nietzsche and Hemingway for fun. He had friends and girlfriends. He was charming and funny and had a disarming smile.
But Eric also understood people. And because he understood people, he changed everything.
By 1999, there had already been a series of school shootings across the United States. But Eric wasn’t interested in those. They were small-time jobs, amateur hour. Eric was far more interested in Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which killed 168 and injured 600. Eric wanted to top that. But he didn’t just want to top the body count, he wanted to top the notoriety, the fame, the horror. He wanted to terrorize people and he understood that his best weapon was not the guns he secretly purchased or the bombs he built in his basement — it was television. He would not kill jocks or preps, he would kill indiscriminately, because that’s what caused the most fear and got the most attention. He wouldn’t just blow up the school, but he’d blow up the parking lot, the police cars and the firefighters and the journalists who rushed to the scene. He would, quite literally, go out with a bang, the shockwaves of which, carried by mass media and the internet, would reverberate through the world for decades.
On April 20th, Eric and Dylan arrived at Columbine High School and opened fire on teachers, students, administrators, janitors and police officers. Eric’s largest bombs failed to detonate and bring the building down as he had hoped, but that did not prevent the ensuing carnage that would last for almost an hour, leaving 15 dead and 24 wounded.
As chaos engulfed the school in Colorado, it would quickly fan out across the country, commanding more or less 24-hour television coverage for weeks on end. The drama would be replayed endlessly — bloodied and crippled students climbing out of the library window, the heroic coach who lost his life saving dozens of kids. And then there would be the questions and the speculation. Why? First, it was goth culture and Marilyn Manson. Then it was bullying. Then it was being social loners and outcasts.
All of the explanations were later discovered to be untrue. The event truly seemed inexplicable. And because it was inexplicable the media and the viewers couldn’t let it go. Books were written. Memorials were built and ceremonies filled out. Eric Harris got his death wish: “Columbine” was a household name.
This past weekend, a student named Elliot Rodger from Santa Barbara City College killed six and injured 13, the latest in a long series of school shootings that are all but becoming a normal part of American tradition. As usual, the killer left a cache of material behind to explain his intentions and milk as much publicity for his personal grievances as possible. This time, the focus was on women, and how they wouldn’t have sex with him.
Like they always do, the media have descended to explain away the madness. And like a Rorschach Test, each outlet had its own pet cause primed and ready to be read into the situation.
- Gun control advocates used the event as an opportunity to campaign for stricter gun control, despite the fact that Rodger bought his guns legally and easily passed the background checks.
- Mental health advocates used it as an opportunity to urge better mental health care, despite the fact that Rodger had a small army of therapists and social workers working with him for practically his entire life.
- Feminists used it as an opportunity to promote awareness for violence against women, despite the fact that Rodger killed indiscriminately and the majority of the victims turned out to be men.
- Social justice advocates used it as an opportunity to rail against white male entitlement, despite the fact that Rodger was mixed race and a significant number of school shooters have also been minorities (Two examples: Seung-Hui Cho and Kimveer Gill).
All of these issues are legitimate and deserve a conversation. But they are not the singular cause. They’re not the point.
Because of my book, I’m connected within the men’s dating advice industry. And many of them are scrambling right now. Elliot Rodger was a member of a number of sites, email lists, and Facebook groups. And all of these authors and dating coaches — some of them legitimately decent men, others shady marketers — are all frantically trying to cover their tracks as best as possible.
But this “witch hunt” we go through every time a school shooting happens is a total ruse. Elliot Rodger didn’t become a killer because he was a misogynist; he became a misogynist because he was a killer. Just like Eric Harris didn’t become a killer because he loved violent video games; he loved violent video games because he was a killer. Just like Adam Lanza didn’t become a killer because he loved guns; he loved guns because he was a killer.
Every school shooting incident comes in the same dreary package: an angry, politically-charged rant, shrink-wrapped around a core of mental illness and neglect. These shooters leave behind journals, videos, diagrams, manifestos, and treatises. They broadcast their plans and intentions to their friends and family. They email news outlets minutes before they start firing. They write down their plans and make checklists so that others may follow in their footsteps. They go on angry rants against materialism, hedonism, the government, mass media, women, and sometimes even the people close to them.
And each time, as a culture, we work ourselves into a frenzy debating the angry exterior message, while ignoring the interior life and context of each killer. We miss the point entirely.
According to the FBI, mass shootings (defined as shooting events that kill at least four people) occur on average every two weeks in the United States. Yes, every two weeks. Yet we rarely, if ever, hear about most of them. The reason is that these shootings are easily explainable. In most mass shootings, the crimes occur at a private location and the victims are people close and well-known to the shooter — family members, neighbors, friends. Many of them are attributable to gang violence or illicit criminal activities. Others are a crime of passion.
School shootings only account for 4% of all mass shootings and yet they dominate the news media and get the entire country talking about them for weeks on end.
There are a few reasons for this:
- They occur in everyday public locations which are supposed to be safe.
- The victims are targeted and killed at random.
- The victims are innocent bystanders and often children.
- The killers leave behind large amounts of material about themselves for the media to share.
- The perpetrator and victims are generally upper-middle class, white, and privileged.
These shooters know what they are doing. They’re not “crazy.” They don’t just “snap.” Most of them spend months or years planning their massacres. Elliot Rodger had apparently been planning his shooting for over a year. You don’t just show up with a 140-page manifesto and a large stockpile of weapons one day. You work at it for a long time. And you plan not only the violence but the presentation for the audience, the performance — what they will see from you, what they will hear from you, the reasons why, the message. It’s all very conscious and deliberate.
And it works. Their killing sprees are specifically targeted to generate the most fear and uncertainty from the public, because the more fear and uncertainty they generate, the more attention they get. They then use all of the attention as a platform to promote themselves or whatever complaints they may have against society. It’s the Columbine formula. It works. And as Eric Harris pointed out in his journal, it’s not about the guns. It’s about the television. The films. The fame. The revolution.
If this sounds like a familiar strategy, that’s because it is.
Mass Shootings as Non-Political Terrorism
For a country that is so single-mindedly obsessed with terrorism, it’s jaw-dropping that almost nobody recognizes that school shooters use the exact same strategies to disseminate fear and their twisted agendas throughout society. Terrorists use violence and mass media coverage to promote political or religious beliefs; school shooters use violence and mass media coverage to promote their personal grievances and glorification.
When viewed in this way, our responses to the school shooters look juvenile in comparison. Can you imagine arguing over whether misogyny made Osama Bin Laden plan September 11th? Or whether video games caused Dhokhar Tsarnaev to plant bombs at the Boston Marathon? Or whether heavy music inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City?
You would be laughed at.
And in fact, when anyone goes as far as to suggest that Islam causes terrorism, they are immediately and rightfully scolded for it. Yet when it comes to school shootings, these types of discussions are not only tolerated, but engaged in willfully.
It’s not that we should respond to school shootings the same way we respond to terrorist attacks. It’s that we already do. We just don’t realize it.
When Elliot’s creepy YouTube videos went public, declaring vengeance upon every college girl that wouldn’t sleep with him, every woman who had ever heard a guy mutter something similar suddenly felt a chill run up her spine. And that chill caused the video to be posted and reposted, sending more chills up more women’s spines until it had spread across the country. My guess is that’s exactly what Elliot would have wanted.
And we’ve seen this viral dissemination over and over again. After every school shooting episode, writings and videos of the killers get passed around on the internet. Television specials show and reshow the footage. Books are written. Experts are hired. Rinse and repeat.
Last year, I wrote that terrorism works because it takes advantages of psychological inefficiencies in our brains: we pay a disproportionate amount of attention to threatening events and we always overestimate how likely it is for a random event to happen to us. School shootings transfix us by leveraging the exact same inefficiencies in our minds. And once they’ve dominated this mindspace, we can’t seem to shake them out of it.
Yet, for some reason, while we seem to imagine potential terrorists everywhere — in airport lines, at stadium gates, in subway cars — we never see the school shooters coming. We’re always caught by surprise.
Hiding in Plain Sight
When we think of terrorists, we think of some alien “other” — the bearded, turbaned man hiding in some cave on the other side of the world. Because he’s so distant and different, we let him eat at our imagination — he could be anywhere, ready to strike at any moment, hiding in behind every bush, planting a bomb on every bus or plane. We clog our airports and blast warnings through our public buildings for some imagined bogeyman who is never actually present.
By contrast, we fail to spot shooter after shooter because they are so close to us and so much like us. We miss them because they are our neighbors, our classmates, our friends or even our family members. They are right in front of our noses and we ignore them for a whole host of trivial reasons. Maybe they’re too weird, or awkward, or they’re a loser. We don’t want to talk to them. We put our blinders on and pretend that they’re not miserable, we pretend that they didn’t just have that awkward outburst, we pretend they didn’t just make a joke about killing their own parents.
Eric Harris’ friends later said that he would often “joke” about blowing up the school and murdering classmates. Even after they discovered he was building bombs in his basement, they never put two-and-two together. They just couldn’t believe it. Not Eric. Not the guy they had played video games with and toilet papered girls’ houses with.
Meanwhile, the wrong sarcastic word at the airport and you can be held in jail for days.
An FBI study on school shooters found school shootings are never a result of a crazy person “snapping.” Most shooters do have serious mental health or emotional issues, but they all plan their attacks months or even years in advance. And as they plan, they almost always “leak” information about the attack beforehand, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes in incredibly obvious ways.
Both Harris and Rodger had the police called on them multiple times due to suspicious behavior. Both of them had a history of strange and violent outbursts towards friends and those close to them. Both put their intentions and their angry rants up on the web for everyone to see. Elliot Rodger wrote and re-wrote his plan out, sometimes including murdering his family members and stealing their car. He wrote that if someone had just searched his room, it would have all come apart, he would have been found out. Eric Harris wrote almost the exact same thing 15 years earlier.
Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 people, turned in paper after paper that depicted gruesome killings and gun violence. He had a history of mental health issues and had been reported to the campus police four times for aggressive and antisocial behavior, particularly towards women. One of his professors went so far as to tell the board that she would rather resign than teach another class with him in it.
Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, also had a history of mental illness and inappropriate anti-social behavior. And he too, began sharing his intentions online through forum posts and audio. Lanza had paranoid delusions about mass media and the government, and began to argue that school shootings were justified as a form of protest or revolt. People humored him and ignored him. No one realized he had a small armory of semi-automatic weapons in his house.
Then there are those who are simply ignored. Dylan Klebold was suicidally depressed for over two years. He fantasized and wrote about killing himself liberally. Despite getting into trouble with the law, turning in school assignments that glorified murder and suicide and failing most of his classes senior year, his parents and friends claimed that they had no idea something was amiss. George Sodini, a middle-aged Pennsylvania man who shot up an aerobics class full of women, wrote in his journal that since he spent the past 20 years of his life alone and miserable, there was no reason to think that the next 20 wouldn’t be lonely and miserable as well. His mother had been emotionally abusive. His father hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with him in over 30 years. Simply put: he had nothing to live for. So why not take some revenge on your way out?
Gun control gets the headlines. Mental health care gets the headlines. Violence and video games and misogyny and internet forums and atheism — the list is endless at this point.
Here’s what doesn’t get the headlines: Empathy. Listening to those around you. Even if you don’t like them very much. We have come to live in a culture where it’s taboo or unacceptable to simply check in with people emotionally and offer some empathy and understanding. I’m not saying this would magically fix all gun violence. I’m just saying that all of these things — the lack of gun laws, the lack of health care, the inability to have basic conversations with friends and neighbors about what’s going on with them, these are all extensions of a callous and self-absorbed culture that lacks any real empathy.
Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world.
And no one is paying attention to him.