Mass Shootings: The American Mind Gone Nihilist

If the horrendous acts of terrorism in El Paso and Dayton this past weekend made me angry and sad, reading the empty-headed commentaries on social media within all but seven minutes of the respective events proved even more of a mental challenge. The usual culprits emanating from them are a) President Trump; b) the NRA; and c) the perpetrators (in that order). While the police are still in the dark about a motive on the part of Connor Betts, the Dayton shooter, posts on his social media accounts strongly suggest that he ought not to be lumped together with Patrick Crusius, the El Paso shooter who left a white supremacist ‘manifesto’ in support of his deeds.

Yet the Twitter mobs went right at it on Sunday, blaming the president, white men and all the rest of the usual scapegoats for #WhiteSupremacistTerrorism. Missing from all the chattering is, as usual, some much-needed in-depth thinking about how persons like Crusius and Betts came to their deeds.

If the Left never had to atone for the Weather Underground, or more recently the Steven Scalise shooting and various Antifa beatings, the same standard should be applied to the Right today.

To get the obvious out of the way first: Of course, Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants is inflammatory. While I wish our president had the moral rectitude of a Jimmy Carter and the oratory skills of a Winston Churchill, decent politicians of both parties in the U.S. had the chance to fix the unfettered immigration through our southern border for decades. They did nothing, in the face of continuous polling indicating that the American people opposed it by a large majority that entire time. Unconventional politicians like Trump pop up when the establishment fails, just like in Europe. But whatever the president’s tone, a guy going off the handle like Saturday does not in and of itself invalidate the arguments for a restrictive immigration policy.

Nor does it make Trump and others complicit in this atrocious act. If the Left never had to atone for the Weather Underground, or more recently the Steven Scalise shooting and various Antifa beatings (it didn’t), the same standard should be applied to the Right today. Conservatives or the alt-right aren’t any more responsible for the shooting in El Paso than the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War were responsible for the 1981 Brinks robbery. (And who knows what other facts may surface about Connor Betts that may dampen the fury presently coming from the Left.) Only the person pulling the trigger should be held accountable for his act. It’s not like the Right is behaving like a gang of Hutus.

More importantly, entirely lost in the cacophony of shrieks about #WhiteTerrorism and #GunControl are questions regarding the psychological state of people resorting to this level of violence against random bystanders. It goes without saying that somewhere along the way a circuit got fried inside their heads, since politics and heated rhetoric alone do not a killer make. Evidently this is a new phenomenon too, because mass shootings didn’t occur 40 years ago.

Why and how did all of this happen? The question is hardly ever asked, much less answered. I’ll wager a bet that the plethora of recent mass shootings springs from a perfect storm of various factors. The first of these is a problematic family history in the vast majority of the cases. Let me point out just a few:

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte shooter was described by family members as “autistic and socially reserved” and had lost his mother to breast cancer as a teenager. The Thousand Oaks shooter had lost his father to cancer at a young age, and allegedly suffered from mental health issues which even predated his five year stint with the U.S. Marine Corps and a tour in Afghanistan. The parents of the Pittsburg Synagogue shooter got divorced when he was a year old and his father committed suicide when he was six. The Stoneman Douglas High School shooter was adopted as a baby by an older couple, and left orphaned after his father had died when he was six and his mother three months before the shooting.

If the guy who shot up the Sutherland Springs church had a mother or father present in his life, we haven’t learned about it, but he had a litany of domestic assault charges and other violence to his name. Stephen Paddock’s father was a bank robber who got himself arrested when his son was all but seven years old. The Umpqua Community College shooter was another product of a broken family and had not seen his father in the two years prior to his attack. Dylann Roof’s family life was dysfunctional from birth, with his mother out of the picture altogether and a stepmother taking her place who divorced his abusive father when Roof was fifteen. Adam Lanza’s parents got divorced when he was sixteen years old.

The above is a random sample from some of the worst shootings in recent history. In some cases the family background of the perpetrator is, oddly enough, a public mystery, but these findings aren’t state secrets. It’s all on Wikipedia and various news sites. One would hope that the whiz kids at the FBI and elsewhere have compiled and analyzed this sort of data, but who knows anymore. To be sure, not all children of divorced parents go on a shooting rampage, and not all those going on a shooting rampage are children of divorced parents. But some of them clearly do and a majority of them clearly are.

The second important factor has to be the social isolation which has become so rampant in our modern time. In their excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, authors Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff devote more than a few pages to depression and other mental health issues, which are steadily on the rise among modern-day teenagers. They refer to research which suggests “that the rapid spread of smartphones and social media into the lives of teenagers, beginning around 2007, is the main cause of the mental health crisis that began around 2011.”

[Jean] Twenge finds that there are just two activities that are significantly correlated with depression and other suicide-related outcomes (such as considering suicide, making a plan, or making an actual attempt): electronic device use (such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer) and watching TV. On the other hand, there are five activities that have inverse relationships with depression (meaning that kids who spend more hours per week on these activities show lower rates of depression): sports and other forms of exercise, attending religious services, reading books and other print media, in-person social interactions, and doing homework.

Notice anything about the difference between the two lists? Screen versus nonscreen.

To be sure, Haidt and Lukianoff had as the primary target of their research efforts college snowflakes hiding in safe spaces, not mass murderers. But would it be a stretch to assume that depression is also rampant among young men with pre-existing domestic issues who spend their days not making an income in a rewarding job and spending Sundays in church, where they interact socially with other people, but playing video games, checking Facebook and consuming porn in their mom’s basement all day? Who are resentful about the possibility that they are bound to live a life devoid of love, friendship and meaning, yet lack the tools to break out of that mindset? And who then radicalize into believing it’s A-OK to take their AR-15 and empty its magazine on a bunch of random folk out on the street?

Closely related to this level of social exclusion is the third factor, which is that the internet provides the worst kind of outlet for all sorts of misfits. They can feed on, and find validation for, loony conspiracy theories of whatever nature all day long. At this point it no longer matters whether their beef is with immigrants, Jews or Donald Trump. They find themselves in a vicious cycle of confirmation bias in which mere political opponents or other groups in society gradually transform into the enemy. This point struck me when I was first confronted with the term ‘incel’ after the 2018 Toronto van attack. One web search landed me on a forum where the perp’s fellow incels were celebrating the deaths of multiple “Chads and Stacys” in the attack. (Google these names at your own peril.)

At one point or another, these men either break out of this cycle or become at risk of snapping. When the latter happens, their victims are no longer seen as innocent bystanders, but active accomplices to a society bent on harming them. The satanic symbolism often on display suggests a perilous nihilism which doesn’t flinch when confronted with concepts such as common decency, meaningful existence, or the intrinsic value of all life. The men have descended into a very dark place.

The final factor must be substance abuse. It never gets much mention in the media after incidents like these, but from personal experience I know it’s rampant among today’s dysfunctional youth. If nothing else, consumption of marijuana and other drugs certainly won’t help pull the next mass shooter out of his social isolation.

We can’t blame our politicians or the NRA for mass shootings if we are unwilling to collectively look in the mirror.

Even if there are other factors involved, the four mentioned here must be in pole position. It’s interesting to note that the public scorn for politicians pointing to video games after every shooting seems bipartisan. In general I would agree that video games alone won’t turn people into maniacal killers. But the cocktail of video games, social media, screen use in general, and confirmation bias resulting from selective use of the internet certainly might. The sole focus on games distracts us from the bigger picture.

Moreover, another virtue lost in time is moderation. It would be one thing if teenagers spent an hour a day in front of a screen. However, as Haidt and Lukianoff write: “According to the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, teens spend on average about nine hours per day on screens, and eight- to twelve-year-olds spend about six hours; that is in addition to whatever they are doing on screens for school.” I myself can get down in the dumps if I spend too much time staring at my laptop and too little hustling outside, and I have a happy, intact family and run a successful business. Imagine how these young kids must feel when they’re spending entire days doing the same, in a period in their life that’s marked by hormonal changes and psychological insecurities as it is. I see kids like this every day in my capacity as employer, and I fear for their future. They are lazy, sometimes obese, always insecure and more often than not numbed by pot. They live their monotonous life from day to day, even moment to moment, without any plans to be a better person tomorrow than they are today.

Divorce, excessive screen time, easy access to crazy conspiracy theories and drugs — they seem like a recipe for disaster. What’s more, these are problems that we ourselves have created as a society in the past half century or so. We can’t blame our politicians or the NRA for mass shootings if we are unwilling to collectively look in the mirror. As the nuclear family and civil society are crumbling before our eyes, my guess is things will get worse before they get better. If they get better.


  1. Mark, you’re a funny guy. First, the wager you proposed was not hypothetical; it was real, unless you want to admit right here and now that you have a habit of making phony, pretentious proposals to people as a routine argumentative strategy. In contrast, when I make proposals and wagers, I’m sincere. I suppose you want to tell me that I should have known you weren’t serious, that it was an obvious joke. Nice try, Mark.

    Second, I’ll remind you that it was you, not me, who proposed the wager, and as wagers go it was provocative, argumentative and pushy. It’s ironic that you are trying to turn the tables by transferring those traits to me.

    If you can manage to get control of your ego, you’ll see that what I’ve been trying to encourage you to do, from the beginning, is to clarify and explain your points. You go out of your way to proclaim to the world that you’re a serious, thoughtful guy. Indeed, you describe yourself as an expert on politics, culture and philosophy. And now you’re telling me that your wager was a joke and it annoys you when someone asks you to clarify and explain your views and claims.

    Your wager, or little game, would absolutely not require that we meet. I have no idea what you mean. Obviously you are capable of writing. In fact, writing is better because then neither one of us can deny what the other person wrote; it’s on the record.

    Mark, can you tell me the difference between someone who is sincerely challenging you and a troll? In my experience, a troll will never ask, as I have asked you, to clarify and explain. That’s because trolls aren’t interested in facts. So maybe you think a troll is anyone who disagrees with you, and if you think I’m a troll, you should just ignore me. If you don’t enjoy talking/debating with me, then don’t do it. As for me, I enjoy talking with people who disagree with me and I enjoy tough questions. I will always support my views and claims with facts, and I expect the same from others.

    I’m glad to hear that you know what unfettered means. In that case I can say with certainty that your claim about unfettered immigration is a false statement. I’ll remind you that unfettered means that we have absolutely no control at our borders and absolutely anyone can easily enter the US, legally or illegally. Such a claim is hyperbolic, right-wing talking-point nonsense. I agree that we have immigration problems, mainly at our southern border. Is illegal immigration one of the Top Ten most serious problems facing the US? I don’t think so. Even so, I think we need to make serious efforts to improve our immigration laws, regarding both legal and illegal immigration. For what it’s worth, I favor sanctions on US employers who hire illegal workers. On the other hand, a lot of libertarians say we should have completely open borders. It’s an interesting, complex issue. But it’s silly to say that immigration is unfettered. It’s a misuse of the word “unfettered.”

    You mentioned the Left using photos of immigrant children to score political points. There you go again, only pointing fingers at the Left, when you know as well as I do that the Left and the Right use cheap tricks to score political points. I criticize the Left and the Right when they deserve to be criticized. While you claim to be unbiased, you show a clear bias against the Left and a clear preference for the Right. It’s normal for people to have a bias, but I point it out to you precisely because you claim that you aren’t biased.

    If you’re interested in facts, try looking up the stats on the percentage of people seeking asylum or protected status in the US that actually succeed. I think most of them are well aware that their chances are slim.

    Everyone’s got a different idea about which immigrants can contribute something to this country. If you are familiar with American history, you’d know that there are plenty of examples of immigrants who came to America with absolutely nothing but ended up making big contributions, simply because they were willing to work hard. Are you telling me that you’ve got the perfect immigration policies all worked out?

    Why are you asking me if your proposals are harsh when you haven’t even told me what your proposals are? Moreover, you STILL haven’t clarified, explained or supported most of the claims you’ve made, that I’ve been asking about.

    My standards for discussion are pretty high. If you really think I’m a troll, ignore me. And even if you simply don’t enjoy talking to me, ignore me. You’re a philosopher, well, here’s my philosophy on talking to people on the internet: If it ain’t fun, don’t do it. I enjoy talking to serious people about serious topics. And no, I’m not interested in a neverending debate. You’ll either clarify, explain and support your claims, or you won’t. I’ve already said that you’re misusing the word “unfettered,” and hopefully you’ll move on to your other claims.

  2. Ok, you’ve got me, though forgive me if I waive my right to engage in a neverending debate with you, for reasons explained below.

    The hypothetical “wager” to which you refer is as follows: “Somebody once told me about this exercise: You and I both write our own positions and the positions of the other regarding whatever political issue on a piece of paper. After we’re both done we’ll compare notes. I’ll wager a bet that my description of your position matches yours closer than the other way around. Reading how you’re paraphrasing conservative arguments here I’d be very confident I’d win this little game.”

    This “little game” would clearly presuppose a meeting in person, which you and I both understand will never materialize. For while you insist you’re not a “pushy guy”, I think we both know that’s not true, don’t we? A measured response to a book review on Amazon would not be to leave multiple rather wordy comments accusing the reviewer repeatedly of lying, would it? And then to wait patiently for a response from the reviewer in order to jump right on it when it arrives?

    “Pushy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. “Trolling” comes closer. Why would I have any interest in meeting you face to face?

    But, to offer you some short answers to your “tough” questions: “unfettered” means “unrestrained”, and yes, I was well aware of that when I wrote it. This country may now have as many as 22 million illegal immigrants. That’s not Jared Taylor speaking, but Yale and MIT.* If they’re correct, it would mean that 6.7% of the U.S. population today is undocumented. Not just immigrants like me, but ILLEGAL immigrants. If there ever was any restraint to the immigration from (mostly) our southern border, somebody has clearly been asleep at the wheel.

    Moreover, much like the proper response to an Amazon book review would not be to write 8 snarky comments, the proper response to mass incarceration of border crossers and asylum seekers in detention centers would not be feigned outrage about photos shared online (often taken during the Obama years), nor to visit these places and start sobbing like an 11-year-old girl, as AOC did. The proper response would not be to use this sad situation for political gain or to demand to “abolish ICE”.

    The proper response would be to make it clear to these migrants in no uncertain terms that the chance of them making it onto U.S. soil is exceedingly small, and the chance of them ever obtaining some kind of protected status even smaller. So, in my view, a wall seems long overdue. In the same vein, LEGAL immigration should be restricted too, with birthright citizenship and the green card lottery being the first to go out the door. For crying out loud, let’s devise an immigration policy that works for Americans by allowing in only those who have something to contribute to this country.

    There was a time when Democrats like Harry Reid had some sense in them,+ but that was presumably before they figured out they’d be able to flip Nevada, Colorado and Texas like they flipped California. And all the while, Republicans like Jeb Bush went along with it in order to please their business donors. It’s all so obvious it takes an intellectual to argue against it.

    There’s a reason why many of the Republican legislators are willing to voice their concerns about President Trump only in private. They’re worried about the wrath of their constituents. Trump remade the Republican Party.

    Are my proposals harsh? I think they’re just. And let’s keep in mind we’re balancing two evils here; it’s not like one side of the debate is more heartless than the other. I would encourage you to look at where Europe is headed: It’s not a promising sight. If we don’t stop the influx now, Trump will look like a girl scout compared to the leaders of tomorrow.


  3. Mark, you and I have “met” on Amazon, vis-à-vis your review of “Love Your Enemies.” You proposed a discussion between us but you have not followed up on it. Actually, you proposed a “wager,” but I prefer to see it as a discussion proposal.

    I’m telling you this only because I want to make it clear who I am and where I’m coming from. I don’t want to step into your blog under any false pretenses. That being said, I’m posting a comment regarding your thoughts on Mass Shootings.

    I could write a very long and detailed comment explaining all the points I agree and disagree with. Since this is my first comment to you in your blog, I’m going to keep it short and simple. From my comments on Amazon, you already know that I question some of your statements for lack of clarity and lack of evidence. So I’m going to focus on a single statement you made that begs for clarification and evidence.

    Here’s the statement: “decent politicians of both parties in the U.S. had the chance to fix the unfettered immigration through our southern border for decades.”

    Maybe you can guess what drew my attention: “Unfettered immigration.” I know that you’re an American citizen who emigrated from the Netherlands, but even if you aren’t completely fluent in English I assume you know what “unfettered” means.

    You correctly point out that our messed-up immigration policies are the fault of both parties. I agree that our immigration policies are messed up. I could write an entire book on that complex topic.

    However, even if immigration policies are messed up, and even though there are problems at our southern border, no reasonable person can claim that there is unfettered immigration. Moreover, claiming that there is unfettered immigration is a common talking point of the Right. Besides that, on Amazon you made this claim: “The Democratic party has absolutely zero interest in defending the sovereignty of our nation’s borders.” There is no reference to “both parties” in that statement.

    It’s obvious that our nation’s borders is an important issue for you. It is for me, too. In your comment you say that it’s an important issue for a “large majority of the American people.” Okay, so I’m asking you to clarify and support your statements.

    Please explain and support your claim that there is unfettered immigration. Please explain and support your claim that the Democratic party has no interest in defending our nation’s borders.

    I’m curious to see how you respond to tough questions. After all, that’s the only way to see if you really do offer “expert, in-depth commentary.” In other words, are you someone worth paying attention to, or is your blog only for people who agree and never ask questions?

    Actually, I don’t think my questions are “tough.” My questions are basic, routine requests for explanation and support. Alas, I know from experience that many people regard basic, routine questions as tough. Many people – including many politicians – are accustomed to making claims without the chore of explaining or supporting them.

    One more thing: Let me assure you that even though I ask tough questions, I’m not a pushy guy. If you ignore this comment, I won’t post any others. If you’re not interested in having a discussion with me, that’s fine. I enjoy talking to intelligent people who disagree with me because there’s a chance I might learn something. How can I test or develop my ideas if I only talk to people who agree with me? You say that you’re a thoughtful, unbiased, expert on politics, culture and philosophy. So don’t act surprised if I show some interest in you. 🙂

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