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.
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.
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.