Why are heinous acts like this weekend’s Poway synagogue massacre so seductive to their perpetrators?
Some will look at this weekend’s Poway synagogue shooting and argue that it reflects an anti-Semitism problem. (They aren’t wrong, either: Judging by a manifesto he posted online shortly before the attack, the alleged shooter appears to be a hardcore anti-Semite.) Some will react by arguing that we have a gun-control problem. But it’s just as easy to compare the Poway suspect’s case to those of other mass shooters and see a “young men who find normal life unfulfilling or too difficult and choose to risk or end their lives in violent rampage” problem.
Unlike other young men who committed mass shootings, the Poway shooter had an intact family. His father is a high-school physics teacher and an elder in his church. He had a high GPA in high school, took Advanced Placement classes, and was an accomplished pianist. He reportedly had Jewish friends earlier in his life. Yet apparently none of that was enough to keep him from erupting in a spasm of horrific violence, motivated by a belief that he had no worthwhile future because of some sort of nefarious Jewish conspiracy he’d concocted in his head.
It is common to refer to such young men as “troubled,” and with good reason: One study found that almost 60 percent of mass shooters had either been diagnosed with a mental disorder or exhibited signs of serious mental illness before their attack. But that still leaves about 40 percent whose actions cannot be attributed, in full or in part, to mental illness. (Advocates for the mentally ill would want me to also point out that the vast majority of those with mental illness are not violent and should not be seen as ticking time bombs.)
Another point about the “troubled young men” is that their troubles are usually quite mundane. Mass shootings have occurred in rich communities and poor communities, but “overall, the communities that have experienced mass shootings are more or less middle-class, with a mean household income of $65,900,” according to a study by Patrick Adler of the Martin Prosperity Institute. Few mass shooters come from impoverished circumstances; one study contended that many communities that suffered a mass shooting have both high income and high inequality. “The persistent inability of members of a community to achieve a culturally defined level of economic success creates an environment of anger, frustration, hostility, and violence,” its authors wrote. Oftentimes the mass shooter is living a relatively comfortable life, but he can’t see it for what it is because he perceives others to have so much more. The problems in his life are manageable and can be overcome, but he doesn’t believe that they are because he sees other people who seem to have no problems.
A recent Wall Street Journal study of 39 school shooters found that half felt bullied and sought revenge, about half had expressed thoughts of suicide, and about two-thirds had “easy access to guns” — meaning they used guns owned by family members. Bullying, thoughts of suicide, and firearms have all existed for a long time, but something in the two decades since the Columbine shooting has spurred troubled young men to believe that the best way to deal with their problems is to attempt to murder as many strangers as possible.
For some reason, hate-filled online message boards like 8chan and the “Columbiners” online subculture speak to these young men in a way that their parents, peers, and the rest of society can’t. What is feeding their deep dissatisfaction with life? Is it the need to keep up a stoic appearance when there’s some deep turmoil, rage, or pain inside? Or is the phenomenon self-perpetuating, as angry young men see massacres committed by other angry young men and think, “That’s what he did, I guess that’s what I ought to do”?
A 2018 FBI report noted the “legacy tokens” that often appear in such cases — “manifestos, videos, social media postings, or other communications deliberately created by the shooter and delivered or staged for discovery by others, usually near in time to the shooting.” The Internet is full of personal screeds about grievances and perceived injustices, and the vast majority of the time, no one cares what’s written in them. But as soon as a person commits a terrible act of violence, there’s an intense public interest, a desire to understand that person’s motivations. Suddenly everyone cares about what problems existed in the life of the shooter before the act. Who bullied him? Who rejected him? What made him so angry?
A person who feels that he does not matter will take a twisted form of solace in the fact that after he has committed his terrible act of violence, everyone wanted to know what was going on inside his head.
No proposal to address mass shootings can be foolproof. Obviously, parents should keep guns locked away if they have concerns about the mental health or emotional state of their children. Obviously, we need better and more extensive public mental-health services to identify, diagnose, and treat people before they become a threat to themselves and others. The heroism of Jonathan Morales and Oscar Stewart, an off-duty Border Patrol agent and an Iraq War veteran who confronted the synagogue gunman and forced him to flee, demonstrates that armed citizens can play a role in mitigating the harm that aspiring mass shooters inflict. And it may be worthwhile for law enforcement to monitor the chat rooms of “Columbiners” and see if they can identify potential school shooters before they bring a gun to the classroom.
But we’re still haunted by the capacity of the human heart to embrace evil. We face a persistent struggle to get young men to resist the siren’s call of a spectacular, violent, infamous end.