“Loner” attackers aren’t crazy & don’t really act alone

Yesterday I published a brief piece arguing that the Santa Barbara shooting had less to do with solo mental illness and more to do with a bigger ideology or worldview that makes it acceptable to kill someone without seeing that as wrong. I noted that past mass killing events like the Rwandan genocide have been prime examples of a lot of people suddenly coming to the belief that the morally “right” course of action is actually the immediate extermination of a class of fellow humans. Maybe there’s a “mob mentality” / Salem witch trial hysteria element to it, but at its core, it’s not so much that everyone suddenly went crazy but that everyone was primed by received messaging to believe that mass murder was now acceptable because of reasons.

In the grand scope of history, I’d hypothesize that the number of ideologically motivated murders astronomically outnumber those committed in a lunatic haze by someone who is just totally out of it and has no sense of up or down, let alone right or wrong. In fact, I’d even go as far as guessing that in the United States today, more mentally ill people who are confused are accidentally killed by police than other people are killed by a mentally ill person on a rampage. It happens, but not much. Plus, those people basically don’t have any idea what they’re doing. Which is vastly different from premeditating an elaborate killing spree for specific, defined reasons based on ideas (not, say, amorphous perceived threats or imagined voices).

It’s disrespectful, at best, to suggest automatically that a mass shooting is the result of mental illness (and, at worst, contributes to further stigmatization which can only make it less likely people who need help will seek it). But it also conveniently and decisively removes any opportunity to discuss the ideological motivations or worldview that actually led a person (who may or may not have a mental health issue) to commit a violent crime. It requires an ideological component well beyond any mental atypicality to take a socially awkward person and make him angry, hate-filled, murderous person. Not everybody who is awkward or struggles with mental health challenges has that reaction.

A reader posed several questions to me, in response to the original post:

Don’t you think you’re going down a slippery slope here? With that mentality you could attribute every awful thing anyone does to their having a different ideology. Also, he didn’t live in a society where killing girls who aren’t interested in you is OK. If he wasn’t mentally ill, how did he develop an ideology that almost no one else around him shares? I don’t doubt that a lot of guys think women owe them sex, but don’t you think you have to have some issues to take it to the extreme that he did?

I think that’s a fair question to ask me, to the extent that I didn’t fully explain why I was making the argument. So in the interest of clarifying, I’ll answer that in full, for everyone’s benefit:

Couldn’t you attribute every awful thing anyone does to their having a different ideology? How did he develop an ideology that almost no one else around him shares?

Yes, I would argue that most premeditated violent crimes stem from having a different worldview, whether it’s circumstantial frame of reference or ideology. It’s rarely spontaneously generated out of the ether or “insanity.” They either get it from people around them (circumstantial, i.e. living in a violent or criminal environment; note 1) or (especially in the internet age) they are exposed to it externally and find comfort in an existing ideological community. And we have plenty of studies showing people start selecting their information sources more and more toward what already confirms their views, which means someone like this shooter who finds an online community with similar views will keep going back to it and drawing ideological strength from it. So maybe “almost no one else around him” in physical space shares the viewpoints he has, but he’d plugged into an extensive online community that backed that up. (They might not advocate violence openly, but they still foster and encourage a violent attitude.)

In this case, he was motivated by a primarily violent attitude toward women (although his manifesto includes extensive racial attacks as well), but it is very similar in structure to white supremacy movement’s developments since the early 1990s, upon which there has been a tremendous amount of research — which I bring up so everyone understands where I’m drawing these ideas rather than thinking I’m just making up a slippery slope argument. Basically, the twin strand developments in white supremacy have been a) the promotion of “lone wolf” strategies (note 2) that encourage people within the movement who plan to break the law to do so without affiliating themselves openly with the groups they have associated with so that those people aren’t arrested afterward too; b) the use of the internet (note 3) to network disparate loners in far flung geographic locations into lone wolf operatives who will encourage each other to carry out violent hate crimes against ethnic minorities, Jews, gays, transgender people, etc. In much the same way, this shooter drew heavily upon an online community fostering a violently-tinged hatred of women and a view of women as fungible chattel property whose world’s should revolve around men. They can deny him as one of their own, but so do the white supremacy groups after a shooting. That’s by design, in their case.

Additional notes & further resources

1. Studies (see “Violence Vanquished” from Steven Pinker’s Why Violence Has Declined) show murder rates are way higher in situations/places where lives are regularly ended abruptly and fellow humans are seen as less valuable (or become existential threats if left alive). That’s true in gang wars and it was true in Medieval Europe. People kill in those contexts because there’s a circumstantial frame of reference allowing it, to some degree. Revenge killings for honor used to be seen as “justified homicide,” in that the killing was not “wrong.” Likewise it’s acceptable in the context of war to kill people but not just randomly on the street. All of which is to say that, besides pure ideology, there are many many ways beyond mental illness where murder is justified by a certain worldview or under certain circumstances (whether or not it really is justifiable).
2. Explanation of lone wolf concept from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate movement activities.
3. Stream a short, old documentary on the use of the web in hate group networking from about 1995-2000 and how it facilitated lone wolf attacks: “Hate.com” (CONTENT WARNING: Contains extensive quoting of hate speech and interviews with white supremacists.)

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official.
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