The psychology of lone gunmen
One might be mistaken for thinking that the recent shootings in Aurora and Wisconsin, as part of a trend of distinctively modern mass-murders, could only be understood with reference to distinctively modern phenomena. Indeed, factors such as resurgent neo-Nazism, an atomised society and a glorification of trigger-happy vigilantes in popular culture are all elements which can clearly been seen as contributing to an environment in which such tragedies can occur.
Increasingly though, as the crimes relentlessly re-occur, such analyses fall somewhat short. A purely modern engagement with this most troubling of issues provides an understanding of the criminal, and an understanding of society, but no clear reason for why so many individuals decide to engage with society in this particular fashion. Perhaps we must look at these cases from an alternative viewpoint to provide some insight.
Raskolnikov, the protagonist in Crime and Punishment, is an intelligent young man, who is driven to extreme ideas and madness by his retreat from society. He develops a theory of humanity which divides all people into two categories; the ordinary and the extraordinary, and in an attempt to show himself as extraordinary, and therefore able to act without regard for laws, he commits a murder.
It is of course not the case that James Holmes and Wade Michael Page were attempting to demonstrate the truth of a particular philosophical idea when they respectively decided to gun down cinema-goers and Sikh worshippers. Specifically in the case of Holmes though, there appears to be some similarities.
It was not a coincidence that Holmes committed his crime at the premiere of a superhero film, and much has been made of the possible effect that violent films and video games might have on young people, and how they might become desensitised to violence. Perhaps we should see this link from another perspective though; rather than emulating the violence of films such as this, perhaps Holmes and others like him are attempting to prove something about themselves and about humanity as a whole.
A wider cultural trait, by no means limited to superhero films, has emerged in recent years, and its origins can perhaps be traced back to the emergence of Ayn Rand in America. Both Rand and the superhero genre are currently experiencing something of a renaissance, particularly in America, and both involve the celebration of the ‘extraordinary’ individual, who transcends society in order to perform an action contributing to an abstract sense of ‘good’.
However, the development of this concept from idea into action relies upon other factors. Raskolnikov’s isolation from society is of central importance to his crime, as he becomes so separate from even those closest to him that he is indifference to their suffering. Wade Michael Page, with his neo-Nazi rock bands and prolific presence on far-right internet forums seems to have been isolated, at least politically, from mainstream society. This isolation is key, and it gives us a clue as to why modern mass murderers tend to spend so much time on the internet. The power of the internet to connect people often means that its power to isolate them is overlooked.
The fusion of extreme political individualism and isolation from mainstream society appears to create the potential for dangerous ideas such as Raskolnikov’s to emerge. The ‘extraordinary’ people in Raskolnikov’s mind ‘move the world and guide it to its goal’. There is no doubt that Anders Behring Breivik thought he was guiding the world towards better things when he opened fire on Utoya Island. We will not know whether Wade Michael Page would have said the same, but given his political views, it seems likely.
Yet the question still remains: even if you are trying to prove yourself as extraordinary, why commit this specific act? Perhaps it is because this kind of gun crime holds a special place within American culture. There is no denying that from the Civil War to the mythologized Old West to the 1960’s assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, guns have shaped American society directly or indirectly.
For Raskolnikov, murder was an attempt to make himself ‘a Napoleon’, a man revered despite having committed obvious atrocities. There is no single clear reference point for the modern lone gunman, but we could do worse than to suggest that they commit their acts partly in an attempt to make themselves ‘superheroes’, to try and rise above society, becoming an Ubermensch. The combination of isolation, radical individualism and the idea that some people should break the law to perform acts in a common interest leads to the possibility of a tragedy like those seen in Aurora and Wisconsin.
In the aftermath of these shootings, the discussion tended to be based on gun control. The fact that these crimes appear to be so based in culture and psychology suggests that regardless of whether gun control legislation is enacted, there will still be individuals for whom the desire to perform these acts is strong.Tagged in: Anders Behring Breivik, Aurora, batman shooting, crime, gun crime, James Holmes, murder, shootings, Wade Michael Page, Wisconsin
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