Information Narcosis

The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but pens have been known to unsheathe a sword now and then.  So what about video blogs and guns?

In the wake of travesties like this latest shooting at UCSB, I’m sure the question raised at my dinner table last weekend was echoed in conversations around the country.  Why are we seeing an increase in these types of killings in the U.S. and what, if anything, might reverse the trend?  The gut responses are usually the same — gun control, less violence in media, better treatment for mental health disorders — and they always feel incomplete.  Yes, I’m personally in favor of smart gun control and loathe the NRA, but I’m more than a little skeptical that we can enact effective regulation or that doing so addresses the disease manifesting as an increase in random, multiple murders like the ones committed by Elliot Rodger.  More to the point, this latest killing by yet another disordered individual prompts me to expand on a thesis I’ve considered for some time — whether  the frequency of these acts of apolitical terrorism are in some way a byproduct of mass information diffusion.  (No, I’m not bluntly blaming the internet for school shootings.)

These recent murders by Rodger have become a flashpoint for many to raise the issues of gun control and misogyny; and while there’s never a bad time to keep either subject in the foreground, both are likely diversions from an understanding of this killing in particular and to fathoming the chronic nature of these acts in general.  As I have referenced before, terrorism expert Christopher Dickey explained to me once that all acts of terrorist-type violence contain three ingredients that can be reduced to the acronym TNT.  This stands for Testosterone, because it’s almost always young men; Narrative, a belief by the individual(s) that some wrong is being righted or avenged; and Theater, a need to perform a big act on a big stage.

The concept is neatly personified in the figure of John Wilkes Booth, whose motivation for killing Lincoln was at least tinged with the hue of envy that he was the lesser actor compared to his prodigal brother, Edwin.  And although Edwin continued to be a great, classical performer even after his brother scandalized the family name, many more of us are familiar John Wilkes’s last moment on stage shouting sic semper tyrannis! than we are with Edwin playing Shakespeare.  This desire for legend through infamy is described smartly in this article by Mark Manson, who argues that various well-meaning agendas co-opting the Rodger killings are missing the point, and I agree with him.

With regard to Dickey’s acronym, Testosterone and Narrative appear to have been closely interrelated for Rodger, and synthesized through the fog of a dissociative disorder that simultaneously excluded him from society and confused him about the reason for his exile.  It would be wrong to see Rodger as merely spoiled by privilege or as a garden-variety misogynist or chauvinist.  If you’ve ever met a child who is “on the spectrum” of autism, it isn’t a hard leap to follow the arc to the young adult, who would wonder, “But I have Armani sunglasses, why don’t girls like me?”  If it didn’t turn violent, it would be cringingly sad and deserving of empathy.  It may still be deserving of empathy (the word Manson also uses) if for no other reason than to wrestle more honestly with the complexities of a case like this.

So in regard to our underlying frustration with the volume and frequency of these crimes, we can’t dismiss the fact that the other Rodgers and Lanzas and Harrises out there have too-easy access to firearms; but I don’t think it’s irrelevant to consider the fact that they also have easy access to Theater, thanks to the expansion of both professional and user-generated platforms. Moreover, the Theater of digital diffusion is interactive, not only providing a free stage for every psychosis but also enabling every psychosis to find some resonant Narrative that concludes with the rationale of violence.  In Manson’s article, he addresses the fact that it is in our nature to avoid acknowledging the “weird guy,” who says or does uncomfortable things, the irony being that people like Rodger not only show signs that forecast their violence, they compose whole preludes to it that we ignore.  Manson writes:

 “…we fail to spot shooter after shooter because they are so close to us and so much like us.  We miss them because they are our neighbors, or classmates, our friends or even our family members.  They are right in front of our noses and we ignore them for a whole host of trivial reasons.”

Of course, there’s a lot of crazy talk on YouTube videos out there.  If we wanted criminologists and psychologists to sift through it all to try to identify the guys most likely to translate their ravings into action, we’d need many more experts than we have.  Nevertheless, there’s no denying the fact that somebody out there identifies with Rodger’s video manifestos; and there’s no denying the fact that rapid diffusion combined with the economics of web traffic ensures that this Theater of the insane welcomes all performers and will turn the most dangerous ones into shooting stars.

No, this essay is not meant to promote abolition or restriction on the use of YouTube or other social media.  These are observations that may or may not be worth exploring, and I share the thoughts humbly in that regard without pretense to knowing any answers.  Twenty years ago, the video manifesto of a future, crazed gunman was not so easily distributed; and there was no Daily Mail website enticing monetized clicks with every irrelevant, salacious detail it can turn into a headline.  To what extent all this breeds some generalized narcosis is hard to say.  But we do call it “viral.”

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