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Fame, media and mass shootings: Culture plays a role in creating these tragedies

The crime scene inside Seattle Pacific University's Otto Miller Hall. Credit: SPD

As the details unfold in the mass shooting on the Seattle Pacific University campus less than two weeks after the mass shooting at the University of California Santa Barbara, the proximity of these two events is alarming. Details on the motivation of the shooter in this most recent incident are still coming out, with reports indicating that the accused gunman, 26-year-old Aaron Ybarra, was obsessed with the Columbine High School shootings, had visited Colorado to see the murder site, and wanted to shoot up a school.

It would have been difficult for anyone, including Ybarra, to miss the news coverage on the University of California Santa Barbara mass murder committed by Elliot Rodger — yet another tragic incident that points to the need to examine the complex and potentially lethal interaction between media technology, culture, and violence.

For months before he committed mass murder on the University of California Santa Barbara campus, Elliot Rodger, son of the assistant director of the Hunger Games movies, posted a string of publicly available videos on YouTube and his Google+ account.

Through online anti-women and bodybuilding groups, he communicated his views about “sorority girls,” who were his monstrous enemies and who deserved to be destroyed. And in the 141-page manifesto that he circulated to friends and family, he referred to himself as an addict of the World of Warcraft online games. Apart from the much-circulated “Retribution” video in which he warns “stuck-up blonde sluts” and “sexually active men” of utter annihilation, he made other videos, including one in which he talks about how jealous he is as he watches a couple kissing on a waterfront bench. In one video, he drives his car along palm tree-lined streets while winking at the camera and dancing to the Whitney Houston song “How will I know?” Elliot Rodger’s final “Retribution” video is a hauntingly grandiose rant in which he sits in his BMW with a latte and refers to himself as “the perfect guy,” “the true alpha male,” “the supreme gentleman,” and “God” as he describes the rejection he experienced as a 22-year-old virgin. He refers to his victims as “animals” who treated him like a “mouse.”

The incident raises questions about the unprecedented use of the Internet to publicly share videotaped narrations and communication of his motive, thought process, and omnipotence. The killings of seven people (including himself) and the wounding of 13 others force us to examine aspects of our culture that could have contributed to the nature and dynamics of the crime he ultimately committed.

What made this young man believe that he will go down in history as a hero for publicly spewing misogynist hatred, verbally and systematically articulating the mental mechanisms of a psychopath, and acting on his displaced aggressive urges to destroy in a violent rampage?

Elliot Rodger’s behavior was media-mediated to an extent we have never seen before in human history. It is difficult to watch Rodger’s videos without being reminded of the Columbine killers’ “basement tapes,” the Virginia Tech gunman’s photo diary, the BTK Killer’s Academy Award-inspired sentencing speech for his crimes committed in Kansas between the 1970s and the start of the ’90s, and The Dark Knight Rises theater mass murder by a gasmask-clad killer proclaiming he was the Joker. There was also 18-year old Devin Moore who murdered a police officer and dispatcher in Alabama after playing hours of Grand Theft Auto Vice City and told police when he was caught, “Life is like a video game. Everybody’s got to die sometime.” Natural Born Killers-inspired copycat sprees were committed by multiple teenage couples in the United States and Europe. A wrongful death lawsuit against Stone asserted that the film incited violence and that Stone and Time Warner intended the violent effect of the film. The case was remanded to the Louisiana court and eventually dismissed; but this case was the first of its kind in which a Supreme Court ruling let stand a state court’s rejection of 1st Amendment free speech claims.

Twenty-five years ago, Joel Black wrote The Aesthetics of Murder arguing that we live in a “historically unprecedented context of hyperaestheticized mass-culture.” Black told the stories of the media-mediated murders committed in the early 1980s by Mark Chapman who killed John Lennon as he channeled Holden Caulfield in the Catcher in the Rye and John Hinckley who attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan when he blurred the boundary between himself and Travis Bickel after watching the movie Taxi Driver 15 times. That was over a generation ago — before the Internet, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, YouTube, and Google+.

The nature of Rodger’s videos seem especially extreme and worthy of attention as an illustration of today’s historically unprecedented hyperaestheticised celebrity culture and its potential impact on violence-prone individuals. Rodger’s grandiose performance bears a blatant similarity to the primitive defenses and thinking errors that make up the mental mechanisms natural to psychopaths and necessary for one human being to kill another.

Psychopaths need an audience to threaten, intimidate, and put down in order to build themselves up. Elliot Rodger engaged in a mass media display of mental dynamics necessary for psychopaths to kill without remorse — a complex process of idealizing and devaluing their victims and making them into monsters they are entitled to control, while seeing themselves as victims and denying the harm they have caused. Frame by frame, Elliot Rodger articulated all that in his Retribution video. Rodger likely suffered from mental illness beyond having features of a personality disorder. However, his video rant contained verbalizations that are associated with features of psychopathy and are eerily similar to the verbalizations that come from the mouths of actual psychopaths.

Regardless of what clinical diagnosis this young man may have had, his thinking process made it possible for him to kill without remorse. He was operating under the influence of mass media, celebrity culture and the glorification of psychopathic values.

The cultural swath of mass media technology at historically heightened levels played a role in Rodger’s modus operandi and crime signature. This should be seen as a warning of the power of mass media and celebrity culture to glorify psychopathic values in the minds of a vulnerable subset of the population.

Like Rodger, Aaron Ybarra apparently brought both a gun and a knife to the crime scene. Like Rodger, Ybarra had previous encounters with police and had had mental health issues and referrals. And like Rodger, he had articulated grandiose intent, telling officers in a prior encounter that he wanted the SWAT team to get him and make him famous.

The nature of these offenses and their close proximity should be a wakeup call to the evolving nature of media-mediated murder. We need to move beyond the question, “Did media and popular culture make him do it?” We need to ask what media mediated crimes like this and the criminals who commit them tell us about our culture, and what does our culture tell us about them? Regardless of what clinical diagnoses these young men had, Rodger’s use of the Internet, videos, and online sites to spread his message and Ybarra’s fixation with Columbine and the desire to commit murder for fame in a frighteningly similar incident less than two weeks later provide a blaring call for attention to the ways in which media technology and culture play a role in the method and mindset of individuals prone to commit violent crime.

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