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Mass killings are an act of theater.

Elliot Rodger

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Kevin D. Williamson

Mass murders on the Elliot Rodger model are not a modern thing; we all know the story of Columbine, but the worst school slaughter in American history happened in 1927 in Michigan. Nor are they a gun thing; that Michigan massacre required no firearms, and neither did the crimes of Timothy McVeigh. They are not a “white privilege” thing, soiled as I feel for being obliged to write the words “white privilege”; the worst such massacre in recent U.S. history was carried out by a Korean-born American. They are not a male thing; Brenda Spencer’s explanation of her shooting spree in San Diego inspired the song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” They are not an American thing; Anders Breivik of Norway carried out the largest mass murder in modern history, though it is possible that Beijing’s Tian Mingjian killed more; Europe, the Americas, and Asia have experienced roughly comparable numbers of mass murders, with the Asian numbers slightly ahead of the rest. They are not an ideological thing; mass murders sometimes issue manifestos, but they are generally incoherent and shallow. The phenomenon of mass killings has little to do with race, sex, politics, economics, or the availability of legal firearms. Such episodes are primarily an act of theater.

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Modern technology empowers individuals to an extent that is utterly radical from the long-term perspective of human history. One might think that sometimes that means mind-controlled exoskeletons and sometimes it means Elliot Rodger, but that is not quite right: The truth is that always and everywhere it means both mind-controlled exoskeletons and Elliot Rodger. There’s nothing for it. There is no law to be passed or policy fix to be implemented. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is a very old one, that man is a fallen and unpredictable creature. And if you have not learned that lesson by now, no headline, no matter how bloody, is going to help. You cannot reduce a mass murderer to a set of motives. South Korea’s Woo Bum-kon, who led the lone-gunman rankings until Breivik superseded him, flew into a homicidal rage after his girlfriend woke him up by swatting a fly off his chest. South Korea has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the world, but Woo was a police officer with access to the local armory. The data suggest that in the U.S. context police officers are more likely to commit homicide than are members of the general public. Pass all the laws you like, but remember who enforces them.

Trying to explain such episodes is probably a pointless exercise, but if you are looking for an explanation, you might consider skipping over Jesus and James Brady and going straight to the man who really understood the times in which we live: Andy Warhol, who told the New York Times that he thought that people preferred his depictions of movie stars solely because of the subject matter. “My death and violence paintings are just as good,” he said. Warhol was a philosopher of celebrity, and one who had his priorities straight. (“One lady friend asked the right question, ‘Well, what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.”) His art was mechanical, and it was all surface. His career was in some ways one great extended joke, a mischievous indulgence in the simple and the shallow to comment on a subject of some depth and complexity — the perverse poverty we feel in an age of abundance. Warhol’s vision of mass-produced art put abundance at odds with significance, which was if anything a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor for the prosperous but miserable times that produced him. He once observed that if some miscreant began selling forgeries of his work, he would not be able to tell the difference.

But it takes a true celebrity to mock individual significance in that way. Warhol’s factory-produced work was and is valued because it was handled by, or at least once resided in proximity to, the man himself. A $5 Andy Warhol poster purchased at your local shopping mall is aesthetically the equal of his original work, and in some cases superior to it. The presence of the artist, or even the suggestion of his presence, elevates the product in our esteem. Fame is a kind of nourishment that we partake of by proxy, a kind of cultural amphetamine that gives the impression of a heightened reality. “People sometimes say the way things happen in the movies is unreal,” Warhol said, “but, actually, it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal.”



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