The Murder Show

by Kevin D. Williamson
Mass killings are an act of theater.

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.

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 South Korea’s Woo Bum-kon, who led the lone-gunman rankings until Breivik superseded him, flew into a homicidal rage after his girlfriend woke him up by swatting a fly off his chest.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.”

It might have surprised both of them to realize it, but Warhol was in some ways an echo of T. S. Eliot, who observed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Modern society is a capacious and well-lighted theater for individualism, but individualism, as Michael Oakeshott observed, is not for everybody — it is a pleasure that one may “enjoy as an opportunity rather than suffer as a burden” only if one is equipped to do so. Among those who are not so equipped, sanity depends upon being able to take pleasure in the happiness of others, and that is to no small extent dependent upon context. We may share in others’ happiness as members of a family or church, or of some sort of community. The connective energy does not dissipate when it is denied such associations, but is perverted instead. The tribe of Klebold and Harris offers its own sort of communion.

Elliot Rodger’s family was in relatively difficult financial circumstances, though relatively must be emphasized. His father was the assistant director of The Hunger Games, and the young man was apparently proud of his BMW coupe, but his family’s financial position was modest by Hollywood standards. Through his family, Rodger enjoyed some enviable social connections, but could not achieve the connection he desired, a romantic one. His was an individualism suffered as a burden. In another century, his life might have been given some structure by the church or by his extended family, or simply by the fundamental struggle to feed and shelter himself, which was the organizing principle of the great majority of human lives for millennia. Modernity sets us free, but it does not offer any answer to the question, “Free to do what?”

Art, particularly theater, has for a long time helped to answer that question. What we see on stage, however far removed from our own experience, is an intensified version of our own lives. The Mass is, if nothing else, an act of theater, but it is also the case, as Mikhail Bakunin wrote, that “the passion for destruction is a creative passion.” It is not mere coincidence that so many mass murderers, from the Columbine killers to McVeigh, imagine themselves to be instigators of revolution, or that their serial-killer cousins so often think of themselves as artists. Their delusions are pathetic, but they are not at all alien to common human experience. That they so often end in suicide is not coincidence, either. Their rampages are at once a quest for significance and a final escape from significance and its burdens. Whatever particular motive such killers cite is secondary at best. The killing itself is the point — it is not a means to some other end.

If anything, we should expect such episodes to become more common and more lethal in the future as increasing liberty and prosperity offer ever-greater opportunities for individual happiness and thus ever-greater opportunities for disappointment, and as technology offers the individual more effective tools both for creation and destruction. Some people will use 3-D printing and associated technologies to make customized artificial joints, and some will, inevitably, use it to create weapons of mass destruction. In our particular context, it is worth appreciating that there has never been anything like the United States. We are the third most populous country in the world, behind only China and India, and there is no wealthy and free society on anything like the American scale anywhere else in the world. It is easy to get lost in its breathtaking complexity, perhaps especially so for the relatively well-off, whose appetites are heightened by proximity to lives full of prosperity and purpose. Our variety is infinite, and its products will not always be beautiful or good.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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