Did the New Zealand Shooter Change the Cultural Script?

Muslims shout slogans as they condemn the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, after Friday prayers at the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 15, 2019. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS)
In livestreaming the massacre, he may have created the next innovation in the mass-killing contagion.

As the number of massacres mounts, the best explanation for the never-ending stream of copycat killers, both here and abroad, remains the one articulated by Malcolm Gladwell in his seminal article on school shootings, called “Thresholds of Violence.” Essentially, he argues that each mass shooting lowers the “threshold” for the next, and inspiration matters — a lot.

Gladwell’s focus was on school shootings, and he does an effective job of demonstrating the way the Columbine killers laid down a “cultural script” for subsequent school shooters. In fact, subsequent shooters often imitated the Columbine killers so much that their own shootings were essentially “versions” of the Columbine attack.

If you translate this analysis to the horrific New Zealand massacre, you can see similar patterns emerge. The New Zealand suspect allegedly called out previous mass shooters, such as the Charleston church shooter, and even apparently went so far as to pay tribute to mass killers by name on his magazines, including the Quebec mosque killer. Note that two of the individuals he highlighted slaughtered innocent people in houses of worship. To an extent, his crime was a version of theirs.

But here’s the thing that is even more disturbing than the simple, horrifying fact that this depraved man killed 49 people. Here’s the thing that’s more disturbing than his apparent copycat killing: He livestreamed the act, and in so doing he not only made millions of people direct witnesses to the slaughter, he may well have created the next innovation in the mass-killing contagion. He may well have written a new cultural script.

Of course the New Zealand killer is not the first person to film his own horrible crime. We’ve sadly seen “live” killings before. But he’s the first mass killer to so prominently turn his massacre into a brutal, real-life approximation of a first-person-shooter video game. He’s the first mass shooter to bring every aspect of his evil straight into the virtual world.

And don’t think for one second that we can fix this new problem by yelling at social-media companies to “do better” — to demand that they block videos before they can be seen. It’s an impossible task. The Internet is too diffuse, and the technology of video broadcast too ubiquitous. There is no ability to effectively, instantaneously police abuse.

In both my military and my civilian careers, I’ve been in meetings and discussions where someone points out a potentially unsolvable weakness in our systems and says, “Well, I hope the bad guys don’t figure this out.” I have a sick, sinking feeling that a vicious terrorist just “figured out” a path to even greater notoriety.

After mass shootings, we often focus on the instrument of death to the relative neglect of the culture of death. There are very human reasons for this — the cultural problem feels so big, so impossible to address, that we fix our eyes on the things we think we can control. We seemingly can’t control whether shooters become famous. We can’t control the fact that there are young men drawn to their example. We can’t control which aspects of their murders will capture the imagination of the next wave of killers.

And here we go again. The actions of a single man in a nation half a world away are the biggest story in America, and millions of people watched him commit his murders from the murderer’s own view.

There will be much to think about in the coming days. For example — as if we didn’t know this already — no longer can we look at the far-right message boards and laugh off the worst speakers as “just” trolls or “edgelords.” In fact, given the New Zealand shooter’s rather obvious effort to manipulate American public opinion, here the murders and manifesto seem to be part of the troll itself, woven together in an inseparable stew of hate and spite.

I’m old enough to remember Columbine vividly. We all recoiled in horror but, in hindsight, weren’t horrified enough. We did not realize that a new cultural script was written right in front of our eyes. I hope and pray that I’m wrong, but the New Zealand shooting feels more momentous even than the killings of the recent past. This was online darkness brought to life, then streamed back online. Another threshold has been crossed, and I fear there is no going back.


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