On Friday night, Elliot Rodger embarked on a shooting rampage, killing 6 people in I.V. Deli Market in California. In the days following, Rodger’s 141 page manifesto, in which he described in detail his feelings of alienation and isolation from society, began to circulate on the internet. Of course, we’ve all felt alienated and isolated before, but something drove Rodger to act on those feelings, and for some reason he felt that murder was the appropriate way to act out his anger with the world.
We live in an age when mass killings have begun to seem like commonplace horrors: the shootings at Aurora, CO, and Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Virginia Tech Massacre, and now Elliot Rodger. It seems that as soon as the American public begins to move on from one of these mass killing sprees, somebody else decides it’s time to break out a gun. But why do they happen? The two most common explanations are that a killer’s actions were shaped by circumstances or by mental illness.
In his manifesto, Rodgers asserts that “[he] didn’t want things to turn out this way, but humanity forced [his] hand.” In fact, “[he] started out as a happy and blissful child, living [his] life to the fullest in a world [he] thought was good and pure…” It was only as he got older and began to experience rejection by the women in whom he was interested that he began to describe his existence as one “of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in [him].” Rodgers bemoans his fate as a 22-year-old virgin and, in all-too-misogynistic terms, blames his situation for the actions which he chose to take. We know, of course, that many people have survived romantic or sexual rejection without resorting to murder. However entitled Rodger may have felt to sex, his circumstances were not far from the ordinary.
We turn then, to the question of mental illness. Psychologists have conducted countless studies on the arbiters of mass killings, trying to understand what leads them to commit murder. We want to know not only how to identify killers but also how to stop them before they act. Such studies, however, have all come up against a similar problem: we really have no idea what makes a killer.
We could talk about revenge fantasies, social isolation, or other common characteristics of those who become mass murderers, but the fact is that people experience these feelings and fantasies all the time. So many people experience feelings of isolation or loneliness, but not all of them choose to kill people. Should we, then, attribute his violence to mental illness? According to Seena Fazel, a senior lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Oxford, "[t]he vast majority of violent crimes in society, including homicides, are not committed by people with mental illness. That needs to be clear… Most people with mental illness are not violent, and most violent crimes are not committed by people who are mentally ill."
When we hear about mass killings like those committed by Rodger, our knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss the killers as ‘crazy’ and, thus, to mark them as ‘other.’ In some ways, it’s a survival tactic: we don’t have to deal with what caused their actions if we characterize them as motivated by an internal, mental problem. Our automatic attribution of these people’s choices to mental illness not only avoids addressing the problem, but also increases the stigma around the already stigmatized subject of mental illness.
So why did Elliot Rodger choose to murder all of those people? I don’t know. But we need to keep doing research instead of dismissing it as mental illness.
Images courtesy of everyjoe.com, http://www.breitbart.com/, http://www.livescience.com/, and http://www.psychiatry.org/.