Last week there was another horrific mass shooting in my home country of the United States. I didn’t get a lot of details at first, partly because I’m out of the country and don’t get US news—but partly because my Twitter feed had less actual news and more rallying cries like this:
I don’t believe that all criminals are mentally ill, and the vast majority of people coping with mental illness are certainly not criminals. But something about this sentiment seemed off.
Ari Kohen did a great job of summing up why, making three points:
- People with mental illness shouldn’t be stereotyped as criminals;
- We should be careful using the word “crazy” for everything we find weird or different;
- Nonetheless, we must not ignore the fact that this shooter was clearly mentally ill.
In other words, it doesn’t help anyone if we pretend that psychopaths are healthy balanced folks. But Ari sort of made an assumption: he’s saying someone who unloads bullets on lots of people “must” be mentally ill. Is that assumption really fair?
According to Roger Griffin, one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism, it’s a totally fair assumption. In fact, Griffin believes that mass shooters aren’t just mentally ill, they have their own unique mental illness.
The Dark Side of Heroism
Griffin says that such shooters typically have a sense of impotence, powerlessness or aimlessness tied to loneliness and isolation. To fill that sense of purpose and reclaim a sense of power they construct violent fantasies in which they are the hero, and in which they can make things right with a single dramatic act. They then grossly overestimate their own ability to change the world. They believe completely that one violent act—their mission—will have world-changing repercussions. Thus they are not only violent, they are also deluded into seeing themselves as heroes.
(Note that in different circumstances imagining yourself as a hero can be a positive force for change.)
In the case of Elliot Rodger, who committed the recent mass-killing at Isla Vista, every one of these boxes is checked. He fits this diagnosis to a T.
When defenders of the mentally ill (a cause I respect and agree with) took to Twitter after the shooting, I imagine they didn’t have many details yet. They probably didn’t realize that Rodger had written a lengthy manifesto portraying his murder spree as an act of justice. They weren’t aware of his megalomania, or how firmly he believed this one bloody act would set everything right in the world. And they almost certainly didn’t realize that he viewed himself as the hero in a cosmic battle of good against evil.
Because if they had known any of that, I hope they wouldn’t have told us the shooter wasn’t mentally ill. A better message may have been, “Most people who struggle with mental illness are peaceful and friendly,” or even, “If he’d had the treatment he needed, this might never have happened.” Both of those fit neatly into 140 characters.
But there’s no doubt Elliot Rodger suffered from delusions—delusions that didn’t just lead him to stab or shoot 20 people, but to believe that doing so was a great act of service.
This is the dark side of heroism. This is how heroic fantasy becomes a track to live out personal desires at the expense of others. Which is exactly why I insist on a litmus test for any heroic act: it has to not only meet the basic definition of heroism, but it can never be an act of forced dominion. If you are imposing your own will on others then, no matter how noble your cause (in reality or in your delusions), you can never be a hero.
I highly recommend reading the full interview with Roger Griffin at War is Boring.
My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.