Remember when the scariest kid in your neighborhood was the football jock who terrorized the high school with his minions in tow, and got bailed out by his rich parents when he went too far? Or it was the gothic malcontent with the switchblade and the swagger. Either way, what made these high-status alphas so terrifying was that they came at you in numbers. They travelled in packs. This has been our narrative, in the stories we tell—from Henry Bowers in Stephen King’s It, to Biff Tannen in Back to the Future, to Billy Hargrove in Stranger Things, central-casting bullies attracted followers. They belonged.
As any grade eight schoolgirl who’s been bullied off Instagram can attest, this stereotype still holds. But when it comes to the most dangerous and sociopathic actors, the opposite is true. All three of the young mass shooters who terrorized the United States in recent nationally reported scenes of carnage—Connor Betts in Dayton, Ohio; Patrick Crusius in El Paso, Texas; and Santino William Legan in Gilroy, California—acted alone. The old image of the bully as locker-room alpha or goth leader now seems passé. Often, it is the kid who used to be the fictional protagonist, the social outcast, the member of the Losers Club from It, whose face now appears on our screens with a nightmarish empty stare.
These recent shooters fit a similar profile. They were outsiders, all seemingly socially awkward, who became emboldened through fringe online communities that act as mutual-support societies for violent malcontents. This phenomenon is fuelled by hate, guns, mental illness and ideological extremism. But there is another factor at play here, too. Before a youth makes the decision to murder, before the gun is stashed in his backpack, before his state of mental health is so deteriorated that he commits the unthinkable, what has happened to him? It’s important to remember that these murders are also, in most cases, suicides.
In his 2008 article School Shooting as a Culturally Enforced Way of Expressing Suicidal Hostile Intentions, psychiatrist Antonio Preti summarized existing research on school shootings to the effect that “suicidal intent was found in most cases for which there was detailed information on the assailants.” The research also indicated that “among students, homicide perpetrators were more than twice as likely as their victims to have been bullied by their peers, and also were described as loners and poorly integrated into school activities…In most of the ascertained cases, perpetrators prepared a well-organized plan, and often communicated details about it to acquaintances or friends, who failed to report threats because they did not consider them serious or were embarrassed or ignorant of where to go for help. The most antisocial peers sometimes approved the plan, sharing the same anger against the stated target of violence.”
Preti’s article predated the rise of some of the most notorious web sites—including 8chan, which was shut down this week after several mass shootings were linked to its users. But the nihilistic phenomenon these killers represent predates modern social-media culture. Indeed, it predates digital communication, and even broadcast media more generally.
In 1897, French sociologist Émile Durkheim noted that suicides overall were increasing in society. But there were differences among the affected populations, he noticed. Men were more likely than women to commit suicide—though the chances decreased if the man was married and had children. Durkheim observed that social groups that were more religious exhibited lower suicide rates. (Catholics were less likely to commit suicide than Protestants, for instance.) Durkheim also noted that many people who killed themselves were young, and that the prevalence of such suicides was linked to their level of social integration: When a person felt little sense of connection or belonging, he could be led to question the value of his existence and end his life.
Durkheim labelled this form of suicide as “anomic” (others being “egoistic,” “altruistic” and “fatalistic”). Durkheim believed that these feelings of anomie assert themselves with special force at moments when society is undergoing social, political or economic upheaval—especially if such upheavals result in immediate and severe changes to everyday life.
Durkheim came from a long line of devout Jews. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all been rabbis. And so even though he chose to pursue an academic career, his experiences taught him to respect the mental and psychological support that religious communities supplied to their members, as well as the role that ritual plays in the regulation of social behavior. In the absence of such regulation, he believed, individuals and even whole societies were at risk of falling into a state of anomie, whereby common values and meanings fall by the wayside. The resulting void doesn’t provide people with a sense of freedom, but rather rootlessness and despair.
Durkheim’s thesis has largely stood the test of time, though other scholars have reformulated it for modern audiences. In his 1955 book The Sane Society, for instance, Erich Fromm wrote that, “in the nineteenth century, the problem was that God is dead. In the twentieth century, the problem is that man is dead.” He described the twentieth century as a period of “schizoid-self alienation,” and worried that men would destroy “their world and themselves because they cannot stand any longer the boredom of a meaningless life.”
In her 2004 book Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman described findings gleaned from over 100 interviews in Arkansas and Kentucky. The male adolescent shooters at the center of her study, she concluded, “shared a belief that demonstrating strength by planned attacks on their respective institutions with (too) easily available guns would somehow mitigate their unbearable feelings of inadequacy as males and bring longed-for respect from peers.” Ten years later, in a 2014 article titled The Socioemotional Foundations of Suicide: A Microsociological View of Durkheim’s Suicide, sociologists Seth Abrutyn and Anna Mueller set out to update Durkheim’s theory about how social integration and moral regulation affect suicidality. “The greater degree to which individuals feel they have failed to meet expectations and others fail to ‘reintegrate’ them, the greater the feelings of shame and, therefore, anomie,” they concluded. “The risk of suicidal thoughts, attempts, and completions, in addition to violent aggression toward specific or random others, is a positive function of the intensity, persistence, and pervasiveness of identity, role, or status-based shame and anomie.”
Writing in the 1890s, Durkheim was highly conscious of all the ways that industrial capitalism corroded traditional forms of social regulation in society, often at the expense of religious—and even governmental—authorities. (“Depuis un siècle, en effet, le progrès économique a principalement consisté à affranchir les relations industrielles de toute réglementation. Jusqu’à des temps récents, tout un système de pouvoirs moraux avait pour fonction de les discipliner…En effet, la religion a perdu la plus grande partie de son Empire. Le pouvoir gouvernemental, au lieu d’être le régulateur de la vie économique, en est devenu l’instrument et le serviteur.”) But if he were to visit us in 2019, Durkheim would be surprised at the extent to which once-dominant ideas with no connection to economics have been marginalized as regressive and hateful—such as nationalism, patriotism and even masculinity.
This is one reason why so many people now feel unmoored. As Canadian science fiction writer Donald Kingsbury eloquently put it in his novel Courtship Rite, “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems. Throw away the solution and you get the problem back.” Faith in god, country and manhood might be seen as regressive by modern lights. But insofar as they were holding back male anomie, we perhaps neglected to consider what damage would be done if we discredited those ideas before finding replacements.
In the history of our species, there has never been (to the knowledge of modern scholars) a human society that did not express belief in some sort of supernatural force—which suggests that we are programmed by a need to believe in something bigger than ourselves. Sociologist Max Weber warned in 1919 that “science deals with facts. It can’t tell us what to do or what’s important.” This is to say that while the scientific revolution did a good job of helping us explain and harness the natural world, it did nothing to fill the god-shaped hole that Blaise Pascal identified in the 17th-century: “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
If we are to resign ourselves to the fact that “God himself” isn’t going to intercede any time soon, then we are left with the ordinary tools of policy, such as Robert Putnam outlined in his famous 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, in which he pointed to the value of “the connections among individuals’ social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” These connections could be strengthened, Putnam argued, through improved civics education, more extra-curricular activities for youth, smaller schools, family-oriented workplaces, a more enlightened approach to urbanism, technology that reinforces rather than replaces face-to-face interaction, as well as a decentralization of political power. These recommendations were written 19 years ago, before Facebook, Twitter or 4chan existed. It would be interesting to know how he would revise his recommendations now that we have a better appreciation for the massive effects of digital culture on our social dynamics.
In a 2017 article I wrote, titled Towards a Theory of Virtual Sentiments, I argued that real-time empathy generation often requires some degree of eye contact—which is hard to generate through online interaction. Moreover, it is shockingly easy to get worked up into a rage when you are interacting with an online avatar of a person you have never met. Simply put, the more we physically see each other, the less likely we are to be awful to each other. As Louis CK said in an interviewabout youth and technology, “They don’t look at people when they talk to them and they don’t build empathy. You know, kids are mean, and it’s cause they’re trying it out. They look at a kid and they go, ‘You’re fat,’ and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go, ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’ But when they write ‘You’re fat’ [online] then they just go, ‘Mmm, that was fun, I like that.’” Even putting aside the extreme cases of forums that cater to homicidal shooters, I remain unconvinced that any community that exists primarily in online form can be a force for long-term good. Perhaps more time offline is a good start for anyone seeking to enhance “the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.”
Do we need a new nationalism? A new religion? What common human project can we collectively embrace that gives a sense of mission to everyone, regardless of skin color, religion, economic class or ideology? It would be presumptuous for me to suggest I have the answers. All I know is that men who see human life as meaningless are symptoms of a larger sense of anomie that, in less dramatic and destructive form, increasingly grips us all.