Mass shootings are about alienation, not ideology
The common thread between these murderers isn't politics or mental illness
Before you even clicked the headlines, you could have guessed a great deal about the background of the murderers in Ohio and Texas who killed at least 29 people and injured many more in the span of roughly as many hours.
You knew they would be white, of course, and young. They would probably be unmarried or estranged from their wives or girlfriends. They would have no children, perhaps have vexed relationships with their own fathers, and, indeed, few if any close male friends. They would likely be gamers and participants in bizarre online alternative communities to which they turn in the hope of finding the acceptance unavailable to them in the real world and shared norms — of opinion, of language, of tastes and interests and humor. There's a decent chance they would be users of cannabis, the psychosis-inducing properties of which our elites (with a handful of honorable exceptions) will be too blinkered to discuss until we are unable to do anything about it. This is because many or all of these things are true of virtually every other person who has shot four or more people in the spontaneous eruptions of spontaneous violence that have been occurring in this country in the last two decades.
What about politics? Much has been made by opportunists, cynics, and the willfully ignorant about the contents of the El Paso shooting suspect's so-called "manifesto." What we are meant to take away from the lunatic ravings of this person is that President Trump or the GOP or the Sedgwick County Republican Party are to blame. It is true that he talked about a "Hispanic invasion" and cited a recent massacre in New Zealand as inspiration. He also ranted about "sustainability" and echoed the talking points of '70s-era leftist population-control cranks. Is concern for the environment also a Trump talking point? Meanwhile, the Dayton killer was a soi-disant "pro-Satan leftist," a registered Democrat, and a supporter of Elizabeth Warren who claimed to hate the president and police officers generically. (On a side note, it is worth pointing out that in a state in which unarmed black men are routinely killed by police officers, the El Paso shooter was able to throw up his hands and calmly submit himself to justice. Why?)
This is not about ideology. Nor, in any straightforward sense, is it about what we now call "mental illness," for which millions of Americans are treated each year. It is about alienation. It follows a distinct pattern, the one I have outlined above, which has been detectable since Columbine but which one could argue begins to emerge even earlier in the 1970s, when bomb threats were a part of daily life in this country the way that so-called "mass shootings" are now. It is also of a piece with the profile of many Islamic terrorists, who respond to the fracturing of their identities — performative religiosity at home and hedonism in London clubs or Vegas hotel rooms — with a longing for something real. They certainly get it.
Or do they? The single most horrifying thread that runs through all of these stories for me is just how disconnected from reality the murderers are, even, indeed perhaps especially, while they are engaged in their crimes. The Columbine shooters modified levels of Doom to mimic the hallways of their high school; young men still play so-called "Columbine" mods and share videos of their First Amendment-protected faux-massacres on YouTube. Technology has evolved. Today shooters live-stream their killing sprees while they are cheered on by "fans" who beg them to beat the previous "high score." The desired escape from the emptiness and banality of their existence is never actually achieved. Reality for them remains augmented.
What can we possibly do to change all of this? There are plenty of solutions. We could ban the video games that warp the consciousnesses of young men, including the vast majority who never murder anyone. We could reverse the legalization of marijuana. We could place a moratorium on non-military production of guns and confiscate all privately owned firearms (with or without exceptions for hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols that have been held without incident for a decade or more) and send the National Guard to deal with anyone who refuses to comply. We could dial the Patriot Act up to 11 or 11,000 and start imprisoning anyone who searches for "8chan archive" or "unabomber wiki." We could create a China-style closed internet and put an end to the free and open distribution of information and views as we have known it for 30 or so years. I would welcome any or all of these actions. Not a single one is feasible.
Instead we are going to continue to live in a country in which young men continue to fall into acedia, purchase weapons, and kill for entertainment. It can happen virtually anywhere, at any time. And short of a complete revolution — moral, social, political, religious — there is virtually nothing we can do about it.