Contagious Hate

Mass murderers who emulate others first twist them into heroes.

Posted Apr 27, 2018

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

When I show just five minutes of the whiny YouTube clips of mass murderer Elliot Rodger to my students, it’s obvious from female reactions why this entitled narcissist had no girlfriend. Although they think he’s moderately attractive, physically, they find his self-pitying rants repugnant. So, I’m surprised to find him acknowledged by Toronto’s recent mass killer, Alek Minassian, as a hero.

But of course he’d be elevated by those who see themselves in him. That’s one dark side of social media: Copycat wannabes, infected with hate, can create role models by spinning depravity into virtue. Rodger, himself, did it.

The 22-year-old resident of Isla Vista, CA, was angry that he could not attract the sorority girls he believed he deserved, so he threatened to make them “pay.” On May 23, 2014, Rodger set into motion his “day of retribution.” He fatally stabbed his two male housemates and their friend before uploading his final nasty video.

He expected to enter the Alpha Phi sorority house at the University of California at Santa Barbara and kill every woman inside. But no one answered the door. Frustrated, Rodger shot people outside until his rampage ended when he crashed his car and shot himself. He’d killed 6 and hurt 14.

Rodger’s autobiographical manifesto, “My Twisted World,” revealed his anger and his desperate need for a certain type of woman. (He couldn’t have just any girlfriend.) Obsessed with the fact that he was a virgin, he described himself as a “supreme gentleman” who deserved the best. At the same time, he heaped scorn on the very women he wanted.

He’d likely be pleased today by the notion of “going ER” – a reference to following in his footsteps.

Minassian, 25, “went ER.” He ran a van into pedestrians in Toronto this week, killing 10 and injuring 14. He’d posted a message on Facebook that aligned him with a group of men, some of whom despise women for reasons similar to Rodger. It seems that Minassian, who’d reportedly yelled to police to shoot him, was hoping to become this group’s next martyr.

The group is “Incels,” which means involuntary celibates. It seems that some frustrated males have banded together on websites to complain about their lack of success with women and their hatred of female power. One person uploaded a picture of Minassian and wrote, "The incel revolution has begun." Another wrote: "Alek Minassian. Spread that name, speak of his sacrifice for our cause, worship him for he gave his life for our future." A third hoped he’d become their “next saint.”

Although a spokesperson insisted that the group does not condone violence, there’s plenty of blame from some members against women who fail to see their qualities. There’s also plenty of overt misogyny. One person reportedly wrote: “I want to see some mass food poisoning deaths, maybe a pipe bomb or two, or hopefully somebody finally uses a f---ing truck to just ram down [women] during a school parade or something, mix it up a little.”

Incel members or not, some men are clearly inspired (or infected) by the toxic notions that Rodger spewed on his Vlogs. They seem to prefer blaming women for their frustration to reconsidering their ineffective strategies.

Chris Harper-Mercer, too, viewed Rodger (among others) as a role model. In 2015, he shot at students at a community college in Oregon, killing 9 and wounding 7 before killing himself. He described himself as lonely, with no hope of getting friends or a girlfriend.

Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland school shooter, had also looked to Rodger’s example, as he wrote, “Elliot Rodger will not be forgotten.”

Social media offers a widespread, ever-present availability of news about violent individuals, which provides a way to swarm around them and study – even embellish – their moves. Like-minded people can easily find one another and clump together. In the company of others, they feel justified in their anger, sometimes to the point of acting out. Elliot Rodger had researched George Sodini’s 2009 attack on woman at a fitness center.

Dr. Peter Langman, an expert on school shooters and copycats, composed a chart that shows how many of today’s mass murderers have looked to prior killers. Some even adopted phrases from their blogs and manifestos. The Columbine shooters from 1999 are among the most popular, but we now have many more today from which to choose. Some mass killers had multiple sources of inspiration, noting how media coverage turns nobodies into somebodies. In a group of others who share the hate, they’re more likely to feel emboldened.

Finding such peer groups, says Langman, normalizes the violence, especially when a killer is idolized. The individuals are no longer alone with their insecurities. “It is their way of joining a subculture in which they are not only normal, but perhaps feel themselves to be special, apart from and above mainstream society.” They can make the aberrant acceptable, even noble.

Given the number of such incidents in recent years, we must ask, can anything to be done to diminish the impact of this anti-hero worship?

Langman joins others in cautioning media outlets to offer fewer specific details about a mass murderer. “It seems likely that the more the media focuses on the perpetrators rather than the victims, the more people who are at risk of violence will be influenced to commit their own attacks, whether due to imitation, inspiration, idolizing, perceived similarities, sympathy with the cause, or their desire for fame.”