While the two profiles of mass murderers across the western world in recent years seem totally different from each other, they seem to share a common theme. While the “angry white men” and “ISIS inspired” “Lone Wolves” have different world views, backgrounds, and perspectives, it is in the psychological underpinnings driving of these killers where we can find common ground.
At this point the perpetrators of brutal acts of violence claiming sometimes scores of innocent lives can be divided into two major categories. The first are usually younger American men of European heritage. Devin Kelley who shot up the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs Texas on November 5th, Adam Lanza who mercilessly killed a room of children at Sandy Hook Elementary, James Holmes who gunned down movie goers in Colorado, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of the 1999 Columbine Massacre all fit this profile. While Stephen Craig Paddock, who recently shot down country Music fans in Nevada was much older than other mass murderers, he can still certainly be considered an “angry white man.”
The second group, the “ISIS inspired” “lone wolf” killers, who are usually designated as terrorists due their religious statements, are younger men as well. However, they tend be from immigrant families, though many of them are born in the western country they eventually attack. Omar Mateen who shot up the Pulse night club, New Jersey bomber Ahmed Rahami, Salman Abedi who bombed the Manchester concert, the Tzarnev Brothers who attacked the Boston Marathon, all fit this category of ISIS or Al-Qaeda inspired, lone wolf killers.
The Motivations of Mass Murderers
So, what drives these people to take the lives of random innocent people? Let’s begin with the lone wolves inspired by Wahabbi extremists.
When examining such people, a rational person will ask: Who could be possibly be inspired by an ISIS video? A normal person watches clips of inhumane brutality and is disgusted. They see a person being burned alive, or drowned in a cage, and they are overwhelmed with empathy for the person being subjected to such cruelty. They see a person suffering so horrifically, and feel empathy for the victim, while seeing the perpetrators as cruel and heartless. However, there is a rare type of person who has a different reaction to such films. These deranged individuals, the kind who have tortured animals as children, see such a video, and rather than feeling empathy for the victim, become overwhelmed with admiration for the perpetrators.
Perhaps the person has been emotionally isolated or disconnected from others, not developing proper interpersonal capabilities allowing empathy. Perhaps the person was ruthlessly abused and desperately block out any feelings empathy to avoid recalling their own trauma. Regardless, the way they process acts of cruelty is to admire the perpetrators, not to sympathize with the victims. They live a bored life, holding contempt for their fellow human beings. Eventually, seeing the ISIS videos inspires them, and they go out and attempt to mimic their atrocities.
When it gets down to it, the mindset of “angry white men” who go on mass shootings is not so different than the mentality of “lone wolves” inspired by ISIS propaganda.
After the infamous Columbine Massacre of 1999, one of the most deadly mass shootings of up to that point, the media was filled with a barrage of falsehoods. Now, almost two decades later we learn that American mainstream media had the story all wrong. The students were not fans of Marilyn Manson. The students were not members of a “Trench Coat Mafia.” They did not execute a classmate for saying “yes” when asked if she was a Christian, and they were not seeking revenge for bullying.
In reality, Eric Harris, the mastermind of the attacks, enjoyed hurting other people. He studied mass murder and acts of brutality, and like those who watch ISIS videos, he admired the perpetrators and felt no sympathy for the victims. Harris’ believed in Social Darwinism, and as he slaughtered his classmates, he wore a T-shirt quoting Charles Darwin’s widely misinterpreted phrase “natural selection.” Harris co-conspirator was Dylan Klebold, a somewhat depressed and troubled person who came under his influence.
Eric Harris fit the profile perfectly, and if he was from an immigrant family and conducting his crimes in more recent years, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine him swearing allegiance to Al-Baghdadi. The ISIS inspired killers and the mass shooters share this lack of empathy, and admiration for inhuman cruelty. Whether they justify it with White Supremacism, Social Darwinism, or a desire to build a Wahabbi Caliphate, these themes of admiring cruelty and lacking basic empathy, are the common psychological thread that ties the actions of mass murderers together.
“Western Values” & Psychopathy
The bigger question is, where does this mindset come from?
In the global mind, mass shooters, ISIS inspired or otherwise, are closely associated with the United States. Michael Moore’s Oscar winning documentary “Bowling For Columbine” explored the question of what within American culture could possibly be driving such horrendous crimes. It has become almost cliché for TV journalists and public intellectuals to tearfully ask “why does this keep happening?” after each occurrence.
In reality, finding the roots of the mindset that drives mass murderers may not be as difficult as the endless amounts of TV news segments, books, and documentary films make it out to be.
One iconic person that emerged in the USA during the dawn of the Cold War is the novelist and pseudo-philosopher Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand’s writings are widely circulated throughout the United States. Business schools often recommend that future entrepreneurs study them. FOX news has run segments promoting Rand’s works in recent years, decades after her death.
The widespread promotion of Ayn Rand’s writings is relevant to the question, because Rand’s mindset has a lot in common with that of mass murderers. Rand espoused a concept called “the virtue of selfishness.” She argued that altruism and empathy, or any form of compassion for others, was the root of society’s problems.
Ayn Rand’s magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” tells of the “great men” i.e. business owners and inventors, going on strike against a world filled with ungrateful people who tax and regulate them.
In Rand’s novel “The Fountainhead,” the hero breaks into the apartment of a woman and rapes her. Rand doesn’t portray this as a crime, but rather as a heroic event. Howard Roark, her protagonist, is presented as a misunderstood “great man” somehow asserting his natural position of power.
The biography “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right,” describes how shortly after immigrating to the United States, Rand deeply admired a convicted murderer. As a recent immigrant from Russia living in Chicago, the young Ayn Rand swooned over William Hickman, a man who strangled his own wife, and refused to show remorse. Rand spoke of this man, who was eventually executed, with glowing admiration for his refusal to conform to society’s wishes.
This beloved ideologue of American capitalism preaches the very mindset found in mass murderers, be they “lone wolves” or “angry white men.” Like Eric Harris who gunned down innocent students wearing his “natural selection” t-shirt, she portrays the poor and oppressed as worthy of their suffering, while presenting those who victimize them as heroes, asserting their inherent superiority.
Ayn Rand is not a marginal figure in American discourse. Rand was the personal mentor of Alan Greenspan, who was Chairman of the Federal Reserve for decades, and headed of the Council on Foreign Relations. Republican Party leader Paul Ryan considers Ayn Rand to be his greatest influence.
All across America, young people are being encouraged to read the writings of someone who was essentially preaching and promoting the ideology of serial killers. Some of the most powerful politicians in the USA consider her a source of inspiration. No tyrants or dictators of the past, no matter how tyrannical and evil, distributed literature extolling the “virtue of selfishessness” and promoting the mentality of serial killers. The ideology and corresponding insanity currently gripping the United States is certainly unique.
This mindset emerged when the Cold War pusheded the United States into an identity crisis. The country eventually positioned itself ideologically to be the total opposite of the Soviet Union. This meant unleashing very dangerous political and philosophical doctrines.
While US leaders unleashed free market psychopathy in their own country, they collaborated with Wahabbi extremism abroad. Both ideologies served the same purpose, to preserve western capitalism as the dominant force in the world, and mobilize violence against those who challenged it.
While the ISIS and Al-Queda killers in the Middle East obviously spell out their beliefs quite differently from free market extremists, they have been unleashed to serve the same system. The United States armed and trained Osama Bin Laden to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Tzarnev Brother’s parents had worked against the Soviet Union as Chechen Separatists. Salman Abedi had fought the Islamic Socialist Government of Libya along his parents. ISIS itself emerged from US backed forces, trained and armed to topple the Baath Socialist government of Syria.
The foundations of western capitalism can be found in the political ideals of liberalism. Liberalism is a school thought that prioritizes the individual above all else, and works to break down any group identification or community obligation. Social liberalism involves the destruction of the family, traditional morality, religion, and nationalism. Economic liberalism involves a belief that “greed is good” and that the state should play no role in redistributing wealth or controlling the economy.
In global discourse, the ideas of “liberalism” have been defined as “western values.” This is a distortion. Many of the first settlers to the United States, those in places like New Harmony and Zoar, built socialistic communes in the new country. The US Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist Baptist minister named Francis Bellamy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the beloved commander-in-chief who led the country to align with Russia and China against fascism, castigated the “economic royalists,” raised taxes on the ultra-rich to above 90%. Roosevelt even defended the right of workers to occupy their factories during strikes.
Roosevelt called for government policies to protect working families, not simply as an act of kindness, but as a mechanism for preserving democracy, declaring: “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” He urged the USA to adopt a second bill of rights, containing: “The right of every family to a decent home; The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health; The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; The right to a good education.” He added: “All of these rights spell security.”
Warped Morality, Not “Western Values”
It was only during the Cold War that the pathological selfishness, espoused by free market ideologues and serial killers became so closely associated with the American mindset. Furthermore, it was only after the fall of the Soviet Union and that such concepts were considered by so many in the western world to be completely infallible.
Oddly, it was in the 1990s, as free market selfishness was being declared ‘the end of history’ that the kind of mass shootings that are now so prevalent began to occur. It was young people, high school students, whose minds had been crafted by a mass media extolling “the virtue selfishness” and the supposed irrationality of compassion and community, that began slaughtering their classmates.
The radical free market ideology that emerged within the USA during the Cold War, and declared itself the final victor in 1991, contains within it the deranged, inhuman mindset of mass murderers. It proclaims that the poor deserve their condition, and the rich and powerful have their positions due to some kind of inherent superiority. It proclaims that efforts to aid those who are suffering are a waste of time.
These are not “western values,” they are inhuman values. The fact that the western world has embraced them, and now screams them from the heavens, while inculcating them among the youth, should certainly be factored in when trying to explain the prevalence of tragic occurrences of mass murder in the United States.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.