When Justin Bourque murdered 3 RCMP officers and wounded two more on June 4th, 2014, he was acting out of anger and hatred towards police and authority as a whole. He had a history of drug use, unemployment, and he spent a great deal of his time playing violent video games, but despite how the media spins it, these were not the causes of his outburst. This tragic event comes hot on the heels of the Isla Vista shootings perpetrated by Elliot Rodger. Similar to Mr. Rodger, who received accusations of being a mentally ill mysogynist, Mr. Bourque was accused of being gun-crazy, police-hating man who obsessed with violent video games and influenced by heavy metal bands such as Megadeth.
In situations of terror, which all mass shootings in essence are, we love to point the finger at surface problems. Hatred of women, hatred of police, violent video games, angry music, and mental health are frequently used as explanations for the behaviour of these individuals. These factors are not the cause of the main problem with the shooters: they are a result of the problem. People aren’t born hating women or police, they aren’t born being drawn to violent video games or angry music, and while they may be born with mental health issues, you cannot blame these individuals’ behaviour solely on the fact that they are mentally unwell.
This would attach an awful stereotype to those with Asperger’s, other forms of Autism, depression, and other mental health issues. Many people live healthy, violence-free lives with mental health disorders, and just because someone is mentally unwell, does not mean they have psychopathic, violent tendencies. Most violent crime is committed by people who are simply angry, in a compromised situation, or who have other issues completely unrelated to the chemistry imbalance in their brain.
When a terrorist attack occurs in the Middle East, why do we not immediately think these individuals performing these attacks are mentally unwell, violent video game playing psychopaths? Aside from being overtly racist or ignorant, we fail to understand what an act of terror is at its core: acts of terrorism are a cry for attention; for glory, even if the individual will forever live on in infamy. But what is the root of all of this violent behaviour?
We have, as a whole, become increasingly less violent as a species. Even since the end of the Cold War in 1989, there have been marked decreases in violence worldwide, despite what the news will lead you to believe. Ancient times were full of torture, murder, rape, and other violent acts, and many of these are present in the most published book of all time: The Bible. Despite the reverence and immense reach that The Bible has worldwide, humans are not heavily influenced by the violent chapters of the Old Testament. Human societies changed to prize commerce, cosmopolitanism, and we have embraced ideals that are more respectful of the female viewpoint. We have grown to value a more civilized world over millennia, but with our increasingly connected society, one new cause of violent behaviour has reared its head: isolation.
If you examine the personal histories of each major public shooter, you will find a trend of loneliness and isolation among these individuals. Isolation could be caused by a multitude of factors: Justin Bourque was from a large family that was home-schooled, so socially he was lacking in basic skills. Elliot Rodger did have Asperger’s, but his youth was plagued with issues of isolation, loneliness, and bullying. Seung-Hui Cho, the student who carried out the 2007 Virginia Tech Massacre, was isolated from a very young age due to selective mutism, a social anxiety disorder that hindered his speech. Cho was also bullied repeatedly during high school, furthering his isolation.
This is not to say that home-schooling breeds psychopathic killers, or everyone with Asperger’s is a lonely, misogynistic killer in the making, but these factors all created a situation of extreme loneliness and mental anguish for the perpetrators. The one factor that ties all these examples and more together is isolation. Even if you consider the case of many suicide bombers and other terrorists, many are alone, isolated, and afraid. When you are in this situation, you are more prone to influence, especially from a source that promises security and glory. This does not mean that these individuals are stupid – quite the opposite, in fact.
A high level of intelligence often equates to a strong desire to search for answers and new information. This is normally a very positive thing; curiosity fostered by high levels of intellect is a fantastic thing to harness. In a situation of isolation, individuals possessing a high level of intelligence and a great degree of curiosity can be lead down a dangerous path. Their brain is constantly problem-solving and searching for answers to their problems. Because of their lack of social IQ, violence is often the only logical solution they can think of.
These attacks are not planned by dumb people: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold (of Columbine infamy) were both straight-A students,Cho was an exceptionally talented student in mathematics, and Rodger’s manifesto, although disturbing and twisted, was eloquent and well-written. These individuals knew what they were doing: months and even years of planning went into these attacks. All that these violent outbursts were was a dramatic cry for attention; unfortunately, no one listened.
Isolation can warp even the brightest minds, and a great deal psychological research has detailed the dangers of being alone in the world. Many adverse health conditions such as cardiac disease, chronic anxiety, and stress occur at increased levels if an individual leads an isolated life.
Relationship status is paramount for men in the world, and it was reported that a man’s self-esteem is more heavily influenced by his relationship status than a woman’s, yet men do not stake as much energy in their self-worth when it comes to relationships. So while a single man can think very highly of himself, he may still be depressed. Look no further than Elliot Rodger for an example of this. He thought very highly of himself, was a pathological narcissist, yet he was miserable. Depression is chronically underreported by men, as a result of the view men hold that seeking help is a form of weakness. Even men in relationships were less likely than their female counterparts to share their feelings.
If isolation and loneliness is the problem, what is the solution? There are many factors to control for when trying to assess and repair the damage many of these individuals have suffered, but I believe at the core, it comes down reconnecting with the world, specifically with the company of other men.
If you’ll recall a famous example, in the movie The Hangover, Alan makes his famous “Wolfpack” speech, to the surprise of Doug, Stu, and Phil. Alan is clearly socially inept and lonely, but he is overjoyed that he gets to spend a weekend in Las Vegas with 3 regular guys. It gives him a sense of belonging and confidence he had never felt before, and it is what makes his transformation over the trilogy believable. If these gunmen had a more supportive network and friends and were themselves motivated to connect with others, their stress, anxiety, and resulting violent behaviour could have been reduced.
A group of guys look out for one another, help each other with their problems, and above all, are brutally honest with each one another. Honesty is a powerful tool in addressing problems, as it can often hurt in the short term, but in the long term in can help a man recognize his problems and correct them, knowing in his heart that his friends are simply looking out for his best interests. Men challenge each other: in sport, on opinions, or with competing for the attention of women. We feed off each other’s strengths, and address each other’s weaknesses.
Many men today are isolated and alone, although they may not think that. Due to more careers being isolating desk jobs rather than farm or factory work, humans in general are less able to interact on the job. As a result, many humans resort to the Internet as a source of social interaction, but this can be harmful.
As I spoke of in a previous article, escapism is a damaging habit if not controlled. It can give the illusion of community through online forums, of which almost every infamous gunmen was a prominent member. These fora provide a place for discussion with like-minded individuals, and while many are excellent resources for information as well as sources of community, some forums exist and propagate angry, harmful ideas. Real human interaction is what was lacking, but due to the presence of these online communities, the gunmen felt that they belonged somewhere and were accepted, despite the fact that none of the “friends” they were interacting with had ever seen them face-to-face.
A study of Swedish teenagers in 2008 reported that male teenagers placed a higher value in same-gender relationships; hanging out with the guys was really important to their self-esteem and well-being. Despite the belief that the world was evil and everyone deserved to be hated that was shared by many of these gunmen, what they failed to realize was that people were precisely what they needed to heal themselves.
Bullying will continue to be a problem as long as humans continue to be born different from one another, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot halt this isolation that is increasing for both boys and girls. One of the best gifts someone can give a child is confidence in themselves, and it is paramount that we do not abandon children at an early age because they are different. As a former camp counsellor, I personally witnessed the growth and development of hundreds of children, many of whom first walked in looking terrified of their new environment.
What we need to remember is that people never stop growing. High school and university are especially critical periods of growth, but adulthood can be just as precarious for a human. For those of you who are still in university, don’t cut ties with your group of friends even if you move far away for a job. Plan reunions, stay in touch, and keep that contact with each other as a regular part of your life. For those of you who fear they may be isolated: reach out in your community, volunteer, approach your co-workers about going out together. Find a source of human interaction available to you that is comfortable, but try to push beyond that level of comfort bit by bit.
For those of you who are fortunate to have a core group of friends close by: hang on to them, they provide more value to your life than you can ever know. Do not be afraid to reach out to those who may be feeling isolated. You could make a profound difference in their life and change their path forever.
It is impossible to predict these events with perfect certainty, but what we should be striving for is to reduce the chance that they ever occur again. It won’t end with stricter gun control, it won’t end by banning violent video games, and it won’t end by stricter policies on bullying. It ends with identifying those who are isolated and helping them connect with others as a fellow human being.
When I was a camp counsellor, we had an acronym to remember when were greeting our campers, especially first-timers, on the opening day of a session: WESTI.
W – Wide Smile
E – Eye Contact
S – Stoop to their level
T – Tell them about yourself
I – Introduce them to others
No anti-gun law can stand to achieve what a simple introduction can.