We’re social animals, with an instinct for group competition that’s evolved to intensify solidarity, as in team spirit. Cooperation to win makes the group stronger and insures survival. Heroes, families, and tribes compete in order to expand, lead, and dominate others. In civilization, where strangers live together, the emphasis is usually on team sports that act out warfare without the bloodshed.
In rampage killing, the symbolic quality of sport breaks down. Opponents become enemies. Defeat means death. Almost all rampage killers role-play the warrior-hero. When they dress in combat fatigues and use military weapons, psychiatry calls them pseudo-commandos. They convince themselves they’re revenging or rescuing what’s right. Police said the killer in Oregon had “a philosophy of hate,” as did Dylann Roof murdering black churchgoers, and Anders Breivik in Norway. A neighbor of the Roseburg killer reports that, “The way Chris [Mercer] carried himself was like ex-military almost—combat boots, camo pants, white shirt, brown shirt. Every day it was the same thing.” As in a war, he had body armor and was “armed for a long gunfight.”
Whatever the motive, why does rampage take the predictable form of an indiscriminate assault with guns blazing? Why this model and not another? Yes, American culture is awash in guns and heroic, paranoid stories about vigilante guns saving lives. Military weapons are readily available. And in the most expensively militarized country in history, about half of rampage killers have had military training—far more than ordinary murderers. Headline news and movies provide lavish models to follow.
All these tools presuppose a split world organized around us—or me—versus them.
Football games sometimes injure or kill the players, but part of the thrill of the game is the effort to temper do-or-die fury with skillful restraint. With a gun, a rejected player can dictate a new game and take a starring role. The wannabe hero competes with innumerable opponents, which raises the stakes and tactics to survival pitch.
Most rampage killings have a copycat quality. The Columbine killers frankly aimed for record-breaking infamy that would compel Hollywood and cow the world. They were competing for heroic celebrity. If you’re depressed or aggrieved or frightened of your own insanity, as Adam Lanza was in the Sandy Hook school savagery, the wish to be a “big man” can be irresistible. It shows up in the fascination with Hitler and Satan and messianic heroes. They’re superhuman masters of life and death. In shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner imagined he was saving the nation. As in terrorism, the violence can end in suicide, yet death in a blaze of glory can seem more alluring than an insignificant life without meaning.
What these behaviors have in common is the berserk belief that if you free yourself of all inhibitions, you can get access to amazing powers. Running amok, you feel pumped up, beyond taboos and doubts, indifferent to pain and death. You risk suicidal chaos, yet abandon generates a nervous system rush that feels superhuman. With weapons blazing, the warrior role enables you to run free, mowing down opposition, for a touchdown.
But here’s what we often overlook: rampage killers dream of heroic domination so overwhelming that they can command the world’s respect and abject reverence. The rampage is a nightmare demand to belong.
The Oregon killer sympathized with rampage killers such as Vester Lee Flanagan, because “he was all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are.” His conclusion? “Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” In another entry he commented: “People like [Flanagan] have nothing left to live for, and the only thing left to do is lash out at a society that has abandoned them.” What he calls “limelight” is the glow of belonging and the spotlight that confirms you exist and you matter. The terror is to be alone and in effect dead.
Conventional wisdom imagines berserk fury to be out of control. But in fact, as copycat rampages demonstrate, you can manipulate the fantasies and physiology. Like James Holmes in Aurora Colorado, and Adam Lanza, the Roseburg killer was on the edge of control but also planning record-breaking devastation, as he signaled on an anonymous chat-room the night before. Chris Mercer was a student at the community college, desperately uncomfortable with others and desperately unhappy. It seems likely that he murdered other students because to him they represented a rival team—and rivals who were winning.
Berserk abandon is not some rogue pathology. In fact, it is all around us today. When bungee jumpers plunge into a chasm, they are role-playing at suicide. Their calculated abandon is a form of play-death and rebirth. Rebounding, the jumpers feel more keenly alive and fearless. Pumped up to emergency levels, the nervous system reinforces a conviction of resources beyond humdrum everyday limits.
Countless American movies are fantasies of abandon. Bullets and bodies fly, but the hero emerges unscathed to claim the girl and a fertile future of more life. When this plot gets boring, the quest for more thrilling extremes becomes self-intoxicating. In an age of digital effects, the studios’ competition to develop ever more convincing mayhem becomes part of a movie’s story and a selling point.
Since WW2, and even more so since 9/11, Americans have been cultivating abandon as a style. If you have history’s most expensive military, why not use it. Every quarrel acquires do-or-die urgency. Propaganda demonized Saddam Hussein, and now the “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq has created the nightmare of ISIS, historic refugee panic, and widespread chaos in the Middle East. This is a gunfighter mentality gone amok.
In its deregulated speculation, Wall Street took extraordinary risks, endangering global finance. To score points with excited partisans, politicians look for excuses to shut down government. The same dynamics appear on a personal level in binge behavior from drug use to gambling. The allure of abandon promises to turn anxiety and depression into adrenalized potency, as in rant broadcasting’s focus on “enemies” in order to enjoy putting them down.
Underlying all such berserk righteousness is survival anxiety. Soldiers run amok facing literal death. But social death can be just as powerful. To lose face, lose hope, and to lose your mind to mental illness can also be a form of death. You can see death-anxiety behind the struggle over health insurance, in fantasies about “death panels.” A Tea Party rally audience “Cheered [the] Idea of Letting Uninsured patients Die” (ABC News,13 Sept.11). In such examples people focused on fears of victimization, then fantasized about aggression. Berserk style makes “take no prisoners” thinking seem natural and even heroic.
Guns may be the chief marker for the berserk mentality. After a rampage, gun sales surge “as buyers express fears that politicians may use the shootings to seek new restrictions on owning weapons” (AP, 25 July 12). The purchasers want to be able to kill in a pinch. Never mind that data shows that guns bought for self-defense are likely to kill the wrong people. Never mind the childish NRA fantasy that pictures gun-owners as dead-eye vigilantes killing insane killers.
Like Dylann Roof’s murder of black folks at prayer in a church, and like the cops photographed murdering black men, panic is explosive and labile. When panic and rage are confirmed, the hysteria is indiscriminate. American Christian lynch mobs did unspeakable things to their victims. Demagogues today cunningly press one hot button after another: immigrants, abortion, nigger rapists, terrorists—tools to push people to an emergency pitch.
The psychology of abandon recognizes that all these behaviors show our instinct for group protection and power. Rampage killers regularly kill to attack a hated group on behalf of some real or tacit group. Sometimes they identify with other rampage killers as if they form an army of “buddies.” Even isolated, they behave as if “my side” is triumphing over “them.” Psychotic or not, they can act as if their rampage has the “as if” quality of a football game: warfare in which the feelings are intensely real and yet death is only symbolic.
After the Oregon rampage, President Obama reasoned on television about the need for gun control. Some spectators cheered the message. But you can be sure that those who openly despise the mixed race president felt gut hostility to his appeal: a virtual fight with the president and with his “fans.” Civilization is a football game that excited strangers can attend without confusing numbers on a scoreboard with an enemies list. When the game leaves some players face down and bleeding on the field, it’s time to reexamine team spirit.