“God made men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”
–Old West saying
Seldom has the motive in a mass killing been more accessible than in Isla Vista this past Friday, but that doesn’t make it any less daunting. As Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Martinez, one of Elliot Rodger’s victims, plaintively asked in a public statement, “When will this insanity stop?”
The answer, I’m afraid, is no time soon. Because, if we are being truly honest, we must sadly admit we have neither the means to do so, nor the will to try.
Unlike the late Adam Lanza, whose motives for decimating an elementary school in Connecticut remain obscured by the fog of his strange behavior and mental illness, the late Elliot Rodger could not have made himself more clear in his 107,000-word screed against the world, emailed to his divorced parents a short time before his knife-, gun- and automobile-abetted spree of violence began. It is all about hate fueled by resentment. He hated the guys who got the girls. He hated the girls they got, especially the beautiful blond ones who wouldn’t give him a second look and kept him virginal. He hated his mother for not marrying rich and giving him the lifestyle of the young, entitled Hollywood jerks he envied. And he hated his father for not being prominent enough in that shallow Hollywood culture to keep him from being marginalized from that lifestyle.
“‘Wealth,” he wrote, “is one of the most important defining factors of self-worth and superiority. I hated and envied all of those kids for being born into wealth, while I had to struggle to find a way to claim wealth for myself. I had to be ruthless, and do whatever it takes to attain such wealth. After all, it was my only hope of ever being worthy of getting a girlfriend and living the life of gratification that I desire.”
His beef, therefore, was against most of the world and he planned his revenge exactingly for close to three years. Originally, his “Day of Retribution” was supposed to take place last Halloween, but he was practical enough to realize that the police would be out in force that night, greatly lessening his chances of “success.”
And this kind of success, he had already concluded, was the only way to give his life ultimate meaning and avenge himself against all of those who had made that life unbearable.
Could he have been stopped? Well, maybe, if he had mouthed off to the police or social workers who came at his parents’ request to evaluate him. Or if anyone who heard him say he was going to kill the guys who roughed him up in a bar for bothering women had reported it. Or if his parents happened to view his You Tube video a couple of hours earlier. As it was, they desperately rushed to Isla Vista when they realized what was about to take place in an effort to stop him.
But none of that happened. And it seldom does. Sociopaths can often be quite charming and convincing. Every crime looks obvious once it’s solved and every mass murder looks preventable in retrospect. But that’s not the real world. Because for every one of these guys who shoots up a school or shopping center or movie theater or city street, there are thousands who manifest the same behavior but don’t follow through.
And then there is the issue of weapons. I suspect the gun rights hard liners will cite the fact that Rodger killed his two roommates and one guest with a knife before shooting anyone as support for their oft-quote bromide, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”
But that’s not the point. The point actually is: Objects change people.
My friend Casey Caleba, a well-known theater fight director and scholar of the history of weapons and stage combat, gives a fascinating lecture. It is on how the introduction of swords during the Renaissance to an urban class that had no real experience with them changed the culture and greatly increased the level of social violence. Casey shows how Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, well portrays this phenomenon.
We can’t say that everything would have been fine if Rodger hadn’t had easy legal access to guns. But let’s not kid ourselves. The fact of possessing guns empowered him in the Old West cliche sense. It was about feeling like he amounted to something. It was about feeling like he measured up. And in our society, guns are the easiest way for some people to feel as if they do or, at least, to balance the scales.
He could not correct the great cosmic injustice of other guys getting girls when he did not. But he could equalize it. He was intent on showing that he was “the true alpha male.” If he couldn’t do it with his own penis, he could do it with the barrel of the ultimate phallic symbol.
His original plan was to shoot every woman he found inside the Alpha Phi sorority house at the University of California Santa Barbara, but no one responded to his frantic knocking on the front door. He was, however, able to shoot two women outside the house before getting back in his black BMW to continue his rampage.
Yes, even without his guns, Elliot Rodger still would have had his knives. But make no mistake, without his guns, Elliot Rodger would have been a different person.
We live in a gun culture that is not willing to change no matter how many mass shootings there are, or whom the victims happen to be. I readily acknowledge that it is not the NRA members or their like who are committing the gun crimes. And I’m realistic enough to know that even if we somehow agreed that the Second Amendment was really about maintaining well-regulated militias and therefore decided to ban all firearms purchases tomorrow, there are enough guns floating around now to last through several lifetimes. Then there is the fact that we live in an increasingly desensitized culture that continues to stigmatize mental illness and give it insufficient medical recognition, either in public policy or private health care coverage.
Neither of these cultures is going to change.
Mr. Martinez, you are as right about the craven politicians as you are brave to say so. But the insanity, however you want to define that term, is not going to stop, and we’re all in this together. Any one of us could be you, or your fine son.