Survey Results and Spree Shootings: They’re the Same Story

Survey Results and Spree Shootings: They’re the Same Story

Yesterday morning, The Wall Street Journal started the week out poorly by publishing the results of a poll about America and its “values.”  The results were not especially surprising but were, nonetheless, depressing:

Patriotism, religious faith, having children and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance to Americans, a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds.

The survey, conducted with NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization, also finds the country sharply divided by political party over social trends such as the push for racial diversity in businesses and the use of gender-neutral pronouns.

Some 38% of respondents said patriotism was very important to them, and 39% said religion was very important. That was down sharply from when the Journal first asked the question in 1998, when 70% deemed patriotism to be very important, and 62% said so of religion.

The share of Americans who say that having children, involvement in their community and hard work are very important values has also fallen. Tolerance for others, deemed very important by 80% of Americans as recently as four years ago, has fallen to 58% since then.

Bill McInturff, a pollster who worked on a previous Journal survey that measured these attitudes along with NBC News, said that “these differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America.’’ He surmised that “perhaps the toll of our political division, Covid and the lowest economic confidence in decades is having a startling effect on our core values.’’

Yesterday afternoon, things got worse – much worse, and as bad as can be imagined for six families in Nashville – when a twenty-eight-year-old person blasted through the front doors at Covenant Christian School and killed three nine-year-old children and three adults.  The killer – identified as Audrey Hale – turned out to be transgender, a biological female who “identified” as a male.

As soon as the shooter was identified, social media exploded, with a whole host of bad takes, worse takes, and worst takes.  We will refrain from republishing any of those takes, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they exhausted us and served only to aggravate the situation, rather than explain it or try to help people make sense of it.

Despite all of this, we nevertheless found the “debate” about the shooting (such as it was) to have some value.  At the very least, it helped us to realize something: these two major stories from Monday – the survey results and the shooting – were not two stories at all.  They were the same story.

Regular readers may know that we have long hypothesized that the present uptick in high-profile mass/spree shootings is, in large part, the result of a concomitant uptick in hopelessness, despair, and delusion.  It’s not the guns.  It’s not the mental illness.  It’s not the violent culture.  It’s the heroic doubling.  Or, as we’ve put it countless times over the years:

The link between young men and violence has long been established and is about as close to proven as anything in the social sciences can be.  Young men are prone to violence.  And in every generation, a certain percentage of those young men is going to deviate from societal norms and become a rather serious threat to society and its stability.  As a general rule, over the last couple of decades, crime has dropped significantly in this country, and violent crime has dropped even more.  Crime waves that experts expected never materialized, and most of the nation’s biggest cities remained among the safest At the same time, though, the incidence of young men turning to mass murder and committing heinous acts of violence nevertheless became a far more pronounced phenomenon, dominating the public consciousness and driving a political agenda.  Unfortunately, this paradox – dropping crime rates but increased frequency of high-profile spree shootings – is explained at least in part by the fantasies that a handful of these young men create to compensate for the lack of real meaning or real human contact in their lives, to offset the nihilism that plagues their existence.

Psychologists who have studied violence in young men and especially young men’s willingness to forsake everything they know, everything they’ve been taught, and everything they might otherwise believe about right and wrong, say that there is a set of shared circumstances and “revelations” that link spree killers and self-radicalized terrorists.  Faced with the emptiness of their own lives, isolated from many of their contemporaries, and desperately in search of something substantive to give their lives meaning and purpose, young men – and especially young men who find refuge on the internet and in social media – tend to create fantasy lives for themselves, alternate realities in which they not only find the meaning and purpose they crave but do so in heroic fashion.

The blogger and journalist Robert Beckhusen has written on this subject often, noting that the ties that bind spree shooters and self-radicalized terrorists are both numerous and consistent.  Young men confronted by the social and spiritual emptiness of their lives and society, default to what is often called “heroic modeling,” or “heroic doubling,” which is to say that they take on a symbolic cause and kill not just to slake their own bloodlust, but to exact revenge for a whole class of people with whom they find common cause.  Just after the spree shooting in Isla Vista, California in May of last year, Beckhusen interviewed, Roger Griffin, a professor of Modern History at Oxford-Brookes University in the UK and the author of Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning.  Griffin explained the phenomenon of “heroic doubling” and “symbolic” murder as follows:

[I]n the mind of the killer, they’re not just killing someone as the sole purpose of the destruction.  They’re killing someone symbolic of something more general, which is also meant to send a message to the survivors.

What I theorize — is that what happens psychologically — the person has undergone a process whereby a rather confused, pained, ordinary self puts on a sort of mask, which turns them into an actor — or a protagonist — in a personal narrative drama. . . .

In his avatar double, he achieves the ability to run and fight.  I believe that’s a very powerful metaphor for what happens in the process of heroic doubling.  Because the person who’s previously felt impotent and had no agency . . . is made to feel potent and have agency returned to him by adopting this mission.  So, in that moment, he becomes a heroic version, or avatar, of himself.

From the early reports, it appears that this killer saw it as a personal responsibility to “protect” other trans people by exacting vengeance against those deemed most responsible for “harming” trans youth, in this case, Christians.  Reports also suggest that the killer left a manifesto and that this manifesto spells out this belief that killing some kids would, in the end, protect other kids, trans kids.  And even if the contents of this manifesto turn out to be pure social media hype, there are trans-friendly organizations that advocate the “defense” of trans people through “vengeance” against those perceived to harm them.  This is a real movement with real supporters and real, unbowed, advocates.  Although the shooter was not male by birth, it is entirely possible (dare we say probable) that the shooting was, indeed, a product of heroic doubling.

And what, you ask, does any of this have to do with the WSJ poll cited above?

Well…the following is the passage that we almost always use to set up the heroic doubling bit:

Nihilism is a complicated and complex philosophical concept.  The heart of it, though – both linguistically and metaphysically – is nihil, the Latin word for “nothing.”  Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil; nothing . . . well . . . is.

As any schoolboy knows, nihilism as a philosophical notion is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who notably pondered the concept, its causes, and its cures.  We suppose we’ve bored you with enough with our thoughts on Nietzsche over the years, and so we’ll spare you a long and ponderous dissertation on his examination of nihilism.  As luck would have it, such a dissertation is unnecessary anyway, since perhaps the most important impact of Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism was the effect that they had on Martin Heidegger, the 20th-century German philosopher, Nazi-backer, and patron saint of postmodernism.

Heidegger, through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodern thought and especially postmodernism’s examination of reality, values, and truth.  In brief, Nietzsche’s interpretation of the purpose of being and thus the value in being helped form the foundation of Heidegger’s “dasein” (i.e. “being projected into Nothingness), which, in turn, helped form the foundation of postmodernism’s critique of objectivity and objective reality….

James Foley was executed by a man who spoke with a London accent and who was most likely a British citizen.  British intelligence estimates that there are more British Muslims serving in the militia of the Islamic State than are serving in the British armed forces.  Young men from all over the Western world – the United States, Canada, France, Australia, and especially Great Britain – have decamped to the Middle East to take part in the Islamic civil wars and to train for jihadi operations against their native lands.  After 9/11, Americans, Brits, and others were told to be leery of suspicious characters.  It will be infinitely harder to spot these characters when they look and sound just like everybody else.

The problem of the Western jihadist is likewise the problem of Western civilization.  Western morality and even much of Western religion have devolved, over the last century or more, into little more than the complicit rationalization of contemporary values.  The great moral tradition of the West has largely been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, situational ethic, a moral system that values nothing so much as non-judgmentalism and which offers very little, if anything, by way of spiritual transcendence.

Confronted by this spiritual nothingness, many people, and many young men, in particular, choose to forsake their decadent culture for something more traditional, something that offers a real and fixed belief system.  All too often, those who are best at marketing and promoting the solidity of their beliefs also happen to have rather perverted and sadistic beliefs as well.  All of which is to say that young men who are encouraged to believe in nothing often find themselves drawn instead to something.  And that something is far too often a primitive and violent misinterpretation of reality.

The Wall Street Journal says Americans have “pulled back” from their longstanding values.  We’re not even sure what that means, but we don’t think it’s entirely accurate.  More accurately, Americans have abandoned their longstanding beliefs.  And they’ve replaced them with…well…nothing.  They/we don’t believe in anything.  And it shows.

Needless to say, this makes us uneasy about the future.  This present debate will devolve/has devolved into a fight over whether guns or trans ideology is to blame for the shooting, while the larger point will be missed.  As always.  We, as a species, NEED to believe in something.  If we don’t, then we believe only in ourselves, our egos.  And that turns ugly quick.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.