Why mass killers need to explain their plan

James Alan Fox

May 25, 2014

Thanks to a seven-minute YouTube video and a 141-page autobiographical tale of a troubled life, we have a fairly clear idea of why 22-year-old Elliot Rodger took to the streets of an ordinarily tranquil oceanside community in Southern California with enough guns and ammo to carry out a bloodbath. Even before the names of the six victims killed and the 13 others wounded during Friday night's rampage in Santa Barbara were publicly released, we had the benefit of the gunman's own words to help us make some sense of what seems to be such a senseless act of violence.

The chilling video that Rodger recorded while seated behind the wheel of his BMW, the same vehicle later used to facilitate his rampage, spoke volumes about how calm and collected this disturbed young man remained in anticipation of his planned assault. Even more telling was the lengthy and chronologically sectioned manuscript in which Rodger recounted the details of his unhappy youth and frustrating adolescence.

Why would this young man devote so much time and energy to reporting on his pitiful existence? Why would he then publicly distribute a document that hardly portrays him in a positive light?

Like many other rampage killers before him, Rodger likely felt the need to set the record straight — to inform the world about his justification for carnage. He may have reasoned that without his written words and recorded explanation, society would conclude he was just some deranged individual who suddenly snapped and slaughtered innocent victims for no reason at all. It would have been important for Rodger to demonstrate that at the end of the day, despite the history of bullying and social ostracism, he emerged victorious. He apparently wanted us to know that he was the good guy, not the evil one, who was ready to exact retribution for the injustices he had endured and ultimately to win one for, quite literally, the little guy.

Rodger appears to have wanted us to judge him in context. We should understand the mistreatment that he suffered at the hands of grade school classmates who teased him just for being the shortest in stature and the sense of rejection for never having even kissed a girl while undeserving other young men received all sorts of sexual favors.

The irony, of course, is that Rodger is no longer the insignificant, obscure "mouse," as he referenced himself, but someone about whom everyone is now talking.

The intense focus on the contents of the video of his murder plans and the treatise about his sad life is done, of course, in the hope that we may better recognize the precursors and warning signs for mass murder. The reality is, unfortunately, that no matter how deeply we probe, it is virtually impossible to identify would-be mass killers before they strike. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of citizens whose lives are not unlike Rodger's and who express the same kind of frustrations about their social isolation, yet never translate their disappointment into deadly deeds.

We certainly cannot legitimately detain someone in a jail cell or psychiatric ward just because they express a desire for revenge, not unless they make some concerted steps towards follow-through. The best we can do is to offer our support and friendship when encountering an isolated and troubled soul, yet most people would choose to avoid such off-putting individuals.

The real downside to the media-driven dissection of Rodger's commentaries is in the message it sends to other obscure individuals who may seek the kind of attention they have been denied for so long. Although well-crafted and even articulate, Rodger's words are not worthy of our continued study, at least not on the public airwaves. For the sake of understanding, we may have benefitted from the documentation offered within, but now is the time to turn attention to individuals far more deserving than he.

Finally, when exactly did the angry rants of a mass murderer become rightfully characterized as a manifesto? Although Rodger's document is a manifestation of emotional disturbance, it hardly qualifies to be called a manifesto. A true manifesto reflects the political ideology of a formidable leader of men, a political force to be reckoned with. Nowhere in his 141 pages does Rodger describe his manuscript in such a way.

So why should we?

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.