The Elliot Rodger shooting spree, like all modern tragedies, has been documented and analyzed in extensive detail. Rodger himself left behind a YouTube video and a 160-page manifesto. In an Al Jazeera America op-ed, Raina Lipsitz examined the nexus between gun violence and violence against women. Daily Beast columnist and Jeopardy! contestant Arthur Chu wrote a brilliant piece that discussed the misogynistic underpinnings of contemporary “nerd culture.” Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan spent eight hours in a PUAHate forum frequented by Rodger and encountered a conscience-shocking level of misogynistic, sociopathic discourse. A psychiatrist interviewed by the L.A. Times noted that Rodger appeared to be in “an early stage of psychosis.”
The field, it seems, has been pretty well covered. But one chilling thought lingered with me: could I, or someone like me, have triggered Elliot Rodger?
Could I have inflicted grievous psychological harm on someone like Rodger without even knowing it, without having any way of knowing it?
Because of course I couldn’t know it. And Rodger’s victims couldn’t have known it.
Consider Addison, a teenager mentioned in Rodger’s manifesto who was “once in the same position as I…[but] succeeded in integrating with the popular kids” and thereafter “betrayed me and treated me the same way the popular kids treated me, as if I’m lowlife scum.”
Would Elliot Rodger have hated me? Surely. But his is a world of one-eyed jacks—he would have had no desire to see the other side of my face, a face with black eyes and burn marks.
Following this betrayal, Rodger “delved as much into learning as I could from books at Barnes & Noble,” noting that his careful study was “fueled by my wish to punish everyone who is sexually active.” Addison and others like him provided the impetus that launched this quest for personal improvement; Addison’s backstabbing behavior offered yet another example of the universe heaping punishments upon poor, pitiful Elliot Rodger.
Rodger, of course, wasn’t poor and pitiful at all. Granted, he had his problems: He was suffering, it seems, from the early onset of mental illness. His parents were reasonably well off. His life, diagnosis of Asperger disorder aside, hardly reached Oedipus/Antigone/Job-levels of misery.
But what of Addison and his life? The manifesto provides no real details about him, save that he had once been somewhat similar to Rodger before “betraying” him. Maybe his existence was a hundred times worse than Rodger’s. But Rodger doesn’t know and assuredly doesn’t care. His own hurt, his own pain, his own loss…that’s what matters.
Rodger hated women. He hated “obnoxious jocks.” He hated attractive people. His existence was a “vicious circle of torment and injustice,” a “lonely celibate life, devoid of girls or any social interaction.” As a teenager, he was as appalled by the Justin Timberlake film Alpha Dog, which “had a profound effect on me, because it depicted lots of good looking people enjoying pleasurable sex lives” as he had once been enthralled by The Land Before Time.
Rodger, following in the footsteps of others who proved themselves able to commit great atrocities, had concluded that there was nobody left in the world who mattered but him.
Addison, however, had hit the big time. He had “integrated.” Alpha Dog would have no impact on him, save perhaps for reflecting the reality he now inhabited. Rodger, meanwhile, studied The Secret and bought Mega Millions lottery tickets, believing that he was “destined for great things” and “becoming a multi-millionaire at a young age is what I am meant for.”
The lottery, alas, failed to deliver on its promise. Rodger’s martial-arts career was stymied as well. No matter how hard he practiced his karate kicks, he “wasn’t getting better” and found himself being “disrespected” by a much younger boy as well as intimidated by his workout partner James’ physical strength. James “was so much physically stronger than me” that even Rodger’s attempts at compensating with “the deep anger inside me” during sparring sessions couldn’t close the gap.
Again, could James—who so blithely dispatched Rodger in their martial arts exhibitions—possibly have realized the toll he was exacting? And what was his interior life like? None of this matters; none of it is examined in depth.
Growing up, my domestic life was about as miserable as can be imagined. My brother and I endured abuse, poverty, chronic parental infidelity—the works, really. But we made friends easily and excelled in sports. We were always bigger and stronger than nearly all of our classmates. People laughed at our jokes; people liked us.
Would Elliot Rodger have hated us? Surely he would have. But his is a world of one-eyed jacks—and he would have had no desire to see the other sides of our faces, faces with black eyes and burn marks and rotting teeth from missed dental visits.
My father, hardly a saint but at one time a heck of a car dealer, went out of his way to convey to me how unbearable life becomes if you cannot connect with the people around you.
Kudos to Arthur Chu, Raina Lipsitz, Erin Gloria Ryan, and everyone else who explored the pathologies of the lonely world in which Rodger had dried up like a raisin in the sun. But I must underscore that one last detail, that loneliness: Rodger, following in the footsteps of others who proved themselves able to commit great atrocities, had concluded that there was nobody left in the world who mattered but him.
We know how dangerous such a position is. The political scientist Robert Putnam’s reputation is tied to a considerable extent on the strength of his magnum opus Bowling Alone, in which he describes the “cocooning” that has led to a decline in American civic engagement. The philosopher Martin Buber is best known to lay readers as the man who urged us to treat others as subjects rather than objects. And I, though certainly no intellectual heavyweight in the Buber-Putnam class, have spent a good portion of my short academic career exhorting my students to pay attention to others.
Because if people don’t exist as anything but robots following scripts, if the world is just one big Potemkin village, if everything James does and Addison does and the cast of Alpha Dog did is just another arrow in Elliot Rodger’s side . . . then what is the point? If he logs on to Facebook and perceives it as one big party where all these beautiful people are having glamorous fun that will be forever denied to him, why waste another split second on this orb?
Once more: Rodger hated women, hated most men, and had access to a weapon. According to his family’s lawyer, he suffered from Asperger disorder, which undoubtedly made it harder for him to relate to other people in the world.
But perhaps someone, or several someones, could have beseeched him to try. My father, hardly a saint but at one time a heck of a car dealer, went out of his way to convey to me how unbearable life becomes if you cannot connect with the people around you: the person who makes your deli sandwich, the person who collects your garbage, the person who drives your school bus — all of them have real stories, and all of them have experienced countless untold heartaches. Every person we encounter deserves a few seconds of our time, a few seconds when we might catch a fleeting glimpse of the common humanity that binds us together.
Rodger chose to give his imagined enemies and his actual victims no time at all. He is, in that respect, one of the most representative villains of our disaffected, disconnected age.