Mass Shootings and the World Liberalism Made
The debate over more or less gun control completely misses the horrifying heart of the matter: the modern world breeds the nihilism behind mass shootings.
Sandy Hook was supposed to be the tipping point in our national conversation about mass shootings. This wasn’t a shopping mall or movie theater. It wasn’t a high school. We could imagine this happening at a high school. We had seen that before.
But we could not imagine anyone shooting six-year-olds. It was so monstrous that it seemed beyond the pale of possibility.
In the decade between Sandy Hook and the recent shooting in Uvalde, Texas—which left 22 dead, including the shooter—we seem to have learned nothing. We are as mystified today as we were then. That is why, sadly, more Uvaldes are likely to come unless we learn to reckon with reality and think beyond trite talking points.
The explanations offered by journalists and politicians are always the same: online radicalization, video games, white supremacy, misogyny, loneliness, fatherlessness, lack of sex, lack of intimacy, lack of community. The left demands stricter gun control and red flag laws. The right, fearful the left may prevail, insists that the real issue is our mental health epidemic—the result, we hear, of all those antidepressants and antipsychotics being prescribed to fatherless young men—and that the solution is to arm schoolteachers and hire more on-campus cops.
Influencers on both sides of the divide greatly exacerbate things by hammering every calamity into their preferred tool of choice—which boils down to fewer guns or more guns.
But do you know what’s more outrageous than failing to implement mandatory gun buybacks or school shooters not being stopped in their tracks by social-studies teachers packing heat? The cloying insistence by public figures and talking heads on fitting these incidents into self-serving, click-generating narratives. Amazingly, the only people who seem genuinely interested in figuring out what the hell is happening to America are consigned to niche spaces like the true-crime community and those who actually know something about violence and psychology and American gun culture. But it is these people who are all too often drowned out by hucksters and audience-building blue checks.
Yes, America has a mass shooting problem. But why?
This is the only question that really, truly matters. Not the how. Not the technical details, the policies—the do-we-suction-up-all-the-AR-15s-or-arm-the-teachers debate, which is frankly beside the point.
It is the why. The impenetrable darkness beneath all the bloodshed.
Do you know why this is happening, America? It’s not the prevalence of guns. There have always been guns. Nor is it the dearth of guns. Paradoxically, either restricting access to firearms or making sure more teachers have them might do some good, but neither addresses the real reason for taking those steps in the first place.
The real reason for our mass shootings—hear me out—is that we have a nihilism problem.
By “we,” I mean the huge swaths of American society consumed by hopelessness, rage, and fear reflected in our politics, tribalism, social media, and even language. Many of us seem incapable of containing our furies, even as we are unsure what we are raging against—or for. Violence begets violence; all have become desensitized to the sound and fury of riots from Washington to Waukesha. In the swirl of confusion, nothing has meaning. Meaning is elusive. Nihilism—the rejection of the possibility of meaning—is the water in which we swim and the darkness that has enveloped our way of life in ways we haven’t even begun to comprehend.
The perpetrators of mass shootings are simply the most visible and violent emblems and exponents of our nihilism. Not always, but often, they are the ones who cannot see the value of civilization or society or even life itself. They are suffocating under the weight of what they view as the purposelessness of it all.
Their collective worldview has much more in common with Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s than that of a neo-Nazi or woman-hater. But they tend to be more extreme than Kaczynski was. Kaczynski criticized contemporary society’s “surrogate activities” and “artificial goals”—what he viewed as the inauthenticity of the modern era. But Kaczynski imagined that if we could only strip away the artifice, we might be able to return to a more meaningful state, one in which human beings relate to each other as human beings, not robots.
By contrast, the mass shooter has given up on any stripping away. You can tear down “The System” all you want. You will never find meaning. That’s because meaning no longer exists. It may have once. But no longer. If Kaczynski was hostile to technology and industrialization, the mass shooter is convinced that the juggernaut of progress has already won, that even if we could free our “feral selves” from the shackles of modern norms, as the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza put it, there would be nothing underneath. Just blackness. A great gaping hole. For many mass shooters, the only reasonable response to this hole is death—the complete extermination of life. Not just theirs. Not just that of the children they mow down. But humanity.
The origins of these beliefs vary. Sometimes, shooters are influenced by established intellectual traditions and thinkers. Eric Harris, one of the Columbine shooters, was inspired, as it were, by Friedrich Nietzsche and the cult of Charles Manson. Lanza, by the antinatalist Gary Inmendham. For other shooters, the turn is more intuitive or personal or traumatic, coming from within: an all-enveloping, crushing existential angst that leaves them unable to see the purpose in life. James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado shooter, was a one-time graduate student in neuroscience who seemed fed up with ideas. He felt trapped in a great emptiness.
In February 2021, a clue about Lanza’s psyche emerged. It was an abandoned YouTube channel under the name CulturalPhilistine. The videos painted a picture not of a deranged killer or a sadist but a lucid young man with a rich, complicated intellectual life. In these videos, all of which featured a black screen and a scratchy voiceover, Lanza laid out his philosophy. The most unsettling thing is the cogency with which Lanza presented his views.
In September of that year, the pseudonymous blogger BlitheringGenius penned a probing and thoughtful analysis of these videos, titled “The Ghost of Adam Lanza.” I recently interviewed BlitheringGenius for a podcast series of the same name, which included tons of tunneling through Lanza’s online musings.
In his essay, BlitheringGenius describes Lanza’s philosophy as the rejection of culture. Lanza, he writes, thought of culture as a “delusion” and a “disease.” He hypothesizes that Lanza targeted schools because that is where, in his thinking, our culture—our values—is transmitted. More to the point, he killed children because they represent the propagation of life. “He couldn’t have viewed murder as harmful, at least not philosophically,” BlitheringGenius writes. “In his worldview, death was salvation and enlightenment.” To call this “bone-chilling” would be an understatement.
While Lanza was bookish beyond his years—he was only 20 when Sandy Hook happened—he was hardly alone in his alienation, in his rejection of the principle of life. A survey of shooters’ manifestos, blog posts, forum posts, and other bits and pieces of their online footprints suggests that they oppose life in its most literal sense. This includes not only “intellectual” mass shooters like Lanza but those who appear to be motivated by white supremacy and misogyny.
Consider William Atchison, who in 2017 killed two students at Aztec High School, in Aztec, New Mexico, before killing himself. He was widely described as “the alt-right shooter.”
It’s true that, over time, Atchison’s posts acquired a racist and misogynist hue, but that intolerance is not the thread that courses through his many writings. It is the belief that life is a problem imposed on human beings by a hateful God and must be overcome. In an early forum post, Atchison writes, “ALL humans should be entitled to an instant painful death. Jack Kevorkian is a hero!” He thought of himself as “more rational, peaceful and less loony” because he thought of himself as seeing the lie of everyday existence.
So it was with Randy Stair, who killed three of his coworkers at a grocery store in 2017, and “never seemed to understand the purpose of life”; Luke Woodham, who killed three, including his mother, in 1997, in Mississippi; and Jared Loughner, who killed six and seriously injured Rep. Gabby Giffords, in 2011, in Tucson, Arizona; and James Holmes, who killed 12, in 2012, in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; and the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who in 1999 killed 15, including themselves, in their high school in the Denver suburbs.
Taking a page from Charles Manson, Harris rejected “civilization as artificial.” Since “morality, justice and other values are products of civilization,” Harris went on, they, too, were “arbitrary and therefore meaningless.” His solution was to “eliminate humanity.” Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, wrote poetry and short stories about losers and addicts and a father who beats his son and a would-be school shooter who finds his soulmate in a girl who also harbors fantasies about killing her classmates. Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, seemed congenitally incapable of seeing value in human life. He had no interests of any enduring value, no friends, no girlfriends, no attachments to anyone or anything outside his most primitive impulses. His internet search history, in the weeks leading up to his assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was shot through with porn, child porn, Japanese anime, videos of other school shootings and videos of police shootings.
Nor is this phenomenon limited to the United States—although it seems to be most prevalent here. Kimveer Gill, who killed one person and wounded 19 in 2006 before committing suicide in Montreal, believed that the whole of society needed to be eradicated. Pekka Eric Auvinen, who killed eight in a high school a little north of Helsinki, Finland, called for “the death of the entire human race.” Marc Lépine, also in Montreal, in 1989, shrouded his anti-life philosophy in anti-feminist rhetoric—anticipating, by a quarter-century, Elliot Rodger, who, in 2014, killed six people near the University of California-Santa Barbara.
We imagine that these killers have nothing to do with everyone else—that they are like a leper colony set apart from the rest of us, and every so often, one escapes and spreads his disease. We want to believe that because it makes us feel good. But the reality is that the smudge of nihilism’s fingerprints stains all things, everywhere.
It’s in the half-joking, half-serious proclamations of millennials who say they don’t want children because of the climate—because the world is beyond repair. It’s in the ubiquity of an even darker humor, the kind that was popularized by 4chan in the mid-2010s and captured the public imagination—the sort of things that can only be funny if life has lost any value.
It’s in the commingling of our leisure and anesthesia—we drink to escape, we exercise until we can’t feel anything, we propel ourselves into fantasy lives with fandom. It’s even, paradoxically, in our insistence on living “in the moment.” Nothing matters, so we may as well be happy with where we are. The darker side of “YOLO” is how it forecloses on the possibility that our lives matter in any grander sense, that we can be a part of a tradition that started long before we were born and will extend for ages after we die.
Most of us can distract ourselves from the towering emptiness of right now. We can doom scroll Twitter or TikTok and binge whatever Netflix tells us to watch, and we can do it all over again tomorrow. All of us—not just the shooters—are plagued by a crisis of meaning. However, despite the feeling that the world may not be right, most of us have the psychological-cognitive equipment to forge ahead, to make friends, graduate from school, build a career, build a family. Because even though there are bad things, we have an obligation—to ourselves, to the world—to create good things.
But shooters don’t know how to do any of that. That was true of Lanza. It was certainly true of Salvador Ramos, the Uvalde shooter, who, like so many mass shooters, was incapable of sublimating his darkest impulses into something constructive.
As I interviewed people about Lanza, a common theme emerged. Yes, there was something obviously wrong with the material circumstances of America in the early 21st century—an economy that seemed incapable of providing for the many, decaying institutions, the ubiquity of our screens. But there was something else. Something more abstract. It was that we now lived in a world where everything revolved around the individual. We had morphed from a universe of moral absolutes to broad social and communal forces to an all-consuming solipsism—a terrifying oneness, a “culture of narcissism,” as Christopher Lasch put it, where the self is central.
This narcissism is expressed through our perpetual identity crises, where chasing an imaginary “true self” keeps us busy and distracted. We see it in the people who use their phones and computers like they’re prosthetic selves, who are always there, but never present, gazing endlessly at their own reflection in the pond. Our shared inability to commit to anything that might make life meaningful, like children or a partner or putting down roots in a single place. It pervades Western humor, which is dominated by a sense that the world is ending, so we may as well drink and smoke ourselves to death because nothing really matters.
In this world, the individual was everything and nothing, architect of the future and hapless cog in a vast and deafening black. In this place, one murdered wantonly with the knowledge that all of us were just accidental bits of flesh bookended by eternities, that we meant nothing, that the possibility of meaning was a ruse.
The debate over more guns or fewer guns completely misses the horrifying heart of the matter: the world built by modern liberalism, which took for its telos the maximization of individual autonomy, and thus guaranteed total alienation, breeds the nihilism behind these shootings. Ultimately, these killers could not cope, the way the rest of us do every day, with the crushing weight of the existential angst that is the promise of liberalism. Even the more thoughtful takes on fatherlessness and mental illness are only still addressing the symptoms of the disease. Until we see this, the ground of the problem, we will be no closer to answers, let alone solutions for these 21st-century horrors.
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