In the worst & most extreme cases of this anger-driven violence, the target can be as large as society itself, and the anger grow to be so broad-based & powerful that it becomes, essentially, delusional (motivating recompense that is exceedingly disproportionate to the actual loss or culpability). These are the kinds of circumstances that can be a breeding ground for mass killers, and undoubtedly, such circumstances have been broadly-present throughout America’s history.
So, when confronting the recent & persistent pattern of mass shootings across our nation, the central question is: why is this happening now, in 21st century America?
Going Beyond The Guns
The widely-spread & mostly-unchecked availability of the tools required to accomplish mass shootings certainly makes the task of shooting multiple people in a short amount of time much easier than if such tools were not widely available. (Consider: the main reason that these mass murders are not accomplished using rocket-launchers & grenades is not likely because these angry individuals would not want to use such tools, but rather, it’s because such tools are simply not widely & easily available in America.)
Nonetheless, a large number of citizens believe that the benefit of easily-available, high-powered guns ultimately outweighs the harm caused by broad access to such weapons—and a large number of citizens disagree, which is why we are currently mired in that endlessly-cycling Gun Control Debate (discussed in the previous post). But whether or not the benefit of gun-availability actually outweighs the harm will not be taken on here.
Because, to a great degree, when we ask why this is happening now, what we’re really asking is: why are more of these individual brains choosing to take advantage of this gun-ubiquitousness to commit these very similarly-enacted (& socially-targeted) mass murders with more frequency than in previous generations?
How do these strikingly-alike violent fantasies manifest themselves in these different minds and why are these brains today allowing those fantasies to be enacted with greater frequency? The short answer: as a society, we’re all in this together, and each culture makes their own monsters.
The Birth Of Dark Fantasies
We all fantasize. And although we generally associate a kind of frivolousness with these imaginary flights, they’re actually one of our brain’s most vital & useful tools. They’re also a tool that’s uniquely human (thanks to our extraordinary capacity for complex language, which allows us to internally narrate, conjure & manipulate future imagined sequences).
It’s one of the things that makes humans so great at creating unique & useful solutions & strategies: the capacity to imagine (and thus, internally test, revise & practice) possible future narratives that depict some way to achieve a desired goal. Fantasies & daydreams are like our brain’s way to run test-models of future (& usually situationally-specific) strategies for getting something we want within some future scenario that we expect (or desperately hope) to find ourselves in.
And it’s not a coincidence that fantasies tend to drift toward highly-desired goals (like, y’know, sex). This happens because, if our brain is using its resources to run test-models of the future, it’s typically most-useful (& most-pleasurable) to apply those resources toward helping to achieve our most-desired, high-priority goals. Of course, our goals & their urgency can vary greatly from person-to-person and day-to-day—so all of us are fantasizing about a whole range of different scenarios throughout our lives.
We fantasize about financial gains, literary successes, romantic conquests, sporting triumphs, and yes—at some time or another—almost all us are likely to dip into that dark world of our most angrily-motivated desires and fantasize about murdering someone. (If you want, you can pretend you haven’t and just continue reading while wondering why the rest of us are apparently so angry & deeply-disturbed.)
Although all these myriad fantasies can take on seemingly all imaginable forms, there’s one attribute that almost every fantasy shares: we got the idea from somewhere else. In other words, most of these imagined future narratives that we conjure are personally-tailored replays of common narrative sequences that we have previously witnessed or consumed—via real-life experience or studied, vicarious experiences like videos, films or books.
And, again, this is not a coincidence—it’s how our brain is meant to work. We’re sponges. We learn almost everything we know from the world around us. Part of the reason for this ever-constant sponging is to aid us when we encounter unique problems or when we’re motivated to achieve something new. In these cases, our brain is most-likely to search its experientially- & study-fed databanks for situationally-relevant, common (& apparently successful) narrative sequences that we have previously witnessed or consumed.
Thus, this is the strategy that our brain tends to employ when conjuring those predictively-useful, personally-tailored fantasies: searching that wealth we’ve sponged from our world and identifying the narratives that are most relevant & useful in achieving our desires. We might change certain elements of the fantasy to suit our own needs or tastes—or we might try to match our conjuration to the original as closely as possible—but the general model of the witnessed or consumed narrative is likely to remain intact. (Which is the point, because we’ve identified it as a “successful” model for achieving our desire, and we’re going after that same success.)
You can see where we’re headed with this. One of the most blatantly obvious reasons why this pattern of mass shootings is repeating itself with seemingly greater consistency is because more & more examples of this particular, specific narrative are being fed into our cultural cue. By now there’s a veritable encyclopedia of “delusionally-angry shooter” models that are readily-available & consumable by a wide range of delusionally-angry individuals.
In addition—thanks to easily-accessible high-powered weapons (which raises the killing-success-rate of such attacks) and easily-predictable media-obsessiveness over the shooters (which raises the infamy-success-rate of such attacks)—this plethora of “delusionally-angry shooter” models provides strong evidence for their effectiveness in achieving a delusionally-angry individual’s desires.
Together, all of this helps to answer the first part of that earlier question: how do these strikingly-alike violent fantasies manifest themselves in these different minds? Delusional anger powerfully motivates outsized-retribution (& a desire for recognition), culture provides myriad successful & consumable models for such retribution, and fantasies employ those readily-available models as mental practice for the retribution. Then somebody goes out and buys some guns (or they’ve already been stockpiling them, which is even more convenient).
Unleashing Dark Fantasies
Of course, fantasizing about doing something and actually doing it are (sometimes thankfully & sometimes sadly) very, very different things. Which brings us to the last part of that earlier question: why are these brains today allowing those violent fantasies to be enacted with greater frequency?
Even if many of us angry & deeply-disturbed types have occasionally had that brief flirtation with a murder fantasy or two—luckily for us (because, face it, we probably would have failed & been summarily, harshly punished) and despite our strong motivation to act, there were lots & lots of stronger, nearly-insurmountable barriers that never let us get anywhere near actually acting.
In other words, being capable of actually enacting a fantasy requires more than the just the strong (or even the overwhelming) motivation to act—it also requires the ability to overcome the myriad barriers to our action. And ultimately, those barriers to action must be overcome within our neural systems: overcoming action-inhibiting fear of failure or harmful consequence, overcoming or re-prioritizing action-inhibiting beliefs (like killing is bad), developing necessary action-required strategic knowledge & practical skills, cultivating confidence in your plan & abilities.
Successfully shepherding any complicated or difficult-to-achieve fantasy from first imagination to actual enactment usually requires overcoming some versions of all those kinds of barriers. (Which is partly why you didn’t actually strangle your roommate that one time they did that thing.) And there’s one common requirement to overcoming all of those barriers: time. Which has typically been a good thing, because time also works against the ultimate enacting of a complicated dark fantasy—by increasing the likelihood of “fantasy derailment.”
In other words, the longer it takes for some delusionally-angry individual to work through all those barriers, there’s a greater chance that something will occur to prevent or derail the fantasy enactment. This includes possibilities like: outside recognition of the delusional anger, leading to pre-enactment intervention; a significant life event that helps alleviate a primary source of anger; committing a lesser act of violence that identifies the risk prior to fantasy enactment. Our lives change over time—and the more time passes, the more they change.
This also means that if a delusionally-angry individual is able to work through those barriers more quickly, there’s a lesser chance that something will occur to prevent or derail the fantasy enactment. Which brings us to another one of those areas where our brand-new-modern-world is turning around to bite the hand that feeds it: the current ubiquity of information & social-group access has aided many of those delusionally-angry individuals in overcoming many of those barriers to action in record time.
Basically, the gestation period required for a dark fantasy to become reality has been greatly accelerated by the ability to, for example, quickly research & study an ever-growing wealth of successful fantasy models (real-life and even game-based)—which helps to develop strategic knowledge & habitualized behavioral responses (and which also aids in overcoming fears & re-prioritizing beliefs by providing piles of evidence that can increase success-confidence & help to alter beliefs). In addition, the broad availability of online social groups catering to every imaginable fetish provides the kind of communally-supportive (or instigative) interactions that can aid in overcoming mental barriers to action & help to accelerate the gestation of dark fantasies.
This is one of the reasons that current (& often misguided) attempts to create a common “profile” for these shooters continues to yield little consistency—because the common thread that has made these mass shootings more consistent & frequent isn’t a particular behavioral or demographic profile that has suddenly grown within our population. All kinds of different people & profiles can become delusionally-angry individuals (neurally-defined psychopaths, experientially-forged sociopaths, sufferers of mental illness, sufferers of life-crushingness)—and these kinds of individuals have been broadly-present throughout American history.
We’re seeing more individuals actually unleashing these specifically-similar dark fantasies now because the fantasy-founding models for their actions are more numerous, similar & easily-accessible, and because the gestation period for these fantasies has been accelerated by that current ubiquity of information & social-group access.
Every era of America has contained a diverse population of lurking monsters, but the number, frequency, and the type of monster (& the level of destruction) that is unleashed is ultimately determined not by the monsters themselves, but by the culture that unleashes them. We make our own monsters, and we need to decide if these are the kinds of murderous creatures we want amongst us today.