Spree killings lead to a lot of speculation in the news, from journalists trying to piece together elaborate histories from tweets and Facebook statuses to media "psychologists" wading in with unlikely diagnoses of mental health disorders. The recent spree killing by Elliot Rodger, who stabbed or gunned down six unarmed people before killing himself, is no exception. Coverage of his crimes has ranged from the willfully stupid to the downright dangerous.
Many people have leapt on the idea that Rodger had Asperger’s, as if this had something to do with committing mass murder. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a single shred of evidence pointing to any kind of diagnosis, just speculation from a couple of family members. Even if he did, there isn’t any link between Asperger’s and violence. While having Asperger’s might effect the way somebody carries out a crime, it doesn’t make people intrinsically more violent in the first place.
The same kind of fixation happened with media coverage of Adam Lanza, who carried out the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It’s incredibly unhelpful to the public understanding of these conditions and helps demonise people with mental health issues more than they already are. It also feels like a distraction or a form of denial; an unwillingness to confront the truth that this kind of crime is banal and ordinary and could happen to anyone.
Men kill women frequently, for pretty much the same reasons expressed by Rodger – a need to seize control or power. As Michael Mills wrote in a review of spree killing literature after the Sandy Hook massacre, “Spree killings often follow a personal rejection by a female(s), and, the perception that more rejections are likely to follow perhaps due to social ostracism or loss of social status.”
Domestic killing and violence often plays out similar themes of power and status, with women far more likely to be killed by a partner. And the killing occurs with our without guns. Lack of access to weapons may limit the potential for large-scale massacres in the UK, but the toll rises relentlessly every week. Two women are murdered every week in Britain by a current or former partner, with one incident of domestic violence reported to police every minute. In the United States, those figures rise to more than five women killed each day. In the time we’ve been discussing Rodger’s actions, well north of 100,000 incidents of domestic violence will have occurred in the UK and US, with around 30 of the women involved being killed.
When we look more widely at sexual assault and male violence against women, the same factors come into play. Reviews of research literature examining the motives for rape and sexual assault have shown consistently that these crimes aren’t triggered by lust, but are premeditated actions motivated by power and a desire to control – just like Elliot Rodger.
Put in this context, the killing of six people in California stops being a remarkable event and becomes painfully ordinary. A typical slaughter committed for the depressingly usual reasons. Elliot Rodger’s manifesto has been touted by the media as the sensational ramblings of a crazed serial killer, but most of what he said and argued is no different from the kind of language and tropes you can find on the forums of A Voice For Men or the Men’s Rights sub-Reddit, or other internet communities of troubled young men who view women somewhere on a spectrum between farmyard animals and an alien species sent here to torment them.
As for his explicit threats, again these are no different to the threats of rape, assault or death that most prominent women writers are subjected to on a weekly or daily basis. Often, these threats come with personal details – quoting addresses for example – but the police rarely seem to take them seriously. How many of these people are capable of carrying out the actions they describe? We simply have no way of knowing, but know that some are. Elliot Rodger did.
Loads of people will respond to all this with the cry, “but it’s more complicated than that, you can’t reduce real people to simple, single motives. Elliot Rodger expressed racist things as well. Four of his victims were men.” These people have the insight of a nine-year-old.
Yes, people are complicated, but that’s a trite and useless observation to make. Rodger was complicated. He was also a misogynist member of misogynist online communities who wrote a manifesto explaining his hatred of women, and set out with a gun to a women’s sorority house in order to kill women. The hijackers on 9/11 were similarly complicated, but it would be absurd to say that we shouldn’t talk about Islamism as a key element in their actions, or discuss how its wider prevalence around the world could lead to further terrorist acts, or speak about what leaders in Muslim communities might be able to do to curb extremist elements in their ranks. At some point, people are just using complexity as a convenient excuse to avoid talking about something they don’t really want to confront.
And confront it is something we desperately need to do. Misogyny and male violence aren’t abstract social problems, but a public health emergency that corrupts and destroys more men than testicular and prostate cancers combined. A British man is roughly a thousand times more likely to rape or murder a woman than to die of testicular cancer. an act that ultimately damages or destroys the lives of both victim and perpetrator.
At the age of around 14, with puberty underway, men ascend to a level of violence that far outstrips their female peers, killing women, other men and even themselves at a vastly increased rate. Doubtless, there are underlying biological or evolutionary factors at play, but "biological" isn’t a synonym for "inevitable". We have to look seriously at ways to reduce this gap, whether through better education, parenting, community measures, or medical intervention. Misogyny specifically and male violence generally are major public health issues, and we need to build on America's Center for Disease Contol and Prevention’s recognition of intimate partner violence and start treating them as such.
“Not all men!” some will wail. Well not all men get testicular cancer, but we’re all still encouraged to check our balls regularly, and nobody seems to get upset and whiny about being asked to do that. We, the community of men, have a serious problem in our midst, and we’re in a position to do something about it, whether it’s checking our own behaviour, challenging the sexist or disrespectful behaviour of others, or just talking to a 22-year-old kid having a quarter-life crisis about his sex life, or lack of one.
Why should we do this? Because most men are decent people. Because we can, and given the lack of support services for young men in both Britain and the United States, nobody else is going to. Because if we don’t, then thousands of men and women will end up harmed, dead or imprisoned, and the cost to our society will be incalculable. So let’s cut the self-pitying bullshit, face up to this problem, and be men. Yes, all men.