The Root Cause of Mass Shootings is the Rage of Alienation

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Mass shootings prompt simple explanations of the gunman’s motivation. At Columbine High School in Colorado, the killers supposedly snapped after being bullied. The guy who shot up a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado was wild-eyed carrot-topped nuts. After a massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, an anti-immigrant manifesto posted online pointed to right-wing politics. Simple mental illness—if there is such a thing—appears to be the culprit in Dayton, Ohio. Also misogyny. But the Dayton shooter’s Twitter feed indicates the shooter liked Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. So right-wing media blames his progressive leanings.

And when there is no obvious explanation as in Las Vegas in 2017, when the mass murderer doesn’t leave a final message and doesn’t appear to have subscribed to extremist politics and was financially secure, but drank a lot and may have bought into Internet conspiracy theories, we shrug our shoulders and forget about it. But deep inside we believe there is a simple answer. We just haven’t discovered it yet.

Gun control advocates want to ban assault rifles like the semi-automatic AR-15 used in so many mass shootings. But even if those guns disappeared overnight, gun-related massacres would still occur, albeit with lower body counts. Which would be nice, but it wouldn’t address the big question, the one we secretly ask ourselves after such incidents: where does the rage come from?

Flailing about in search of the enablers of personal mass violence (as opposed to state-ordered mass violence) is useful as far as it goes. The NRA and the gun lobby make money with every firearm purchase. Victims of mental illness go uninsured and thus undiagnosed and untreated. Hateful rhetoric, most common on the right and most recently epitomized by President Trump, legitimize the dehumanization of future victims.

In the beginning, though, is rage.

The blind anger that, like the medieval image of a succubus insinuating itself into a previously healthy brain, suggests that shooting a lot of people is either a solution or at least a satisfying way of venting, is the germ of the idea that leads to the first shot being fired at a military base, an elementary school, a country music concert.

The rage says: “I hate everybody.” It continues: “I wish everyone would die.” It concludes: “I will kill them all.”

I am mystified by the fact that so many people are mystified about rage.

I have been there. I have hated everyone. I have been so depressed that I didn’t care what happened to me. I was furious at how oblivious everyone was to my pain and how nobody cared about me. I wanted them to pay for it. Haven’t you ever felt that way?

Mostly it was when I was younger. In junior high school, when I was relentlessly bullied and beaten up and neither my classmates nor my teachers interfered—to the contrary, they thought it was funny—I fantasized about going to school and shooting everyone there.

When I was a junior in college, I spent finals week at the hospital due to a freak injury. Several of my professors refused to allow me to take a make-up exam because they were lazy, I got Fs and landed on academic probation, and the following semester one mean teacher gave me a C+ and so I got expelled. I lost my job, my dorm room and thus a place to live and wound up homeless on the streets of New York. Watching people go about their day, smiling and laughing and exchanging pleasantries and buying luxuries while I was starving, I despised them. Of course it wasn’t their fault. I knew that. What was their fault, in my view at the time, was their active decision not to engage in the struggle for a world that was fair and just, not just to me, but to everybody.

I imagine that most, if not all, homeless people feel that way watching me stroll down the street on my stupid smartphone. They hate me and they are right to hate me.

The NRA and the weapons business and Congress share responsibility, but what really causes mass shootings is the shooters’ alienation from society.

Why doesn’t America enforce mental health insurance parity? Because the American people don’t care enough to raise enough hell to force our elected officials to do so. If you have ever been broke and needed to see a therapist, you probably found out that they charge at least $200 an hour and that your insurance company probably won’t cover it—assuming that you have insurance. American society’s message to you is loud and clear: we don’t care about you. Go ahead and be insane. Die. Returning society’s contempt for you is perfectly understandable.

The so-called “incel” (involuntarily celebate) movement of men who hate women because they won’t sleep with them is a perfect example of society’s refusal to try to understand a legitimate concern. In 2014 an incel killed six people near Santa Barbara. “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it,” the killer said in a video he posted before his rampage. In 2018 an incel killed 10 people in Toronto with his van.

Experts recommend writing laws to deny incels access to guns, shutting down their online forums so that they don’t work each other up, and improving their access to mental health care. Those may be good ideas. But they ignore the root of the problem.

Obviously no one has to have sex with anyone. Incels don’t have a constitutional right to get laid. But anyone who has ever been young and sexually frustrated (or old and sexually frustrated) knows that sexlessness can literally drive you crazy. Glibly suggesting to awkward or clueless or physically unattractive men to hit the gym and get their charm on is just as hopelessly naïve as Nancy Reagan’s “just say no” campaign. Feeling condemned to a life without love or physical companionship really truly sucks and we could start by acknowledging that.

Rage, I think, comes less from having a problem that feels hopelessly unsolvable than from the belief that no one gives a damn about you or your issues. People need to feel heard. People need to be heard.

Given how callous and unfeeling we are about so much suffering around us and among us, the only thing surprising about mass shootings is that they don’t happen more frequently.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)



  • Nailed it, Ted. Been there, done that, have yet to kill innocents. I have, however, fantasized about the guilty.

  • alex_the_tired
    August 12, 2019 7:27 PM


    I think you’re so close to it, but I think you left out one thing.

    Alienation has ALWAYS been there. As you point out, people as far back as Gen Xers’ high school years have fantasized about just killing everyone they could. As I recall, Stephen King wrote a short story about a school shooting that he later pulled because he did not want to encourage the behavior. But (and this ties in to a point from the related thread on this topic) it’s only recently that the rate of killing (and the severity of each incident) has increased.

    So I don’t think alienation is actually the cause. It’s a symptom, but not a cause. Just like access to more-lethal weaponry is raising the body counts, but there’s still more individual instances of violence.

    So what’s new? The Internet, social media, Google. Remember “Forbidden Planet”? Remember the last 30 minutes or so? When the humans figure out that the Krell, in developing a mechanism that would free them from any “physical instrumentality” forgot about the “monsters of the Id.” All you have to do is think it, and you get it. Even if it’s something you didn’t intend. Morbius dreams up a monster that kills scores of people, just like the Krell wiped themselves out in a single day.

    You can find (in a supreme irony, you just need to google it) scores of instances of how social media–instant fulfillment with nearly no physical instrumentality–have allowed sociopaths to push the weaker members of the group to suicide, to violence, to self-harm, just by a few keystrokes.

    I’m not being facetious. You used to have to engage in extended campaigns of physical harassment and scheming–sneaking out at night to slash tires, crank phone calls, setting fire to someone’s house, poisoning the dog, etc.–to break someone. You tended to get caught earlier in the scheme. Now you can do it just by getting a few of the other bottomdwellers online to help you gang up on the victim, and, as you pointed out, no one will do anything. And if they did? Even an idiot can figure out how to be a dog on the Internet.

    Want to really fuck someone up? Just google their name; find out every single solitary thing he or she might have done that, in years gone by, they could live down simply by letting it age out. You can find companies that will do all the scuttlebutt for you for chump change. You can hound someone out of their job, make them incapable of ever getting another (look who I’m telling this to–the guy the LATimes dragged into the cornfield on the request of the LAPD). All you need to do is send a link to the HR department. You can ruin someone anonymously in less time than it takes to boil an egg.

    That’s what’s triggering the violent ones. Not the bullying. Not the harassment. The inescapableness of it all. How it’s there all the time, bearing down, their own inventory of everything that could come back and bite them on the ass for the rest of their lives. The system not only permits perpetual recordkeeping (got arrested for shoplifting at 23 and plead guilty? Don’t expect to be able to get a job at BoxStore Inc., let alone a real company) and perpetual harassment, the system REWARDS it. And it’s just like a woodchipper. You get your watchband caught on a branch as it’s going into the hopper? You’re losing that arm. All the way to the shoulder probably. Look at that dumb bastard who went to the Charlottesville protest, got identified on the wrong side of the issue, and lost his crappy job at a hot-dog restaurant when the Internet came after him. (Do I like white supremacists? No. I also don’t like Valeria Solanas’ “Scum Manifesto.” I don’t like when someone hijacks the conversation by asserting victim status so that no one else dare raise a contradiction for fear of being branded unmutual.) Talk to the survivors of Communist Russia. “The wicked flee where none pursueth,” says the Bible. They got that right. How many times have you stopped yourself from something because, shit, you can’t be sure someone doesn’t have a cellphone camera trained on you, ready to edit the clip into something that will make you look like a child murderer?

    We’re now in the Krell end-world where what’s constantly haunting everyone is how, at any moment, the whole house of cards can come crashing down, and the flashmob of the Internet will judge you before you’re even aware there was a complaint.

    That’s what’s doing it. And it will only get worse.

    “That machine is going to supply your monster with whatever amount of power it requires to reach us.”–Commander Adams

    • Forbidden Planet!

      My favorite Sci Fi movie.

      Saw it when I was six years old.

      Showed it to my son when he was six.

    • People often compare society to a body. The internet would be like some newly evolved organ that gives us superpowers. The downside is that it lets every mole, polyp, and plaque in that body trade damaged DNA until we breed malignant tumors by the hundreds.

  • Beach Watcher
    August 13, 2019 6:18 AM

    People get angry when they find out they’ve been lied to. People will forgive others for their clumsiness or ignorance, but not for deceit. We were all told as children that we had an equal shot at prosperity and happiness. People become enraged when it finally becomes obvious that the system is rigged against them and that the institutions that profess to be remedies don’t care.

  • Yes, our society does not care about you unless you follow the rules and fall in line. When you lose your job or you don’t have a supportive family or partner our society is very cruel.
    Toxic masculinity is the twisted outcome. I recommend the film The Mask You Live In, about the socialization of boys and men. Not enough people want to address this problem.

  • “We think we are wolves, living by the logic of the pack.

    “In truth we are sheep, living by the logic of the flock.”

    Greg Palast wrote a great post about the Parkland shooter. But I can’t find it.

    Maybe it’s better if it’s gone. Americans are terrible at nuance.

  • Great column, Ted. You nailed it.

    The following was from McLuhan from way back in 1977.

    “Yes, all forms of violence are quests for identity. When you live out on the frontier, you have no identity. You are a nobody. Therefore, you get very tough. You have to prove that you are somebody. So you become very violent. Identity is always accompanied by violence. This seems paradoxical to you? Ordinary people find the need for violence as they lose their identities. It is only the threat to people’s identity that makes them violent. Terrorists, hijackers – these are people minus identity. They are determined to make it somehow, to get coverage, to get noticed.”

    Lost jobs, lost place to live, lost everything… the list goes on.

    • Want to end gun violence? End violent inequality.

      Here’s the roster of the world’s most violent nations measured by non-military homicides:
      El Salvador
      South Africa
      It’s also a listing of the world’s most economically unequal nations.

      After the US, here is the list of highest per capita gun ownership: Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Norway,
      France, Germany Austria, Iceland — all nations with tiny small homicide rates — and very low GINI scores.
      Iceland, where a huge one-third of households have guns, is the most economically equal society on the
      planet — with a homicide rate of ZERO.

  • Rage, I think, comes less from having a problem that feels hopelessly unsolvable than from the belief that no one gives a damn about you or your issues. People need to feel heard. People need to be heard.

    Good luck, Ted, in eliminating rage from human life. But untill that chiliastic vision becomes a reality – or until Michael Richard Pence and Michael Richard Pompeo and their ilk are wafted heavenward in the Rapture – perhaps steps like restricting the availability of firearms in the United States would improve the mass-shooting situation in that country until die Endlösung can be found ? To dismiss such views by writing

    But even if those guns disappeared overnight, gun-related massacres would still occur, albeit with lower body counts. Which would be nice, but it wouldn’t address the big question, the one we secretly ask ourselves after such incidents: where does the rage come from?

    strikes me as a tad too façile ; as you yourself point out, «lower body counts … would be nice»….


  • Ted’s angle of actually trying to treat the perpetrators as human beings – however lost – is unique but does not lead to catharsis. Compare:

    Right wing response
    Day-dream about how the good guy with the gun (likely yourself) shoots the bad guy until satisfaction sets in. (This actually doubles as a liberal response of sorts if one counts the Quentin Tarantino movies about black slaves shooting up slave owners and Jews mowing down Nazis). Add thoughts and prayers if religious to feel part of a larger society united in their pain.

    Liberal response
    Pontificate about the evils of (alt-)right wing red-neck white trash until feeling tingly inside. Add ineffectual outcry for gun reform to feel part of a larger society united in their pain.

    Left-wing response
    Perform elaborate Marxist analysis of socio-economic conditions of said white trash and unflinchingly trace the responsibillty back to the oppression of the ruling classes. Waggle your finger over the lack of class consciousness of the unwashed masses and their misdirected anger until exhaustion sets in. If especially woke, add feminist perspective on toxic masculinity to the mix; to be fair, the shooters unfailingly seem to be male.

    How can one serve click-bait and rake in advertiser money if the column fails to stroke the reader’s ego and feed into their sense of superiority as both the 2 mainstream as well as the alternative responses do quite marvellously?

    • An identity crisis:

      If some opportunity for cathartic violence (even if only in fantasy) does not present itself, what opportunity of value is on offer for a gratifying reinforcement of both personal identity and the identity of belonging to a particular flock-mob coalesced around its own particular “truth”?

  • Ted,

    I’m a long-time fan and infrequent commenter. I agree with your diagnosis, it is certainly rage and isolation. But what is to be done about it? Saying society should’ve been more welcoming of the men who went on to become shooters is dangerously close to victim blaming.

    The perpetrators are young and often from affluent families, so they’re not bitter about privation. They’re usually white, so they’re not bitter about racism. Indeed, the latest examples would like the world to be more racist. What could be systematically changed to placate these young men? Respect, friendship, and love must be earned. They may be bitter about not deserving these, but why encourage other people to give to give them undeserved affection? It cheapens the whole notion of valuing another person and more importantly, it puts the lives of any good Samaritans who’d take this advice at risk.

    If someone gives you the creeps, than stay away.

    • Publicly managed brothels, to which all young males are mandatorily introduced at an appropriate age (14 ?) to eliminate so-called «incel» rage ? Or if publicly managed is a non-starter in certain circles, PPP ?…


    • Agree, Stucco, obviously. All I am saying is, ignoring people in pain is dangerous.