The UC Santa Barbara killing spree: entitlement and 'retribution'

Oceans of ink will be spilled in efforts to fit 22-year-old madman Elliot Rodger into various political agendas.  Of course the gun-control zealots were using him as a poster boy while the victims of his rampage were still being tallied up, even though his first three victims were stabbed to death with a knife.  The clearest and most chilling conclusion to take away from the long build-up to Rodger’s bloody rampage, which caused six fatalities and a number of injuries before he shot himself, is that this young maniac slipped through the system far too often, despite loudly and clearly communicating his deadly intentions for years.

Fox News summarizes Friday’s deadly events:

Weihan Wang, 20 — were male stabbing victims in Rodger’s own apartment, authorities say. Two of them were Rodger’s housemates, whom he described as the “biggest nerds I had ever seen.” He wrote in the manifesto that he’d “enjoy stabbing them both to death while they slept.”

At about 9:30 p.m., the shooting rampage began. Rodger killed 20-year-old Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, a student who was shot and killed inside the IV Deli Mart in Goleta. He also killed 22-year-old Katie Cooper, who was shot and killed by Rodger across the street from the Alpha Phi sorority house. Veronika Weiss, 19, a talented water polo player, was shot and killed alongside Cooper.

Authorities who appeared at Rodger’s doorstep last month to check on his mental health hadn’t seen online videos in which he threatens suicide and violence, despite his parents contacting police about the alarming recordings.

By the time law enforcement did see the videos, it was too late: The well-mannered if shy young man that deputies concluded after their visit posed no risk had gone on a deadly rampage on Friday.

The sheriff’s office “was not aware of any videos until after the shooting rampage occurred,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Kelly Hoover told The Associated Press.

Sheriff Bill Brown has defended the officers’ actions, but the case highlights the challenges that police face in assessing the mental health of adults, particularly those with no history of violent breakdowns, institutionalizations or serious crimes.

“Obviously, looking back on this, it’s a very tragic situation and we certainly wish that we could turn the clock back and maybe change some things,” Brown told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m sick and tired of people in positions of responsibility musing that they’d make some changes to the space-time continuum, if  only they could “turn back the clock.”  You can’t, Sheriff Brown.  That’s why you’ve got to handle these things right the first time.  Rodger spent years putting up menacing videos on YouTube.  The cops went to his apartment last month because his mother saw a batch of disturbing videos he posted online.  He “tactfully told them it was a misunderstanding,” as he put it in his 107,000-word journal/manifesto, and away the police went, unaware that he already had a couple of handguns tucked away for the perpetration of a “Day of Retribution” he delayed until May because he got the flu.

Fox News quotes Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia, who has it exactly right: “Once again, we are grieving over the deaths and devastation caused by a young man who was sending up red flags for danger that failed to produce intervention in time to avert tragedy.  In this case, the red flags were so big the killer’s parents had called police… and yet, the system failed.”

CNN has a fascinating timeline littered with those “red flags.”  There has rarely been a more obvious ticking human time bomb than Elliot Rodger.  He lived, raged, killed, and died in California, a state that is not lacking in either overweening nanny government or gun-control laws.  He was seeing a therapist.  He’d already attacked several people physically, but non-lethally, including a July 2013 effort to push girls who spurned him off a 10-foot ledge at a party – he was drunk, so he ended up falling off the ledge instead and breaking his leg.  And it’s not just the system at fault here; whatever else we may learn about his relationship with his parents, it’s mind-boggling they allowed him to live at a campus so far away from them.  They were in transit from Los Angeles County to Santa Barbara, driving to see him in a panic after receiving his sick manifesto by e-mail, when they heard about the shootings.

Somehow every element of the system failed, including the precautions designed explicitly to deal with people like him, created and refined after a number of previous campus incidents across the country.  Was it partly because Rodger was part of the lower tier of Hollywood royalty – his father was an assistant director on “The Hunger Games” – and the rules work differently for the aristocracy?

While we wait for the answers to those questions, it’s interesting to read that CNN timeline and see how clearly Rodger was driven by a massive sense of entitlement, not so very different from what corrections officers report as the motivating factor for a great deal of criminal activity.  This guy thought the world owed him, big time, and he was going to punish it for cheating him of the sexual gratification, fame, and fortune he felt were his due.  The fact that he was already rolling pretty high – some of his twenty-two creepy YouTube videos were filmed from the driver’s seat of the BMW his mom bought him, and he had five thousand dollars salted away to buy weapons – did not diminish his sense of being cheated in the slightest.

This sort of complaint emanates from many criminals.  Jailhouse interviews often show them unwilling to admit they did anything wrong, even when they readily concede their guilt in criminal actions, because they were only taking what they felt the world owed them, from material goods to bloody revenge.  Rodger’s manifesto elevates this feeling of entitlement to a soaring, psychotic degree.   He referred to his killing spree as a “Day of Retribution,” a day when he would punish everyone who had refused to give him what he deserved, which covered most of the human race, especially the female half.

Here’s the first entry in the timeline CNN distilled from Rodger’s manifesto, dated June 4, 2011:

“I was desperate to have the life I know I deserve; a life of being wanted by attractive girls, a life of sex and love. Other men are able to have such a life … so why not me? I deserve it! I am magnificent, no matter how much the world treated me otherwise. I am destined for great things.”

He would give “the world one last chance,” he wrote. “If I still have to suffer the same rejection and injustice even after I move to Santa Barbara, then that will be the last straw. I will have my vengeance.”

Within a month, he was throwing hot beverages on young couples smooching at coffee bars because he was jealous of their shared affection… and he’d already begun explicitly referring to such people as his “enemies,” even though they didn’t know him, and their only offense was sharing a kiss in his presence.  “I wanted to kill them slowly, to strip the skins off their flesh,” he wrote.  “They deserve it.  The males deserve it for taking the females away from me, and the females deserve it for choosing those males instead of me.”  Soon he was throwing hot coffee on random girls because he felt they didn’t return his smiles with sufficient enthusiasm.

Rodger wasn’t keeping these feelings of entitlement and paranoid rage to himself.  He was splashing them all over YouTube.  He should have been on the radar screen of mental health and law enforcement officials as a serious threat for a long time.  His first violent assault on his perceived “enemies” happened almost three years ago.  No system for detecting such threats will ever be perfect, but any system that can’t pick up one as obvious as Elliot Rodger is in serious need of overhaul.  No part of the answer involves punishing or persecuting innocent people who had nothing to do with this deeply disturbed young man.  In fact, transferring blame for the situation away from the individual responsible, and the officials who didn’t pick upon the warning signs, into an indictment of society as a whole is exactly the sort of thinking Rodger would have endorsed.

Of course, we’ll inevitably have lots of hand-wringing about the evils of “society” anyway, from “gun culture” to videogames, which Rodger enjoyed.  Much of this editorial criticism will of course be directed at the easiest targets for politicians to exploit, the social “evils” they’ll claim they can exorcise, if we just give them more power.  While we’re having this discussion. let’s remember to throw in a few words for a culture that elevates the sense of entitlement – getting what you “deserve,” from a populace that supposedly “owes” you all sorts of goods, comforts, and gestures of respect – to one of the few officially-recognized social virtues.

Young people almost always go through phases of intense entitlement, despair, and alienation.  One of the chilling aspects of Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto is how familiar many of his feelings will seem to most of us, if we’re still in touch with our teenage selves.  Many of us swiftly conclude various aspects of our lives are over, after our first youthful brushes with severe disappointment.  How many men reading this can say, with all candor, that they’ve never heard at least faint echoes of the angry loneliness and despair Rodger talks about, pouring from their own broken hearts?  Who among us has never, ever had an ego fragile enough to crack into angry little slivers over perceived insults?  Who can say they’ve never raged against a foolish world that doesn’t know what it’s missing, because it never took the time to look past the surface and see the great person shuttered away in the attic of our teenage minds?  Who ever made it to eighteen without making a list, either mentally or on paper, of everything they think the world “owes” them?

Almost all of us go through such a phase.  The only question is when it begins, how long it lasts… and whether it ends with us growing up, or remaining bitter prisoners of our bug-riddled Version 1.0 personality code.  A healthy society rewards and encourages maturity, on the fastest healthy path available.  Ours officially treats people as children into their late twenties, while flattering immature vanity and portraying extended adolescence as the dream lifestyle.  Religious faith – one of the most powerful cures for entitlement, alienation, and despair – has been devalued into un-hip irrelevance, with every church and temple portrayed as an inscrutable cult whose members can’t possibly be serious about their beliefs.  Everything in our culture either inadvertently, or deliberately, reinforces the notions Elliot Rodger had about both his “enemies” and himself.  Where better than a college campus to hear long diatribes about what people deserve, and how shadowy villains are lined up to prevent them from receiving it?

There are no easy, facile answers to horror and sickness like this, but I wonder how much this supremely entitled youth – a kid who was already driving a BMW, but thought his life was pointless because he couldn’t manage to win the lottery, and could see no other workable path to fulfillment – might have benefited from some realistic expectations, and a concrete sense of movement toward achieving them… not just from people he knew personally, but from the entire culture surrounding him.  We spend too much time telling people, especially young people, what they deserve, instead of providing them with realistic aspirations and honorable expectations.  It’s wrong to hold everyone else guilty for the actions of a murderous lunatic, or to search for a great deal of rational insight in the ravings of an irrational mind, but I think a healthy culture would have done a better job of arguing with the desperate, hateful, self-absorbed garbage  Elliot Rodger wrote in his journal.

Update: John Hinderaker at PowerLine notes that Rodger was, like “most of the other” mass killers in recent history, “a devoted liberal,” which makes the effort to use him as a totem for gun-control rituals especially galling:

As usual, the Left???s effort to gain political advantage from a murderous rampage by one of its own goes nowhere.

Beyond that, some might argue that Rodger was a prototypical liberal male, only carried to a pathological extreme. Consider the profile: socially awkward, convinced of his own brilliance but not notably successful in life, hungry for revenge against those who have done better despite their obvious inferiority, eager to gain power over others, but through political influence rather than firearms???is this not a typical liberal on Twitter, or elsewhere on the internet? Or, for that matter, in the Obama administration? Isn???t state power the legal path to the long-awaited revenge of the liberal nerds? This strikes me as a plausible suggestion.

It does seem as if Rodger was almost completely insulated from anything that could be described as conservative or “red-state” America.  Reading Hinderaker reminds me to append something to my earlier description of campus culture: it’s filled with “long diatribes about what people deserve, and how shadowy villains are lined up to prevent them from receiving it,” followed by lectures about how only force can be used to rectify these inequities.

Update: Evidently facile efforts to blame someone other than Elliot Rodger for what Elliot Rodger did are targeting Hollywood as well as videogames and “gun culture,” in predictably unfair and insulting ways.   “Insecurity” and “entitlement” are hardly unique to Hollywood, and blaming them for making movies wehre “the shlubby adolescent always gets the girl” is beyond ridiculous.  For one thing, they’ve been making movies like that for a century, and people were telling stories like that for millennia before moving pictures came along.

Also, I would note that the point of most such tales – definitely including the bulk of Judd Apatow’s work, which has been cited as a factor in the Rodger rampage – is that the “shlubby” guy gets the girl when he stops being an arrested adolescent and grows up.  It’s not a subtle, sub-textual message in those movies, either; it’s the explicit character arc of the protagonist.  Maniacs can read whatever they want into any work of art, so it’s unfair to blame artists for the delusions held by individual members of their audience… and doubly unfair when the maniac completely missed the point of what the artists were saying.