Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?

Andrew O’Hagan on the manifestos killers leave behind

Christopher Harper-Mercer wrote that he had no life. He had no girlfriend and no job; the world was against him. He lived with his mother only a few miles from the Umpqua Community College campus in Roseburg, Oregon, and he collected guns. He shot nine people dead at the college on 1 October and injured nine others before killing himself. Harper-Mercer, aged 26, had an online account with the name Lithium_Love; he used it to upload videos about school shootings and he posted blogs about Wes Craven, the horror-film director who had just died. His MySpace page was covered in pictures of masked IRA gunmen. Lithium_Love was a fan of the paranormal and he felt the internet knew how to understand extremists. On 31 August, he posted a blog about Vester Flanagan, who had killed a TV reporter and her cameraman in Virginia the week before. ‘I have noticed,’ it says, ‘that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. A man who was known by no one is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.’

Harper-Mercer understood how it worked. He knew his online life would be the one to read when it came to the puzzle of why he killed. But he took the extra precaution of printing out his manifesto and taking it with him to the college. He made the students gather in the middle of the room, chose one of them – ‘the lucky one’, he called him – and gave him a package containing the manifesto and told him to stand in the corner of the room. ‘That contains all the information you’ll need,’ he said to the chosen one, ‘give it to the police’; then he turned to the other students and opened fire. Are these killers obsessed with posterity? They appear to know themselves both as nobody and as God, and it makes them high to imagine themselves suddenly rising from the massed nutterati of the internet, being met with untold fame and ‘respect’ from a world that is shocked by what they have done. It doesn’t matter to them that they won’t be around to bask in the glory of it all: death is glory in itself, and the joy of the final act is to have been its closest and most exclusive reporter.

Vester Flanagan, a disgruntled TV journalist, had become his own greatest scoop, not only murdering his victims on live television but filming the act on his phone while he committed it, uploading it to Twitter as he ran away. His 23-page manifesto, which he faxed to ABC News, was a counter-manifesto to the one written in June by Dylann Roof, the boy who killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Flanagan’s manifesto is filled with the copycat’s respect for the original, offering big-ups to mass shooters before him – ‘I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there,’ he said, referring to the Virginia Tech killer – before stepping into the warm bath of nihilism and sentimentality where such manifesto-writers eventually seek to drown. They are pulled under with their trophies, but out of their madness comes a ‘vision’ of a better world. ‘When I leave this Earth,’ Flanagan wrote, ‘the only emotion I want to feel is peace.’ Shooters, or would-be shooters, often imagine themselves ‘speaking’ to each other across the world through their acts of violence. Behind every killer now is a previous set of killers, each giving rise to another, like an army in a video game, new recruits emerging from the chatrooms with guns on their mind.

On 13 September 2006, Kimveer Singh Gill went to Dawson College in Montreal and shot a group of people before killing himself. ‘I haven’t slept for three days,’ he had written in his diary, expecting that it would be read in the future by an appalled world. He hated jocks and preppies and wondered why they felt so superior and got all the girls. He felt that the boys who went on shooting sprees understood something that stupid people didn’t: they understood the need for a nerds’ revolution against the forces of worldly success.

On 7 November 2007, in Finland, Pekka-Eric Auvinen entered Jokela High School with a semi-automatic weapon and killed eight people before shooting himself in the head. The lifestyle had become the death-style, allowing Auvinen’s own alienation to grow ennobled, in his poor mind, with the ‘achievements’ of other so-called beta boys around the world, especially in his beloved America. ‘Hate, I am so full of it and I love it,’ he wrote in his manifesto (a direct quote from the Columbine killers’ journals). ‘This is my war: a one-man war against humanity, governments and the weak-minded masses of the world!’ On the internet Auvinen called himself NaturalSelector89, Natural Selector, Sturmgeist89 and Sturmgeist. His heroes were the young men who look at life through the telescopic lens of a rifle, and that was the model for him, much as John Wayne was once a model for boys who thought cowboys put decency back into the world.

On 20 July 2012, James Holmes, after dyeing his hair a kind of purple, went to a midnight screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises at the Century movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, and sprayed the crowd with bullets, killing 12 and injuring 70. He had earlier thought that a mass shooting at an airport might be better but reckoned airport atrocities were too much associated with terrorism. He made a note in his two-dollar Ampad notebook. ‘Terrorism isn’t the message,’ he wrote, ‘the message is there is no message.’ Holmes wrote screeds of self-doubt masquerading as higher purpose, hunting for a vision of human worth. (He was on Sertraline, brandname Zoloft.) ‘Why does the value of a person ever matter?’ he wrote. He drew lines of matchstick men lying on their sides (‘Value = 0’). He noted that ‘life’s fallback solution to all problems’ is ‘death’. He expressed the certainty that he had a broken mind, and named his conditions (‘Dysphoric mania, social anxiety disorder, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, schizophrenia, body dysmorphic disorder, chronic insomnia’). He couldn’t stop checking his hair in the mirror. He scribbled seven pages of the single word ‘why?’, getting larger each time until, on the last page, there was room for only one. He laid out his fantasy: ‘to blow up the entire world with nuclear bombs, then a biological agent that destroys the mind … And finally, the last escape: mass murder at the movies.’

Someone, perhaps not a million miles from you, whose name we don’t yet know but whose face is camera-ready, whose conscience is clearing before the fact, is preparing a biography of his mentality in advance of a shooting massacre. He is almost certainly a he, and he is unhappy, and he is already fully armed. He is probably on Zoloft. He is likely to be a virgin with a history of isolation. He may be into hurting animals, or like Death Metal music, and there’s a strong chance he will have been said to have Asperger’s syndrome or ADHD. The movies he likes will tell a story about him and his displaced sense of self. There may be a girl who snubbed him. If he is older, it may be a boss who snubbed him but it’s more likely to be the whole of ‘society’. He may well be an expert in video games and have inscribed himself on a notional leaderboard, perhaps even taking up a role in life that mirrors a status he sees himself having in the game. He will write poems. He will watch porn. And there will be times when he doesn’t sleep for days, just drinking Coke, listening to music on his iPod and dreaming up scenarios based on the songs. He will hate jocks, the sometimes handsome and generally confident boys who snag the girls at school. Those he hates he hates with a vengeance. He might find girls disgusting. He believes he has a system of thought, his own, that education or company philosophy can’t get close to, and his feelings of inferiority quickly turn bombastic. He is lonely. And the biggest mistake he makes is to imagine there is nobody like him. Because quite a few are like him and some of them are already writing a long note to posterity.

The step from beta boy to Übermensch seems natural. One minute, Chris Harper-Mercer was bemoaning the fact that no girl liked him, that he was nobody and invisible and without status among his peers. The next minute he was telling a ‘lucky one’ that he could live while everybody else died. ‘I am God’ is code for ‘I am nobody.’ Anders Behring Breivik spent eight years preparing a manifesto of 1500 pages, an encyclopedia of wrongs. ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ sets out his hatred of Muslims, Marxists and multiculturalists, building a case for genocide, and reads like it’s torn from the pages of a novel by Don DeLillo. Breivik emailed it to a thousand people the morning he went out and bombed a government building in Oslo, killing eight, before travelling to a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the island of Utøya, where he spent an hour and a half on a shooting spree that killed 69 people. He then surrendered. Breivik’s manifesto is so much a part of him that nothing can take him off-course. Afterwards, his only regret was that he didn’t kill more people and he feels certain that he will be hailed in the future as a great hero. He sees himself as a knight templar, a hero of the modern crusade, blond, green-eyed, tall, armour-plated, and ready to command legions in their fight to purify the world. For him, technology’s great purpose is to make possible a counter-jihad, and the internet, the West’s great contribution to the deepening of the collective soul, will enable this. ‘Optimally, you will send your announcements only seconds before you initiate the operation,’ he advises.

In addition, you should carry an announcement on a memory pin during the mission. However, this should not be the only means of distributing your message … You should also consider semi-shady spam centrals as an alternative. For example, you can arrange and pay for online services which involve the distribution of files at a set time. The files sent can be encrypted or disguised as something else. The risk here though is that the company or individual sending the files may read or get access to the information and may alert authorities. However, the forwarding of these files … can be done seconds before the initiation of the operation. The smartest method however is to download the announcement in your iPhone or similar mobile device. Just before you engage, send your announcement to for example 10-500 pre-organised email addresses from your iPhone. It might be a good idea to turn your phone off afterwards to prevent them from triangulating your position after engagement.

Breivik’s manifesto contains a ‘self-interview’ that may be the most enlightening part of his ramble.

Question: ‘What would you say to your European brothers and sisters?’ Answer: ‘Know that you are not alone in this fight. We have tens of millions of European sympathisers and tens of thousands of brothers and sisters who support us fully and are willing to fight beside us. Hopefully I will be able to help and inspire others. Build your network on Facebook. Follow the guidelines in this book and you will succeed!’

And in answer to his own question about how he got involved in his ‘current activities’, he gets to this:

Around 2000, I realised that the democratic struggle against the Islamisation of Europe, and European multiculturalism, was lost … It is simply not possible to compete with democratic regimes that import millions of voters. Forty years of dialogue with the cultural Marxists/multiculturalists had ended up as a disaster. It would now only take fifty to seventy years before we, Europeans, were the minority. So I decided to explore alternative forms of opposition. But the biggest problem then was that there were no options for me at all. There was no known armed culturally conservative, or Christian, anti-jihad movement.

Elsewhere in his manifesto, he bemoans the feminisation of men. He approves of Jeremy Clarkson and thinks Ayaan Hirsi Ali should win the Nobel Prize. He hates the BBC and quotes Ayn Rand (‘We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality’). He builds a messianic purpose from a lifetime of slights, making him at last an Alpha colossus.

Dylan Klebold, by no means the angriest of the Columbine killers, couldn’t spell his own name, but he wrote this poem:

Ignorance is bliss
happiness is ambition
desolation is knowledge
pain is acceptance
despair is anger
denial is helpless
martyrism is hope for others
advantages taken are causes of martyrism
revenge is sorrow
death is a reprieve
life is a punishment
others’ achievements are tormentations
people are alike
I am different

He met his beta buddy, Eric Harris, working at Blackjack Pizza, and together they talked about how much they hated the popular guys at school, the bullies. ‘I want to leave a lasting impression on the world,’ Harris wrote in his own, sicker journal. He wanted their ‘revenge … to be like Vietnam, like the Oklahoma bombing, like World War Two’. When they shot up the school, Harris was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Natural Selection’. They were for the slaughter of the fittest, and the triumph of the formerly outcast. Betas believe, and often say, that ‘the weak will inherit the earth’ and set out to prove it by turning into a horrible reality a fantasy in which the weakest boys in the school are suddenly avengers in long dark coats, walking between the desks with assault weapons and shooting the popular kids cowering beneath them. Before the Columbine attacks, Klebold and Harris made a film, Hitmen for Hire, which has become both Bible and instruction manual for two decades’ worth of ‘avenging’ mass-shooters. ‘People are always making fun of me,’ a weakling boy says in the opening scene. ‘I need some help.’ Then we see the two assassins, Klebold and Harris, coming down the corridor dressed in black. The student film, it turns out, was predictive text for the massacre to come.

Seung-Hui Cho bragged of having a supermodel from outer space for a girlfriend. Not that bragging was his usual mode: he usually said nothing, and suffered from what is sometimes called ‘selective mutism’. A Korean immigrant who grew up in Washington DC, Cho had written a romantic novel that was rejected by a publisher. He had been reported for harassing girls and took to wearing dark glasses and a pulled-down cap. So far, so alien youth, but then he began writing an account of what the world had done to him. At the same time he started collecting weapons and making ready to give people what they deserved. ‘Are you happy now that you have destroyed my life?’ he wrote in a ‘multimedia manifesto’ he sent to MSNBC on the morning he shot up Virginia Tech, killing 32 people and wounding 19 others. ‘Now that you have stolen everything you could from me? Now that you have gone on a 9/11 on my life like fucking Osama. Now that you have fucked your own people like fucking Kim Jong-Il. Now that you have gone on a hummer safari on my life like fucking Bush? Are you happy now?’

Cho seemed sure he was part of a community – a community of the damned, or the disregarded – not him on his own, but ‘we’. ‘By destroying we create,’ he wrote, before videoing himself reading his words and posting the video on YouTube.

We create the feelings in you of what it is like to be the victim, what it is like to be fucked and destroyed. Because of your annihilations, we create and raise new breeds of Children who will show you fuckers what you have done to us. Like Easter, it will be a day of rebirth. It will be a start of a revolution of the Children that you fucked. You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life, thus, by destroying you, by giving you pain, we attempt to show you responsibilities and meanings of other people’s lives.

Most of those who knew Seung-Hui Cho are mystified: they never saw him being bullied, saw no evidence of the ‘annihilations’ he refers to. Joseph Aust, his college roommate, says he was just shy. ‘I never saw anyone attacking him, physical or verbal or whatever.’ Cho had a fantasy of rich kids putting him down, but his college wasn’t that kind of place, it didn’t have rich kids; he was a loner who carried the slights in his head. His social anxiety was worryingly lightened by the Columbine massacre. He was 13 then. His doctor put him on anti-depressants, but he was already embedded in the lifestyle of the extreme beta. He only listened to music that might intensify his sense of separation, only watched films that fed his destructive fantasies. He had tapped into the vampire ethic and he needed blood in order to exist – in order to exist in media terms – and that became the solution to his hatred of who he was.

*

When Elliot Rodger was six years old he loved dinosaurs. On his birthday he was taken to Universal Studios, where he made straight for the Jurassic Park-themed ride. ‘We queued up and waited for an hour,’ he wrote later. ‘When I reached the front, the park staff presented me with a measuring stick, and I didn’t fit the requirements. I saw other boys my age admitted onto the ride, but I was denied.’ When his parents divorced and his father took up with a new woman, Rodger remembered being impressed by his father’s ‘power’. For a time he seemed just like any other boy in California: he traded Pokemon cards, watched Bond movies and played basketball (he secretly believed it would make him taller). He enjoyed swing parks and holidays. But when friends played with each other and left him out it made him cry. He was eight or nine when he started to notice the ‘cool kids’, boys who found it easy to make themselves liked. ‘I realised, with some horror, that I wasn’t “cool”,’ he wrote. ‘I had a dorky hairstyle, I wore plain and uncool clothing, and I was shy and unpopular.’ His life became a battle not to be lame. His father, a film director and often absent, agreed to buy him a skateboard.

Rodger’s attempts to be cool never ended, until it all ended. Growing up between his parents’ houses in what is arguably the world capital of virtual reality, Woodland Hills and Calabasas, Rodger pursued every craze going and tapped every source of popularity. But it wasn’t working. ‘I was like a nomad, moving from group to group and trying to fit in with each one, but never fully integrating. I feared that the cool kids didn’t regard me as one of them.’ His mother would take him to skateparks but he wasn’t getting better, and it still rankled years later when he came to write his life story. ‘I could never master the kickflip or heelflip,’ he wrote. ‘All I could do was the ollie jump and ride down a few ramps. I saw eight-year-old boys at the skatepark who could do a kickflip with ease, and it made me so angry.’ He went to a dance in high school and was asked to dance by some girls; he said it had been the best night of his life. But by this time the pattern was set – he could only see himself as a loser. Though he gives a very full account of all the people he met and almost got on with, he spent a lot of time alone with his Xbox. The main aim of his teenage life was to become brilliant at the video game World of Warcraft, and to kiss a girl. But he wasn’t prepared for how devastated he would feel when sexual contact proved impossible. ‘My only social interactions were through video games,’ he admitted. He was afraid of the dark. He was afraid of girls. ‘Even at that young age,’ he reported, ‘I felt depressed because I wanted sex, yet I felt unworthy of it. I didn’t think I was ever going to experience sex in reality, and I was right. I never did … And so my starvation began … Some boys pushed me randomly against the lockers as they walked past me in the hall.’ In the holidays, Rodger was playing World of Warcraft for 14 hours a day. ‘I never had the experience of going to a party with other teenagers,’ he wrote. ‘I never had my first kiss, I never held hands with a girl, I never lost my virginity. In the past, I felt so inferior and weak from all of the bullying that I just accepted my lonely life and dealt with it by playing WoW.’ And then a new kind of day arrives. ‘I began to have fantasies of becoming very powerful and stopping everyone from having sex.’

Like all beta males, Rodger began to live a life outside of himself, or above the commonality he felt sure despised him. In the ordinary run of things, such boys get deep into the internet and chatrooms, drawing power from their anonymity, overarching their difficult years with TV shows and games and porn. They do no harm. They may read books – the audience for Games of Thrones is made up of such people – and they may be drawn to fantastical tales of the strong. So far, so what? Boys like that used to wear anoraks and read Tolkien and swap sci-fi comics, or get into heavy metal, overcoming shyness or adolescent angst with dark otherworldliness that lightened with age. But for some the darkness can prove engulfing. ‘I began a daily routine of walking to Barnes & Noble in Calabasas every day,’ Rodger writes in his manifesto,

where I would spend hours reading books that ranged from biographies of powerful leaders, histories of significant periods, self-help books, philosophy and psychology texts, and historical fiction novels. I sometimes even spent entire days there, from the time it opened to the time it closed. In the afternoons, to my extreme rage, I sometimes saw young couples strolling through the store. Sometimes they would even sit on the reading chairs, kissing and fondling each other. Whenever I saw this, I got so overcome by envy and heartbreak that I went to the bathroom to cry.

In time it became obvious to him that he was a great intellectual who could write an epic book. He could become a multi-millionaire and attract all the girls he wanted. Then he bought a gun. ‘Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?’ he typed in the manuscript he had long been preparing.

*

And so personal confusion becomes a public event, and a national trauma. At this point we move from the self-advertisements of the manifesto to the public record, to witness statements and survivors’ evidence. Some time in the late afternoon of 23 May 2014, Elliot Rodger, using two hunting knives, stabbed his two roommates, each one separately, as they entered their apartment at 6598 Seville Road, Isla Vista, and killed one of their friends as well. After some hours he uploaded to YouTube a video he had made called ‘Retribution’, where he laments his virginity and speaks of his hatred of all the people who have made him suffer. At the same time he emailed a 137-page manifesto explaining how he’d arrived at this day. Just after 9.15 p.m., he drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house at 840 Embarcadero del Norte, near the University of California Santa Barbara, and banged on the door. Receiving no answer, he returned to his car, a black BMW, from where he shot dead two female students, Veronika Weiss and Katherine Cooper, and wounded a third, Bianca De Kock. He drove on and shot a man standing on the street outside the IV Deli Mart in Pardall Road. The man, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, took a single gunshot to the chest and fell dead on the floor of the market. Driving back towards the sorority house, he mowed down a young man, before driving on to Trigo Road and shooting from his window and injuring a man and a woman. He drove on and shot another woman. Driving east onto Del Playa Drive, he returned fire when a sheriff’s deputy shot at his car. On Del Playa, he used his car to strike and injure two young men; while shooting from his moving car he injured another. Less than a minute later, he struck a boy on a skateboard at 6688 Sabado Tarde and seconds later at 6636 hit a man on a bicycle. At 6573 Sabado Tarde he shot from the driver’s window and wounded two male pedestrians. Later that night, one of them was able to identity Rodger when a policeman showed him ‘Retribution’, the YouTube video. At a crossing up ahead, Rodger took fire from three sheriff’s deputies and was wounded in the hip. He then swung back onto Del Playa and struck and injured another male cyclist. Finally he put his gun to his head and killed himself, his car then colliding with another car and coming to a stop.

There has been an epidemic in gun violence since 2000, and mass shootings in public places are clearly on the increase. According to the FBI, there have been close to two hundred such incidents in the last 15 years, resulting in the murder of 486 people and the wounding of 557 as of September last year. Each time a shooter goes on the rampage, police and journalists disappear into the dark woods of the world wide web, looking for clues, while the president stands at a podium and berates his own culture for understanding nothing. There have always been killers and they have often left pieces of writing behind (think of Jack the Ripper and his notes written in blood); some of them were even called manifestos. The Manson ‘family’, a previous group of bent fans of popular culture who heard messages in songs, believed in a programme of salvation that required the slaughtering of the human ‘pigs’ who put them down. Valerie Solanos wrote a manifesto that wants to be a feminist tract before shooting Andy Warhol. But not even Warhol, who understood something essential about fame, could have guessed that, one day, such would-be killers, or putative cleaners-up of our corrupt and oppressive world, would carry the wherewithal in the pocket of their jeans. All they needed was a smartphone and a set of grievances, and the world was theirs. According to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Investigative Report, when officers entered the suspect’s apartment at 6598 Seville Road, they found a bedroom in disarray. Elliot Rodger’s laptop was sitting on top of the bed, buzzing with his own image uploaded to YouTube. The officers noticed stab marks on the pillow and mattress, as if the person who slept there had been practising. Inside his desk were numerous lottery tickets and a book called The Art of Seduction. ‘I didn’t start this war,’ Rodger wrote in his manifesto, ‘I wasn’t the one who struck first. But I will finish it by striking back. I will punish everyone. And it will be beautiful.’