The latest American mass murder is disturbing for reasons different than many of the previous ones. While I have read editorials blaming the atrocity on mental illness, easy access to guns and/or our “age of entitlement,” I believe these things were incidental factors rather than causative ones. It is clear to me that this tragedy occurred in the vacuum which comes in the absence of meaningful values—personal, familial and social.
This murder didn’t happen in some poverty-stricken backwater hollow, but in the front yard of the University of California at Santa Barbara, a state college attended by 23,000 students in a county of the same name with half a million residents.
Elliot Rodger was a handsome, educated young man from a financially-secure family—a youth who most would consider a son of privilege. While he was not a Hollywood insider, the social orbit of his friends and family brought them in proximity to the famous and semi-famous. According to wire sources, his father Peter aspired to make films but instead made commercials and his mother dated George Lucas and was a friend of Steven Spielberg.
So what do we know about this fortunate son? Practically everything. In fact, what separates this tragic act of public violence from most other such events is its utter lack of mystery. So many times after mass murders we are left with nothing but the haunting question, “Why did he do this?” But not in Rodger’s case. In the wake of the killings he left not only a disturbing seven-minute video spelling out his intentions and the reasons for his actions, but a 107,000-word account of what he accurately described as his “twisted world.” Not since the days of Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber manifesto has the public been left with such a road map of a murderer’s deviant mind.
The irony is that for all those pages and pages of words, the cause of Elliot Rodger’s lethal tirade can be summarized in exactly one word: Envy. And who/what was Elliot envious of? All those men who enjoyed sex and love with women. All those people who enjoyed wealth and success. Those who, according to Elliot, “grew up in lavish mansions, indulged in excessive opulence, and will never have to worry about anything in their pleasurable, hedonistic lives.”
These are the values that this son of California privilege embraced. No talk of hobbies or avocations. No talk of art or sports or social connections. No talk of a search for higher existential purpose, spiritual meaning, life’s greater truth.
Describing himself as a “kissless virgin,” and “pathetic for not having a date,” Rodger fantasized about winning the “highest lottery jackpot in existence,” writing, “I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.”
And why wouldn’t this misguided young man believe these things? In his world of material values, how would he know the difference?
One immediate, nearly-automatic response for us is to separate ourselves, as quickly as possible, from the killer. We do this by labeling such a person a “monster,” or a “psycho” or a “loser.” But if Elliot Rodger was truly a monster, then he was a monster of our own making, a child of our American society, a product of The Real Housewives of Orange County, Basketball Wives, Hollywood Exes and Vanderpump Rules. Of Celebrity Apprentice, Million Dollar Listing and Millionaire Matchmaker.
Elliot Rodger was no monster, but a flesh-and-blood human being like you and I. And all humans want to be loved. To be touched. To be accepted. It is truly unfortunate that he believed that the only way to acquire these human necessities was to become rich; it is even more unfortunate that there is a certain amount of truth in what he believed.
Handguns and semi-automatic weapons are a terrible scourge. Budget cuts to social services for the mentally ill are a travesty. But the deepest cut of all is the loss of meaningful values in an American society obsessed with money, looks, ego and power.
In this American reality show that I long ago dubbed “McDisneyWood,” Elliot Rodger has moved on to the next round.
Keith Linwood Stover is a freelance artist, writer and musician who lives in Bucksport.