Elliot Rodgers was at war. The troubled narcissistic young man who went on a rampage this weekend in Isla Vista, killing six and then himself, was armed with a small arsenal of automatic weapons.
In a 137 page autobiography that he titled “My Twisted World,” Rodger explained that he was “at war,” but he claimed that he was not the one who created it. Rather, he was responding as a soldier in combat, defending his honor. “Women’s rejection of me is a declaration of war,” he said, adding ominously that “if it’s war they want, then war they shall have.”
Rodger was referring to the fact that although he was obsessed with sexuality, he was still a virgin at age 22. He could not accept the idea that he was to blame for what he regarded as a social failing. He thought of himself as a “magnificent gentleman,” and “a god.” What is interesting, though, is that he thought of his rejection and his planned revenge not as a personal problem but as warfare.
“I am the true victim,” he cried out in the closing paragraph of his autobiography, most likely written hours before committing his savage attacks, his “day of retribution.”
“I didn’t start this war,” he said. “But I will finish it by striking back.”
Rodger had a lifetime of thinking about and acting out roles of combat. His favorite computer game was World of Warcraft, to which he achieved level 60, and to which he was committed for some 14 hours a day when he was in junior high school. The films he admired, including Alpha Dog and Hunger Games–which his father had helped to create as an assistant director–were also seeped in images of battle.
These images do not produce violence, necessarily. But it is striking that virtually all acts of terrorism in the contemporary world employ images of cosmic war that come from their cultural traditions. For Sikhs it has been the epic wars of Sikh princes against the Moghul Emperors; for Muslims it has been the struggles of jihad described in the Qur’an. For Jews and Christians the divine battles of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) are thought to come to life in contemporary struggles that are seen as skirmishes in a cosmic war.
Though Elliot Rodger was a lone wolf, in the sense that he acted alone, he can also be considered a terrorist informed by American culture. He is an American terrorist who employed the militant cultural images of contemporary American youth culture to inform his own imagined battles. Like other terrorists who have created performances of violence in order to create a momentary sense of social power, Rodger was a soldier in his own desperate and secret cosmic war.
We are still in shock– the attacks this weekend were literally in front of my house in Isla Vista. But now that the candlelight vigil is over and the yellow tape taken from sidewalks, the question turns to why? Who was Elliot Rodger and why did he engage in this private act of terrorism?
In reading Elliot Rodger’s writings a portrait emerges of a disturbed narcissistic young man of privilege who was consumed with envy and blamed everyone else for his social failings. He saw his life like a movie (Alpha Dog was one of his favorites) and computer games, which he played incessantly (especially World of Warcraft), and gained the illusion of power in his arsenal of weapons including three semi-automatic pistols and 400 rounds of ammunition.
When he was in junior high school he played computer games 14 hours in a day, determined to reach level 60. It was the only skill in which he had a measure of success. In everything else from sports to classes to social conquests he was hounded by a sense of failure even though he was convinced he was “destined for greatness.” In high school and then college, sex was his obsession, though clearly his failing, since at the time of his death he had not even kissed a girl. He blamed the beautiful women who ignored him, and the socially adept young men to whom they were attracted, for his own failings. His 137 page autobiography details how he would like to take revenge on the “Day of Retribution” which was to begin with stabbing and killing his roommates, then shooting up a whole sorority, driving down the coast to kill his stepmother and younger brother, before heading back to IV to plow his car into as many attractive young bystanders as he could. Fortunately he was only partly successful in this savage fantasy.
Who is at fault for creating this cold young monster? Clearly the violence of American society permeated his life and informed his sinister project. He was living in a movie or a computer game. The easy accessibility of guns gave him the illusion of power.
His was an act of terrorism since it was a public performance of violence meant to spread fear and give him a sense of control. I would be tempted to call him a Christian terrorist even though he was not remotely religious since he would have been called a Muslim terrorist if his name was Abdul rather than Elliot. But it would be more accurate to call him an American terrorist. Like most “lone wolf” terrorists in recent incidents around the country and the world, he is a private actor; but he is also a part of a larger cultural momentum that valorizes extreme acts and convinces ordinary persons that they are failures if they do not live up to the lives of the culture’s successful and sexually powerful personae. It is a cultural failing and an American terrorism for which we can all take some blame.
When I asked the official in charge of religious affairs in the Ukrainian government why it and so many of its neighboring states turned to religion in their rejection of Soviet control, he explained that “it is due to a failure of ideology.” Marxist and other secular ideologies have “failed,” he explained, for they are not able to “touch the heart” the way ethnic and religious identities do.
Whether or not Marxist ideology “failed,” it is clear that it became unhappily tied to what was perceived as Russian imperialism. The liberalization of Soviet policies in the 1980s opened the floodgates for a lively expression of ethnic loyalties in Eastern Europe that only intensified after the end of the Soviet Union on New Year’s Day in 1992. In such diverse locations as Lithuania, Armenia, East Germany, Poland, and Ukraine, religious movements were at the forefront of opposition to Soviet control and the emergence of new nationalisms. In a sense, these were old nationalisms; they traced their identities at least to the nineteenth century and in most cases much earlier. In their post-socialist form, however, these national identities were new: their combination of democratic popularism and cultural nationalism was a distinctive feature of the modern age.
In many of these countries, Catholic Christianity was a rallying point for nationalists eager to separate themselves from the Russian cultural domination symbolized by the Russian Orthodox Church. This was the case in Ukraine, where the Catholic Church in the western part of the country continues to be at the forefront of nationalist causes. The religious culture of Ukraine is more complicated than simply a Catholic-Orthodox split, however, since there is a form of Ukrainian orthodoxy that is distinctively Ukrainian and stridently anti-Russian. The statement declaring Ukraine’s independence on August 24, 1991, claimed “a thousand-year-old tradition of building statehood,” which originated in the tenth century, when Vladimir the Great created a separate Ukrainian Church.
This link between Ukrainian nationalism and religion persisted in the post-Soviet period, especially in Western Ukraine. The eastern part of the country contained a large percentage of ethnic Russians, most of whom were Russian Orthodox. The residents of Western Ukraine have been Catholics—members of the Uniate Church, a Ukrainian branch of Catholicism—or members of a distinctly Ukrainian form of Orthodoxy that defies the authority of the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. The conflict in Ukraine, therefore, is not just an ethic and political split, but a contest of competing visions of religious nationalism.
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