A day after an Oregon school shooting left at least nine people dead, police and the media were on the hunt for the killer’s motivations. Christopher Harper Mercer, 26, was killed in a confrontation with police shortly after he began the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, but his online postings and eyewitness reports may give us some hints as to his mindset.
According to The New York Times, at least one law enforcement official described the killer as “an angry young man who was very filled with hate.” Another official reported that police investigators were busy looking through the killer’s voluminous writings, a portion of which may have included a “race-related manifesto.”
Other reports claim that Mercer carried out his attack in the hopes of garnering fame. He was apparently inspired by Vester Lee Flanagan, the man who killed a TV reporter and cameraman live on the air in Virginia. CBS News said one of Mercer’s blog posts specifically referenced Flanagan’s attack:
I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] are 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 like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.
Perhaps most disturbingly, several witnesses said that the killings were at least partially motivated by religion. Kortney Moore, 18, told the local paper that Mercer instructed the students in her class to lie down on the floor before systematically asking them to stand up, one by one, and state their religious beliefs. He then began shooting.
“The shooter was lining people up and asking if they were Christian,” another witness wrote on Twitter. “If they said yes, then they were shot in the head. If they said no, or didn’t answer, they were shot in the legs. My grandma just got to my house, and she was in the room. She wasn’t shot, but she is very upset.
Those familiar with the Columbine shootings will recall that killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold reportedly did the same.
A search for fame doesn’t wholly explain why Mercer would have done something like this – millions of Americans would love to be famous and would never think of killing people to achieve that goal. Still, there’s no way to ignore the obvious effect previous mass casualty events have on these psychopaths. Not only was Mercer apparently inspired by Flanagan, but Flanagan himself had been inspired in part by the Charleston killer, Dylann Roof.
Now, naturally, you’re going to hear everyone say that the news media should stop making celebrities out of these killers. But you may as well wish for world peace. It isn’t going to happen. Even if 99% of the media agreed to some kind of blackout, it would leave ample room for the remaining 1% to fill the gap. Viewers and readers are going to go where they can get the whole story. You can’t put this particular genie back in the bottle. People are fascinated by these evil killers, and that’s probably been true for as long as humans have walked the earth.
Does understanding this killer’s motives help us prevent these tragedies in the future? Maybe. But historical precedence gives us little reason to hope. When a sick mind takes a notion to kill, there’s not much we can do to stop them. The signs are always there in hindsight, but guess what? Those signs are present in millions of people, the vast majority of whom would never do something like this. You can’t reverse-engineer these things without throwing every loner-type kid on medication. And even then, a great many of these killers are either on anti-depressants or meant to be on them. Doesn’t stop them.
The truth is that we look so hard for these motivations because we’ve become uncomfortable with the idea of evil in 2015. There always has to be some logical explanation, even if it’s the convenient label of mental illness. We feel safer, somehow, if we can pin it down to some specific species of hate or some obvious pattern of abuse.
Evil has been around for as long as human life has existed. Why did Jack the Ripper kill those prostitutes? Why did Ted Bundy kill all those women? Why did Jeffrey Dahmer eat his victims? Is there any answer that would suffice?
We’re so wrapped up in the idea of moral relativity these days that we can’t call a spade a spade. And if our society is so broken that we can’t call a murderer evil, then maybe we have an important clue as to why this stuff keeps happening.