At first glance, the video posted by Elliot Rodger, the killer of six people and himself in Isla Visa, Calif., seems like a cheeky, self-aware joke. Sitting behind the wheel of an expensive-looking car, with palm trees in the background, he vows revenge on all the women who’ve rejected him. He punctuates his threats with a demonic chuckle of the kind used by cartoon villains and spoofed by the “Austin Powers” movies. Rodger’s monologue has all the earmarks of a kid goofing around with a camera; the fact that it was for real — that he set off on a rampage a day after recording it, stabbing three men and shooting two women and another man — shows how deeply embedded such killings have become in the American culture: The line between familiar media-obsessed narcissism and its murderous offspring is becoming harder to discern.
That’s probably why reaction to Rodger’s rampage has focused less on the usual suspects in mass killings: the gun culture and the ubiquitousness of violence in movies. Rodger, at 22, seems to have been driven by purely personal demons; the tabloids deemed him the “kissless virgin.”
But it bears remembering that almost all the pathologies that have been noted in previous mass killings were present in this one, too. Society’s ability to curb the frightening contagion of shootings will depend on addressing the factors that prompt mentally ill men to go down in what they see as a blaze of glorious violence. Thus, it’s worth noting that:
■ Rodger was able to buy semi-automatic weapons and ammunition despite being so unstable that his own parents eventually reported him to the authorities.
■ He was immersed in Hollywood’s world of violent fantasy; his father was a second-line director of “The Hunger Games.”
■ He was bullied at school during his early teenage years, which, he claimed, punctuated his transition from a relatively happy childhood to a traumatic adolescence.
■ His parents’ belief that he was a danger to himself and others led to a police visit to his home; but he was cogent enough that his behavior didn’t raise sufficient alarms. Additional clues on his Facebook page went unheeded.
■ His hostility toward women was reinforced by visits to a web site on which lonely men vented their frustrations. Such sharing of grievances can be therapeutic in some situations; in this one, it seemed to validate his anger.
Sadly, all of these factors are reflective, to some degree, of the freedoms that Americans regard as their birthright. The Constitution rightly constrains government’s ability to crack down on free expression, censor movies, monitor web sites, restrict gun ownership, and deprive people of liberties based on mental illness. But the Constitution still offers enough latitude for a mature society to reasonably assess its vulnerabilities and address its deficiencies. It’s time for all Americans — in politics, health care, the media, or everyday community life — to commit themselves to do what they can to combat a very American form of violence.