The impulse is natural, sometimes even healthy. When some great horror occurs, something so seemingly irrational, the mind seeks a rational explanation and therein some way to prevent future horrors. If in retrospect we can identify the path a killer followed from the innocuous point A to the increasingly ominous points B and C and finally to the atrocity at Z, then we can say, “If only we (or they, or someone) had done something then, at the first sign of trouble, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Yes, this is natural and healthy, but it is often a delusion. And in the case of last week’s murders in Isla Vista, the handy focus of this delusion is the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. And after all, why not blame them? We have it from the Elliot Rodger himself, who in his pre-rampage manifesto described an April visit from deputies. “If they had demanded to search my room . . . That would have ended everything,” he wrote (italics and ellipses in the original). So there you have it: the killer himself says the police failed to stop him. Why look elsewhere for someone to blame?
If only it were that simple.
I’ll leave the deep examination into Rodger’s psyche to others, but in reading his manifesto and watching the videos he posted online, in coming as close as we might to understanding what impelled him to Friday’s savagery, it’s important to remember that he was a narcissist, a type very familiar to most police officers. So convinced was he of his superiority to the lesser beings surrounding him that he found it unfathomable that they, even with their modest intelligence, failed to recognize it. And like many narcissists, especially those in the criminal class, Rodger was manipulative. So much so, in fact, that he continues to manipulate people even in death. His manifesto, which will be parsed for the duration of the news story, contains not only his murderous fantasies but also an appeal for sympathy. If only people had been nice to me, he tells us from the grave, I wouldn’t have done it.
Do not be taken in. In this respect Elliot Rodger was like most men one finds in prison: full of rationalization and justification for the behavior that resulted in their incarceration. Was he mentally ill? No doubt. But was he insane in the sense that, had he survived, an insanity defense would have been available to him? Not a chance. Such a defense requires that the accused be incapable of knowing the wrongfulness of the acts he is charged with. The degree of planning and subterfuge Rodger engaged in clearly demonstrated he knew the consequences of what he would do, which is why he was so explicit in his plan to commit suicide when confronted.
And we can be grateful he was confronted quickly. For all the bloodshed, the spree lasted but ten minutes, and it ended only when, as is so often the case in mass shootings, he was pursued by armed people determined to stop him. It has become hackneyed to say it, but yes, the bad guy with guns was stopped only when he came up against the good guys with guns.
And still there are those who entertain the childish fantasy that some act of legislation, some magical addition to California’s already voluminous gun laws, might have been the one that impeded Rodger from carrying out what he was determined to do. Richard Martinez, father of Christopher Michaels-Martinez, one of the students Rodgers killed on Friday, has been passionate in his condemnation of the National Rifle Association and the politicians he perceives to be in its thrall. “Why did Chris die?”, he asked reporters. “Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA.”
Mr. Martinez can be forgiven in his grief for failing to blame the actual killer, but even in grief one must not disregard the grief felt by others whose loss is just as great. Elliot Rodger killed six people, three of them by gunfire. And he injured 13 others, eight by gunfire. The parents of those stabbed to death or run down in the street might ask, “You seek to ban the implement that harmed your child, but what’s to be done about the one that harmed mine?”
And now back to those sheriff’s deputies who called on Rodger back in April. “If they had demanded to search my room . . . That would have ended everything.” Would it? Consider a scenario in which the deputies did demand to search the apartment. If they had discovered Rodger’s guns, then what? All three had been purchased legally; on what grounds could the deputies have seized them? And what if the deputies had demanded to search his computer and then discovered the manifesto that was at the time a work in progress? If they had arrested him or committed him on a psychiatric hold, they very likely would have found themselves named in a civil rights lawsuit, with Rodger exulting in the role of victim and being fawned over by some of the very same people now condemning the Sheriff’s Department for their inaction. And Rodger still might have exploded into violence, only now with the added justification (to himself) of having been put upon by the legal system.
Long before Elliot Rodger became a murderer he was a con man, and as the details of his life emerge we may learn of deceptions he perpetrated on acquaintances and family members. Yes, he was ill, but he had the means to address his illness without resorting to murder. He made his decision willfully, choosing to do evil rather than seek the help available to him. Expressions of sympathy for him are an insult to those he killed and injured.
The debate over guns and the government’s role in treating mental illness will continue, and the urge to legislate, especially here in the nanny state of California, will be irresistible. But don’t expect whatever laws are produced to be of any hindrance to the next Elliot Rodger.