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Heroic Doubling, Redux

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, when Robert Dear attacked the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, he not only took three innocent lives, but also provided the advocates of both abortion and gun control with a golden opportunity to attack their political opponents, an opportunity the likes of which they rarely miss.  This murderous rampage wasn’t like any of the others, after all.  It was prompted by the “hateful” rhetoric unleashed against advocates of “women’s health” by religious fanatics.  It was the byproduct of the coordinated effort on the part of abortion opponents to delegitimize and demonize Planned Parenthood.  It was proof positive that heated language and unfair accusations could motivate the emotionally unstable, who, with easy access to firearms, could quickly turn their delusions into real-world action – violent, bloody, and hateful real-world action.

Or so we were told.

Now, the evidence of a causal link between non-violent rhetoric and violent behavior is rather scant, if not non-existent altogether, not that a lack of evidence has ever stopped those who ghoulishly cherish the political implications of mass violence.  The personal is political; a good crisis should never be allowed to go to waste; etc.  Still, the political Left’s outrage over the connection between rhetoric and violence is unsurprisingly selective.  Actual exhortations to commit violent acts – on the individual and collective levels – tend, more or less, to be overlooked by those who would charge the Pope with inciting murder, even as they wink and nod at the necessity of “breaking a few eggs” to make the omelet of the Progressive utopia.  The target determines the level of outrage, as it were.

Not that any of that really matters in this case.  While the gun-grabbers and abortion proponents seek to turn the deaths of innocents into political leverage, the spree killing at Planned Parenthood suggests that there is possibly a far larger and far more serious phenomenon at work in contemporary Western civilization, and American society in particular.  In a world stripped of its meaning and purpose, Westerners are finding or creating meaning anywhere they can.  And in the case of men unmoored from the traditional defining behaviors and beliefs of adulthood – manhood – and disconnected from their peers and familial and social networks, this creation of meaning often manifests itself as violence, and “heroic” violence especially.

You may recall that just a few months ago, before the Planned Parenthood attack, but in the wake of another mass shooting, I noted in these pages the idea of “heroic doubling” and its potential/probable role in turning Western man’s struggle to find meaning in the otherwise meaningless, post-Christian, post-modern Western world into fantasy-inspired violence.  Specifically, I put it this way:

Faced with the emptiness of their own lives, isolated from many of their contemporaries, and desperately in search of something substantive to give their lives meaning and purpose, young men – and especially young men who find refuge on the internet and in social media – tend to create fantasy lives for themselves, alternate realities in which they not only find the meaning and purpose they crave, but do so in heroic fashion.

The blogger and journalist Robert Beckhusen has written on this subject often, noting that the ties that bind spree shooters and self-radicalized terrorists are both numerous and consistent.  Young men confronted by the social and spiritual emptiness of their lives and society, default to what is often called “heroic doubling,” which is to say that they take on a symbolic cause and kill not just to slake their own bloodlust, but to exact revenge for a whole class of people with whom they believe they find common cause.  Just after the spree shooting in Isla Vista, California in May of last year, Beckhusen interviewed Roger Griffin, a professor of Modern History at Oxford Brookes University in the UK and the author of Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning.  Griffin explained the phenomenon of “heroic doubling” and “symbolic” murder as follows:

[I]n the mind of the killer, they’re not just killing someone as the sole purpose of the destruction.  They’re killing someone symbolic of something more general, which is also meant to send a message to the survivors.

What I theorize — is that what happens psychologically — the person has undergone a process whereby a rather confused, pained, ordinary self puts on a sort of mask, which turns them into an actor — or a protagonist — in a personal narrative drama….

In his avatar double, he achieves the ability to run and fight.  I believe that’s a very powerful metaphor for what happens in the process of heroic doubling.  Because the person who’s previously felt impotent and had no agency…is made to feel potent and have agency returned to him by adopting this mission.  So in that moment, he becomes a heroic version, or avatar, of himself.

Now, we’ll grant that Robert Dear is not an especially “young” man.  But in nearly every other way, he fits the profile precisely.  He was a loner, a man described as someone who “preferred to be left alone.”  He was estranged from his family and generally detached from broader society.  He misunderstood social cues and had trouble “fitting in” wherever he went.  Most notably, he had spent a great deal of time online, creating a personality very different from his real-life one.

And then, of course, there are Dear’s own words, his own outbursts and explanations for his actions.  As CNN reported last month (December 9):

Robert Lewis Dear, accused of killing three people last month at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, made a series of outbursts at a hearing Wednesday, saying, “I am a warrior for the babies.”

On a day on which prosecutors filed 179 felony charges against him, Dear, wearing an aqua jumpsuit and leg irons, made his thoughts known — through nearly 20 interjections during the proceeding.

“You’ll never know what I saw in that clinic,” Dear interrupted during one argument in the motions hearing. “The atrocities. That’s what they want to seal. The babies.”

At other times, he said, “I am guilty. There is no trial,” and “Protect the babies.”

Naturally, abortion proponents seized on Dear’s words, claiming that they serve as all the proof necessary that anti-abortion (i.e. Pro-Life) rhetoric can move disturbed people to action.  The truth, of course, is rather different and far more complicated.  The videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress show some disturbing things – as even Planned Parenthood admitted in the wake of their release.  Robert Dear’s conscience was pricked by those videos.  And in his state of mental infirmity and social disconnect, he saw himself as an avenger, the only “hero” who could face down a terrible evil and protect the innocent.  Or, as Roger Griffin might put it, Dear was made to feel potent and have agency returned to him by adopting this mission….In that moment, he became a heroic version, or avatar, of himself.

It almost goes without saying that this explanation for the murderous attack in Colorado Springs will be largely ignored.  It simply does not have the political or entertainment value of the “Pro-lifers made him do it!” account.  The fact that it is a far better explanation and far more likely interpretation of what happened in November at Planned Parenthood is, for the most part, irrelevant in the eyes of the partisan and media stakeholders.

The fact that it is also a far better explanation and far more likely interpretation of the spate of spree shootings in this country over the last few years is also irrelevant to these stakeholders.  They have an agenda to push, after all, and to many of them, that’s all that really matters.