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The Spectacle of Mass Murder

The story that has gripped the nation over the weekend is like so many others we’ve seen in the headlines in the last ten years. Young, alienated, psychologically disturbed man-boy goes on a vicious rampage with a gun.

This time the kid threw in a knife and a black BMW for good measure.

The kid in Santa Barbara. Wow, he was rich. Wow, his dad was a a successful Hollywood film director. Wow, seven people violently murdered on the streets of Isla Vista.

What a spectacle.

And, oh, there’s the sex stuff too. He says he was a virgin. Girls aren’t attracted to him, he says. A fine-looking, rich kid can’t get the purportedly free-swinging UCSB girls to talk to him, or even hold his hand.

More spectacle. The drama dial edges up just a little bit more in this made-for-Hollywood massacre.

Then there’s the 100,000-word manifesto. Like a page from the psycho-killer’s playbook. He’s cribbing from Ted Kaczynski now. The kid has added all the right elements to the script: sex, violence, ending in a high-speed police chase. He wanted to be the star of his own Hollywood blockbuster.

We’re riveted.

The kid in the black BMW doesn’t just write script. He is actor, director, and cinematographer. This crime was an elaborate performance–a dark, dramatic thriller guaranteed to grip the world for fifteen minutes.

This is crime as theater.

This is made for YouTube. Made for the #USCB hashtag. The boy in the black BMW is famous. And that is what he wanted–more than the sorority girls who became the targets of his rage.

He killed his three room mates. Knifed-them down with startling hand-to-hand brutality. Those victims weren’t sorority girls. Those deaths weren’t about the sex. So what were those killings for? As far as the kid in the BMW was concerned, all that mattered was that the nation’s attention would be focused on him.

The victims here are incidental to the story the kid in the BMW wants to tell.

The say he was obsessed with the movie, American Psycho. Yah, maybe so. But what he was really obsessed with was himself.

Ever since Columbine, angry boys have been creating these little psycho dramas for us with troubling regularity. Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook. They shoot up our schools, theaters, and streets. These crimes signify, above all, a powerful lust for attention. Even if that attention is entirely negative.

To be seen. Heard. Talked about.

These mega-narcissist killers hold up a mirror to the YouTube/Facebook/Twitter generation and the image isn’t pretty.

The kid in the BMW posted videos to YouTube explaining all the reasons he was about to kill. Think about that. Don’t you see? Without the videos, there wouldn’t be the killings. The videos are the point–as is the national news coverage that was sure to follow.

To be seen. Heard. Talked about. That is the motivation for these murders. And it is in this sense that the modern spectacle of mass murder sheds a light on the darkness of our present culture of self.

We live in an extraordinary time, in which powerful broadcasting, communication, and networking tools are in the hands of every one of us. These are great tools in many respects. But they do amplify certain negative traits of the human psyche. As we go about broadcasting videos and photos and status updates of even mundane activities and thoughts, we too become participants in a great culture of narcissism. We contribute to the mass illusion that our worth can be found in the number of likes or follows or views we got on the last post. We contribute to the illusion that our ordinary activities are worth recording and sharing with the world, are worth making into our own personal obsession.

The internet is like crack-cocaine for the human ego. And we’re all addicted.

I don’t believe the kid in the black BMW was merely psychologically disturbed. I believe he was morally corrupt. And moral corruption is the natural outcome of self-obsession.

And what about us? We’re not killers, but are we self-obsessed? The fictional lives we lead through online personae require a lot of work. We modern, smartphone carrying humans devote thousands and thousands of hours to being the stars of our fictional online lives. All of it comes at a risk of elevating our focus on ourselves. Times like these ought to give us pause because the narcissism of the kid in the black BMW lives inside us all. And it will grow stronger, if we let it.

Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix and author of the book SEX & GOD AT YALE: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.

Follow Nathan on Twitter @NathanHarden

CORRECTION: This article originally identified the killer as a student at UCSB. He was, in fact, a student at nearby Santa Barbara Community College. I regret the error.

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