On Friday evening, a 22 year-old named Elliot Rodger became the latest in a too-long string of mass shooters to shatter lives when he killed six and injured thirteen in a rampage that ended in Isla Vista, California. Thanks to his YouTube account, the world knows that Elliot Rodger wanted to be a God exacting mortal retribution, and thanks to the easily-available guns he purchased legally, he was able to become one.
On Friday evening, Elliot Rodger made good on the threats he had been making on YouTube, first by stabbing his three roommates in his apartment, then driving to the Alpha Phi sorority house on the University of California Santa Barbara campus, where he reportedly knocked on the door for several minutes, then opened fire on women outside the house when no one answered. Two women were killed, and one was critically wounded. He then shot and killed his sixth victim outside a deli, running over bicyclists and pedestrians as he fled. After two shootouts with police, he crashed his car, and apparently shot himself in the head.
In his final YouTube video, the only one that’s no longer available on his channel, Rodger laid out the twisted motivations for his pending actions, and warned the world that displeased him that “I will be a God compared to you, you will be like animals, you are animals, and I will slaughter you like animals.”
It was the three semiautomatic handguns and 41 ten-round magazines he purchased legally which allowed this shooter to make good on one aspect of his claim to godhood, the ability to decide who lives and who dies.
It is the ravenous 24-hour news media, however, which will make this shooter immortal. The reason we already know so much about why this guy did what he did is because he left a toxic waste dump of his own narcissism, in the form of those YouTube videos and a lengthy manifesto. More will surely follow.
I’m not one of those people who objects to news coverage of these murderers on principle, because I believe strongly that knowledge is power, that the mission of journalism is to harness information for the public good, not to hide from it. What I object to is the way in which it is done. For example, the video in which Rodger aspires to godhood is no longer available on his YouTube account, so of course, it is being ripped and uploaded by others. If people want to see it, that’s one thing, but the claim to serving the public interest is undermined by the studious watermarking and unnecessary duplication. This is click-and-credit-whoring, plain and simple, and it permeates the early coverage of this incident, and incidents like it.
In the age of social media, it’s no longer even possible to question whether airing a video like this is the responsible thing to do. What was once accomplished by sending hand-scrawled notes to police or newspapers is now instantly available for the entire world to see. While this would logically indicate handling such things with extra care, our modern media creates incentives that do the opposite. If you don’t play it, someone else will, and they’ll get the eyeballs. Never mind that some of those eyeballs might be other impressionable loners, internalizing the living image of this guy, instead of his lifeless body, and those of his victims.
You can go read about Elliot Rodger’s twisted, self-told backstory, of which there is, and will be, plentiful coverage. I prefer to give voice to those whose lives were shattered by this horror. Richard Martinez, father of 20 year-old Chris Martinez, spoke to reporters on Saturday, and it is his raw, powerful statement that should echo in the ears of Americans, even if it lacks the sensational, exploitable, water-markable sizzle of a killer’s video selfie.
In his brief statement, Mr. Martinez went right to the heart of th matter, asking “Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop? When will enough people say, ‘Stop this madness!’ Too many have died. We should say to ourselves, ‘Not one more!’”
It is that message, politically-charged and yet obvious, that will likely get most of the attention, and rightly so. California ranks number one on the latest Brady Campaign scorecard, as the state with the toughest gun laws, yet this person was still able to purchase a portable arsenal. It is tough to imagine how anyone could argue that this guy should have been allowed to buy all those guns and bullets.
But along with that message, there is another moment, earlier in Mr. Martinez’s statement, that deserves attention, as an antidote to the immortality conferred on Christopher’s killer. “My son’s name was Christopher Ross Martinez,” Richard Martinez says, and in the pause between the word “was” and his son’s name exists all of the finality and heartbreak and horror of this act. Let this be what lives forever.