The Isla Vista tragedy

The facts are now beginning to emerge about the actions of Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista yesterday in murdering 6 people. There is much to break the heart in this story.

The immediate circumstances are disturbing enough. The day before the carnage, in which Elliot stabbed his three flatmates to death before driving around shooting several others, the young man uploaded a video, Elliot Rodger’s Retribution, to Youtube in which he detailed his plans for the next day and the reason he was doing them. It has now been removed from his channel (by Youtube?) but is easily found by Google search. Watching it one sees a young man filled with resentment and bitterness at his rejection by women, lamenting his still being a virgin at 22. The fact that he was not unattractive and from a well-to-do background would make one wonder why he was apparently rejected by women. The video itself gives the answer: the boy is horribly egocentric to the point of narcissism. So we might conclude he was the ultimate spoilt brat.

A screenshot from Elliot Rodger's video announcing his murderous plans.
A screenshot from Elliot Rodger’s video announcing his murderous plans.

Well, before we all condemn him to hell, a few more facts are worth considering. Elliot had Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s is a form of autism and affects the way a person experiences the world. While it can manifest itself in anti-social outbursts, it is generally hidden from casual view in most sufferers. The condition affects particularly sufferers’ social interaction, social communication, and social imagination. To put it crudely, it makes them social misfits to a greater or lesser degree, despite their desire to be socially integrated. There is no known cure and no specific treatment for Asperger’s. It is an insidious disability.

It seems his parents did everything right. Elliot had been treated by several therapists, and his social worker had been worried enough to contact police a few days before the shootings. It is hard to determine at this point what action the police took, but probably there was not much they could have done, given certain aspects of American law.

One aspect of concern is the cherished American right to bear arms. Even otherwise good Catholics can reveal an almost pathological devotion to guns, and any mention of gun control to some Americans is tantamount to treason. The National Rifle Association is well-funded and exerts immense influence, enough to stifle most legislation seeking gun control. They even object to background checks for gun licences. In American you can own assault rifles, and in some places wear your weapon openly. Many (most?) will tell you that it is essential to prevent oppression by their government – a government they freely and regularly elect. It is no wonder that there are sections of American society that are effectively in a state of war with government and law enforcement. Another argument is that armed citizens can protect other citizens from criminals. It didn’t work yesterday. Moreover, it carries the danger of making citizens into self-appointed vigilantes with often tragic consequences (eg George Zimmerman). It also leads to a civil arms race, with people owning more and more powerful weapons.

While self-defence can be defended on biblical and magisterial lines, the active promotion of unrestricted ownership of firearms cannot. Even self-defence has its limitations in light of our Lord’s command to turn the other cheek, and to lay down one’s life for one’s friends as the highest form of love. The Christian right to self-defence is not unlimited.

So one is left asking how a young man, mentally ill and in ongoing treatment and who had manifested enough signs of impending disaster for the police to be alerted in advance – how could he own not just one but several guns, and have them at hand when he reached crisis point, a crisis point that was recognized in advance? This is a question not just for American society but for us all: how do we deal with the mentally ill who show the signs of becoming dangerous? In the UK they can be sectioned by a doctor under the Mental Health Act, usually a temporary measure that allows the troubled to be assessed and treated over a period of time. This would prevent them having access to weapons, although access to firearms is much more difficult in Britain anyway. There is no right to bear arms, and every right to expect not to have to face them. Even most police are unarmed, and armed police work under strict rules, which work well. It means that there is a lower incidence, and a much lower tolerance, of gun crime here than in the US. Australia enacted tough gun laws after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 which saw 35 shot dead at a popular tourist spot. There have been no mass shootings since then in Australia. No one can argue that Australia is not only immensely free, but politically stable and with strong legal checks and balances that keep governments under control. Australians do not need guns to protect themselves against their own elected government.

So we can now but pray for the 6 victims of the shooting who died, the 7 who were wounded, and their families as they face the trauma of lives changed so brutally. Let us also pray for Elliot and his family. He was a mentally ill young man whom society failed to help. Indeed, society allowed him to have the guns that made his outburst so deadly. That, at least, society could have reasonably prevented.

This not intended as an American-bash. The Church in the States is a vibrant one, full of exciting prospects. No one can deny the American contribution to the world, but there is also a negative contribution, as with most countries. Its guns mania is a social sickness that the rest of the world does well to immunize itself against. John Oliver has an interesting take on the American mania for guns. Being English but living in the States, he has a distance informed by familiarity that makes his commentary worth noting. There are three short videos, listed in order.

[I realize this will upset many American Catholics, but I ask them to think carefully about the subject, and to pray about it. Comments that make a reasoned contribution to the debate will be welcomed; those that are abusive, insulting or mere banner waving will not.]