The Mind of the Shooter

A man born in New York City named Omar Mateen, who looks like he could pass for an Italian or a Greek if you neglected to ask, took a gun to a gay dance club in Orlando and shot over 50 people. You can read about the details from a news outlet, because giving you details on a mass shooting is not my concern here. If I have a generalized comment directly related to this incident, it is that I always knew people from New York tended to be crazy.

What I am concerned about on this blog is writing. I would like to stay focused on that. And not only about how badly written news stories on sudden tragedies tend to be. But I would also like to talk about the psychology of Mr. Mateen and people like him and how it should affect our writing of fiction.

It appears that Mr. Mateen identified himself as a Muslim, though if history is any guide, we should soon recognize Mr. Mateen as a repressed homosexual. No amount of twisted logic could explain why he decided to target a peaceful dance club otherwise. Of course a fragrant display of homosexuality might be offensive to conservative Muslims, but this is Orlando we are talking about. The livelihood of the entire city practically depends on offending Muslims. Most likely, he targeted a gay dance club because he was a frustrated gay man, justifying his actions through pious pretensions, like the majority of homophobes in history.

It has been pointed out that just about every mass shooter in America who left any record of their feelings talked about their sexual frustrations. (Which is why most industrial countries in the old world, with wiser policy makers, never quite outlaw prostitution.) The fact that mass murders are so often linked to sexual frustrations tell us a great deal about the bestial side of humanity. We are by and large not far removed from mountain goats and horned lizards when it comes to fulfilling our sexual desires.

Almost all mass shooters have a very selfish, personal, visceral, physiological motive, which they dress up in political, religious, or philosophical pretensions. There never was a mass shooter who did not say he was trying to cure some social ills. And he sees himself as a lone hero.

This is where literature comes in. How do we construct lone heroes? How should we de-construct lone heroes? Batman, for example is a vigilante with a personal vendetta (and we don’t see him getting laid much). From his vantage point, the world is full of noxious villains. He literally answers to signs in the sky to go after them. He is, from his view, terribly misunderstood. He is compelled to live in hiding, in a cave. In the dark recesses of our adolescent fantasies, there is a universal place where Batman dwells. The original author no doubt instinctively knew never to let Batman carry a gun.

From the Lone Ranger to Dean Moriarty, lone heroes see themselves differently from the way the world see them. They are self-contained capsules of their own moral codes. Lone heroes are the sort of people who say “Yes, I killed a lot of people, but they all deserved it.” Juxtaposed over the recent reality, we can finally see how preposterously harmful such ideas can be.

But that is the nature of art. Woody Allen, of all people, expressed this in the comedy movie Bullets Over Broadway, in which Rob Reiner, playing a script-writing mentor, preaches “An artist creates his own moral universe” which the main character (John Cusack) takes to heart; unaware that his co-writer (Chazz Palminteri), a killer mobster who lives by the “they all deserved it” code, would actually kill people and doom himself to death in order to create the perfect play.

Writing is a lonely exercise and in many ways we are lone heroes hiding away in little caves creating our own moral universe. Gun rights advocates have long insisted that violent movies, video games, and evil books had a lot more to do with mass shootings than the physical presence of guns. Such claims may very well have some merit, next to other factors like sexual frustration. We want our readers to identify with the lonely, alienated, misunderstood heroes of our imaginary worlds. But if some psychopath took our words literally, or lived in the sort of moral universe we created in the world of fiction, the consequences could be deadly. Woody Allen’s message was that being an artist was not a risk you should take on lightly, and the movie, despite being a comedy, nearly scared me out of creative writing altogether.

And this train of thought leads me to the difference between genre fiction and “serious” fiction. It is not the vampires and space aliens that make genre fiction “genre”. It is when we see Batman from his point of view only, and see the vilified lone hero from his own self-serving perspective, that the story becomes “genre” fiction. When we also see the vindictive, self-restricting Bruce Wayne refusing to grow up, the story becomes “serious”.

Humans are strange, multi-layered, bestial creatures. Nobody ever kills for religious or political beliefs alone. There is the frustrated sexual urge, the social isolation, the mental illness, and warped self-image, all conspiring to create the desire to go out in a hellish eruption of self-righteous flames, and a serious writer must see both sides of the story; the hero as seen in the killer’s mirror and the villain that he is from an objective point of view. The end product, the work of fiction, is still potentially deadly, but it conveys a more rounded message.

(Edit: Only two days after I wrote this post, it is already coming to light that the “Muslim” man who went on a killing spree in the middle of the Ramadan was “not very religious” and showed homophobic tendencies.)


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