Lone Terrorist Mass Shootings:
Anxiety, Politics, Mental Illness,
and the Male Superhero Complex
This is a revised version of an article I first posted online after the Colorado theatre shootings
I am posting it today because of its research into mental illness and violence and the relationship to societal stress
by Chip Berlet
Media coverage of domestic terrorism is not covering the whole story.
The claim of mental illness in a terrorist is often used incorrectly, and sometimes used to dismiss any societal motivating factors in a violent act.
A number of terrorists in the US fall into the Male Superhero Complex. Stressor factors that can create a Superhero Complex that leads to violence can include zealous political goals, anxiety over changing racial, gender, or religious dynamics, a sense of being persecuted, fear and depression over collapsing economic viability, a belief in conspiracy theories of impending attack by dark forces, or other factors.
Since the election of President Barack Obama, there have been a series of deadly terrorist incidents in the United States, some clearly politically-motivated , others more obscure—in which individuals have reached the breaking point and acted out in violence; often cloaking themselves in the armor of a delusional Superhero Complex in which they are a hero or antihero for their terrorist attacks.
The US government considers “eco-terrorism” the greatest terrorist threat in our country. The evidence suggests this is not the case. Most people who struggle with mental illness do not act out in violence. Some convicted terrorists said to be “obviously” mentally ill do not have a diagnostic condition recognized by the medical community; while juries convict terrorists who display clear signs of mental distress. What if the few terrorists who are mentally ill are like the mine canaries, warning us of something toxic spreading the fumes of anxiety through our society?
Even the definition of the term terrorism is hotly disputed and politically-biased. Not all acts of violence—even political violence—are necessarily forms of terrorism. A broad generic definition of terrorism is using force or the threat of force to harm or intimidate civilians to advance a political or social objective. Using this definition, terrorism can be carried out by individuals, groups, or states. It can be a methodology used by the weak against the powerful, or the powerful against the weak. It can be aimed at persons or property. Using this definition, in the Middle East, suicide bombers targeting Jews and Israelis and the Israeli government shelling of Palestinian towns are both acts of terrorism.
The U.S. government rejects this definition in favor of one that assumes nation states cannot be engaged in terrorism. This is self-serving, since it excludes from “terrorism” US drone attacks that kill non-combatant citizens in foreign countries. It also excludes the World War II carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, and the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
A “Lone Wolf” terrorist is a person who has no current or past ties to an organized group advocating political violence. Such people are very hard for government authorities to track, thus their acts of terrorism are almost impossible to stop. The Lone Wolf uses a form of terrorism called “Leaderless Resistance.”  Organized groups or cells can use Leaderless Resistance , but it is accurate to use that term only if every member of the cell has never participated in another organized group dedicated to political violence as a current or future goal. The concept of “Leaderless Resistance” is often attributed to right-wing racist Louis Beam, a neonazi icon and ideologue in the United States. Even Beam correctly notes that the concept was developed by a former CIA operative, Colonel Ulius Louis Amoss, a dedicated anticommunist who sought to improve the success of US agents building espionage cells in European countries occupied by the Soviet Union. Beam, on the other hand, implied it would be an effective way to build underground cells by White supremacists in the United States.
Claims that “Leaderless Resistance” cells on the political right have carried out numerous acts of terrorism are not technically accurate.  Most incidents involve perpetrators with previous ties to organized ultra-right White supremacist groups. According to terrorism researcher Simson Garfinkel,  the clearest examples of Leaderless Resistance in the United States are in the ecological group Earth First! and several Animal Liberation movements—movements that generally avoid harming people with their acts of vandalism against property.
When the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed in a terrorist bombing, terrorism “expert” Steven Emerson speculated that it was Arabs attempting to “inflict as many casualties as possible…that is a Middle Eastern trait." Being wrong and a bigot have not stopped his crusade of self-promotion. As I write this, bloggers—without any evidence—are speculating on the motives of the accused perpetrator in the Colorado shootings. Some already are saying it can only be the act of a person who is mentally ill. This is not necessarily true.
Let’s start with the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner in January 2011. Writing in Slate following the terror attack, Vaughan Bell suggested we are “too quick to use ‘mental illness’ as an explanation for violence.” As evidence Bell reviewed the work of an Oxford University psychiatrist, Seena Fazel, who “led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia and bipolar disorder” Either of these forms of mental illness can “lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality.” Bell wrote that:
"Rather than looking at individual cases, or even single studies, Fazel's team analyzed all the scientific findings they could find. As a result, they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.”
According to Dr. Marvin Swartz, while “we don’t know whether there was a specific relationship between the political climate that [Loughner] was exposed to and his thinking, it’s a reasonable line of inquiry to explore.” Swartz explains that “One’s cultural context does [have an effect on] people’s thinking and particularly their delusions. It gives some content and shape to their delusions.” Swartz, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University, says it is legitimate to study “the cultural influences on people’s delusions or persecutory thinking,” and consider “different aspects of culture” and the how they affect people’s behavior—even the actions of terrorists.
The link between mass media vilification of a scapegoated group and incidents of aggression and violence against that group is well-established. Not everyone gripped by the media massage reacts by assaulting or killing the scapegoat, however, and a few people actively resist the campaign. Some terrorists write a script in which they see themselves as a Superhero out to avenge a wrong—real or illusory. Men in the United States seem oddly attracted to this role which intersects with guns and violence.
Older models of psychological interpretation often dismissed the violent actors as dysfunctional or mentally ill and left it at that. Contemporary approaches factor in psychological considerations, but also consider the role of demonization and scapegoating in creating perceptual frames. Within sociology, the study of how the construction of frames and narratives assists ideological goals and attracts and retains recruits is well developed. In several disciplines there are studies of apocalyptic narrative storylines that cast the perpetrator in the role of hero for saving society from a mortal threat.
For some terrorists who are not clinically mentally ill, the act of violence has a clear goal of sending a message they hope will be understood and acted upon. They are seldom correct in their idea that their “propaganda of the deed” will have the desired outcome. For the tiny handful of those who struggle with serious mental illness and turn to violence, outside factors in the society play a role in writing the script they are following to justify their actions. This script is internally generated and generally incomprehensible to other people, however, it can be internally consistent and understandable to the perpetrator. So outside societal factors can be involved, even if they are greatly misinterpreted through the darkened glasses of psychosis.
Zev Sternhell, a scholar of Fascism who was injured in a 2008 terrorist pipe bomb attack, says there are outside factors. Sternhell said the Loughner attack on Giffords and others was related to “radical conservative incitement against the Obama administration’s health care reform law, which Giffords backed.”
What about the terror attacks of John Salvi on reproductive health clinics in Boston in December 1994? Salvi was clearly motivated by his zealous anti-abortion stance and conspiracy theories about manipulation of currency by bankers. A jury convicted him despite persuasive testimony that Salvi was mentally ill. Salvi later committed suicide in jail. This raises further question, including the issue of the difference between a diagnosis of mental illness and the criteria for being found legally insane and unable to stand trial.
Clearly the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing, for which Timothy McVeigh was executed and Terry Nichols remains incarcerated for life—showed no signs of mental illness. They were political soldiers, just like Anders Behring Breivik charged with terror attacks in Norway in July 2011.
“The terrorist attacks in Oslo,” writes Gardell, “were not an outburst of irrational madness, but a calculated act of political violence.” Gardell says that here was a “certain logic” to the “carnage that can and should be explained, if we want to avoid a repetition.” Gardell notes that Breivik himself was aware that his “shock attacks are theatre and theatre is always performed for an audience.”
Psychiatrist Rosenqvist believes Breivik is not legally insane, and his “deviant statements” about Islam and other matters “are an expression of an extreme ideology,” and should not be seen as “a psychotic view of reality.” Rosenqvist suggests Breivik is suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder that is not a form of legal insanity. Rosenqvist told reporters that Breivik was immersed in a cult-like anti-Islamic movement based outside of Norway. That movement, in fact, is based in the United States.
As one of Norway’s leading forensic psychiatrists, Rosenqvist’s opinion carried enough weight to have the matter of Breivik’s sanity reopened to a new pre-trial evaluation by outside experts. Rosenqvist examined Breivik for Norwegian authorities while he was in prison awaiting trial. Breivik admits to the bombing and shooting spree, but denies criminal guilt, according to press accounts. The Telegraph reported Breivik describes himself as “a commander of a resistance movement aiming to overthrow European governments and replace them with ‘patriotic’ regimes that would deport Muslim immigrants.”
A number of authors have written about what Mattia Gardell calls “Breivik's Ideology” of the “Romantic Male Warrior Ideal.” Gardell writes that Breivik saw himself as a “self-appointed knight” who “gave himself the stage name Sigurd – the Crusader.” Gardell observes:
” Animated by heroic tales of the crusaders, movie epics such as 300, Lord of the Rings, Passion Of The Christ, Serbian ultranationalist narratives of Radovan Karadzic's bloody actions during the Bosnian civil war, and the exploits he performed in World of Warcraft, Breivik felt equipped for battle.”
Breivik’s Manifesto echoes many of the same tropes. Breivik warns of a “deconstruction of European cultures, identities and the traditional structures” which he identifies as the “nuclear family, traditional morality and patriarchal structures.” He rejects what he sees as the current “pacified/feminized” culture of Europe. He sees himself as a heroic warrior standing erect against the onslaught.
The role of gender panic in shaping an identity of the Superhero warrior is analyzed by James William Gibson in his book Warrior Dreams. In a similar line of analysis, Julie Ingersoll found in Breivik’s Manifesto “evidence of his profoundly sexist view of the world, where women are naive and lacking in rationality, but are useful for sex and reproduction.” She called it “emasculation paranoia .” Ingersoll also highlighted Breivik’s claim that “feminism is to blame for what he asserts is the success of a supposed Muslim plan for world domination.” Breivik “wants to set the culture clock back ‘to the ‘50s—because we know it works.” This mythic nostalgia, according to Ingersoll, “is a central feature …of how Breivik’s analysis could well have been lifted from the talking points of the religious right.
An example of this is in an essay by Christian Right author Gerald L. Atkinson that appeared in a collection on Political Correctness by Christian Right ideologue William Lind, one of Brevik’s intellectual heros cited in his manifesto. Atkinson excoriates feminism and blames what he calls “Cultural Marxism” in a way that matches Breivik’s analysis. According to Atkinson:
Perhaps no aspect of Political Correctness is more prominent in American life today than feminist ideology. Is feminism, like the rest of Political Correctness, based on the cultural Marxism imported from Germany in the 1930s? While feminism’s history in America certainly extends longer than sixty years, its flowering in recent decades has been interwoven with the unfolding social revolution carried forward by cultural Marxists.
The conspiracy theory about Cultural Marxism sweeping America and infecting the body politic all the way up to President Barack Obama is widespread in right-wing Republican circles. Many of the purveyors of this myth warn of impending doom and cast themselves in the role of the latter day Paul Revere’s—an example of Superhero Complex.
For Salvi, Loughner, and Breivik, stress was focused on targeted scapegoats by right-wing fearmongering from marginal sources and demonization of liberal ideas. This litany of demonization and scapegoating is carried on mainstream corporate media in the United States, and not just Fox News. An example is the appearance of right-wing ideologue, Islamophobic bigot, and Sharia Law conspiracy theorist Newt Gingrich appearing on CNN to discuss the Colorado terrorist attack.
Societal and political factors can shape the actions of any terrorist, no matter what their mental status. We also know, based on reporting by alternative journalists David Neiwert, Sara Robinson, and others, that the mainstream frame of reporting on terrorism and political violence in the United States is shoddy and politically-biased—downplaying acts by right-wing militants and attacks on reproductive rights providers, while overplaying terror plots involving Muslims and Arabs as well as those involving ecology activists. Better in-depth reporting could help solve the problem, rather than exploiting it for commercial game in an ironic parody of the bad journalists in the HBO television series “The Newsroom.”
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This is a revised version of an article first posted online after the Colorado theatre shootings.