At bottom, the answer is that we have become a country filled with numb, detached, and desensitized people. Mass shootings are the ultimate manifestation of that detachment. Our reaction to them — rhetorically slinging dead bodies at each other to score points in a political argument — is a slightly less severe but very much related manifestation. A survivor of the El Paso shooting reports that the shooter casually smirked before unloading on a crowd of innocent people. This echoes many other reports from many similar shootings. The killer is always smirking like he’s slightly amused, or else he’s blank-faced and emotionless. Rarely do you get a picture of someone running around enraged and screaming. We call these acts of “hate,” but they are much more acts of brutal, murderous indifference. These are empty, numb, detached people slaughtering their fellow humans because they are bored and frustrated with their meaningless lives.
But this only kicks the can another mile down the road. If it is detachment and desensitization causing these attacks, the next question is, what causes the detachment and desensitization? The culprits here are manifold, but the internet has to be one of the first places we look. Though it has of course existed for several decades, the internet has only been ubiquitous for the past two. The rise of social media is even more recent than that. As with any massive societal shift, we will not fully understand its effects until we are a good distance from it. But it’s already fairly clear that our cyber space obsession causes us to be increasingly detached from the physical world and each other. It’s a cliche to point out that our connectedness has made us disconnected, yet there’s truth to most cliches, and this one is no different.
A fascinating and disturbing article from Robert Evans details how the users on the message board where the El Paso shooter liked to spend his time not only cheer on these killing sprees but discuss them like the innocent people being butchered are just characters in a video game. Evans calls it the “gamification” of terror. You could just as well call it the “internetification” of terror. Mass shooters are simply translating their internet personas into the real world. People on internet forums, social media, YouTube, and other sites routinely wish death and worse on each other. “Kill yourself” and “I hope you get cancer” are almost standard greetings at this point. But what’s often lost in all of this mundane vitriol is that actual human beings are saying this stuff to other actual human beings. After a while you get so used to being treated this way, and maybe so used to treating others this way, that you no longer appreciate the dignity and beauty of human life. It is not hard to see how someone who spends hour upon hour and year upon year wallowing in the darkest and vilest corners of cyberspace, treating other humans like filth, wishing violence and death on anyone who crosses them, may eventually become the monsters they already appear to be online.
A man who thinks he can be a despicable, stupid sociopath in cyberspace yet remain a basically decent guy in the “real world” loses sight of the fact that the internet isthe real world. It is technology used by people in the real world to communicate with other people in the real world. Who you are while using the internet is simply who you are. However you act on the internet is simply how you act. If you’re a dirtbag on Twitter, you’re simply a dirtbag. The idea that internet is a morality-free zone where grotesque behavior somehow “doesn’t count” not only encourages people to be despicable but numbs them to the impact their behavior has on others. And this is all to say nothing of the fact that the internet gives disturbed and violent people the chance to congregate anonymously and egg each other on.