Jewish Journal

What Does Judaism Teach About the “Lone Gunman?”

by Rabbi Robin Podolsky

June 19, 2014 | 2:21 pm

What do we mean by ‘crazy’?  Is crazy the same as insane?  Is insane the same as mentally ill?  Can loneliness drive a person crazy?  Are “socially isolated” people mentally ill?

It terrifies me to read Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto”; really, his auto-biography which documents a life of horrific loneliness.

A person can become so disconnected that other people stop being real to him.  It did not occur to Elliot Rodger that the people he murdered might have their own stories.  He was lost in his own movie.  Is that what we mean by narcissism?

He really did hate women actively and fiercely.  This is what we mean by misogyny.  Neither women nor men were real to him, but he hated women more because he wanted them.  God shield us from those heterosexually oriented men who abominate and fear what they desire.

My friends who work in the helping professions remind me that mentally ill people are more likely to suffer violence than to commit it.  And the line between crazy and really really committed to a cause is hard to distinguish.  Of course the hatreds and fantasies of deluded people will be drawn from popular culture.  So at what point does a ‘lone gunman’ become a terrorist?  Why is Nidal Malik Hasan, the first Fort Hood shooter, a terrorist if Frazier Glenn Miller is just crazy?  Wasn’t Hasan a psychiatrist who treated returning soldiers with PTSD?  Why was he not diagnosed with extreme counter-transference? Why isn’t a killer driven by a categorical hatred of women called a terrorist ever?  Why are the Las Vegas murderers who marked their kills with swastikas called ‘anti-government’ but not right wing extremists?

Jane Ward, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at UC Riverside says, “Yet again, we see the need to complicate the intersections of mental illness and misogyny, rather than viewing these as distinct forces or imagining that the content of a person's delusional fantasies don't matter, aren't rooted in the social, or can't be intervened upon through non-psychiatric channels.”

So when do we call pathology on a very popular fiction?  When do we say that PUA’s who bag women as trophies are crazy?  When do say that thousands of Greeks who see something admirable in the Golden Dawn party or the French people who support the National Front have lost their minds?  Can nations go mad?

Fascist thugs have at least one thing in common with the lone gunman of Isla Vista who sought to annihilate the very people whose company he most craved: dehumanizing the Other in one’s head makes it easier to kill them in real life.  Dehumanizing whole categories of Others makes it easier to wage wars of aggression, to commit pogroms.  Dehumanizing the Other is also a way to feel certain that someone is always less abject than oneself.

So back to Elliot Rodger.  Here’s what I don’t want to write down: it shakes me up to read his journal because I am afraid that, at a particular point—my first two years of middle school to be precise—it might have been me.  I was skinny and bookish and had no idea of how to dress and my family could not have afforded the correct clothes (or would have allowed me to wear anything so revealing) had I known what they were.  When I was not ignored, I was taunted for casual fun.

Let’s be fair.  I was taunted by some, not all.  There were those who were willing to be my friends.  But they too were geeks, weren’t they?  And I was ashamed of us.

It did get, as the saying goes, better.  Very much so.  In a writing class (yes an 8th Grade Summer School Creative Writing class that I actually chose to attend—I was one of those), I met a future best friend.  And then other people who were as weird as I was and who also cared about books and politics and obscure music and who read for fun.  People who loved me enough to suggest, gently, that if I wanted folks to call me up every weekend, then it behooved me to sometimes call them first.  That if I wished not to be alone and depressed, it might be better to act a little less unhappy when I was finally in someone else’s company.  Better it got.

But, for a while, I was so angry.  Silently furious that people would regard vulnerability as an invitation for cruelty.  I was a girl and also someone who knew nothing about guns (yes, access to a killing machine like a gun does indeed make a difference), so I probably would have turned by anger on myself if on anyone.  Of course, I never let my parents know.  (They were decent, conscientious, and as flawed and incomplete as anyone else.)  What did they understand?  They had put me into that school in the first place.

Until one particular day, the bullies were little more than plot developments in my own personal movie.  (Indeed, my adolescent experiences taught me a contempt for bullies that I have never seen a need to outgrow; and also taught me to hurt right along with other victims and survivors.)  In my mind, it seemed like nothing I might do in revenge would be too extreme.

Then, one day, I actually hit somebody who was chasing me hard enough to really hurt him.  With a metal-tipped umbrella.  That kid, clutching his face was quite real, manifestly a human being, like myself, of flesh and blood.  I was horrorstruck—what if I had injured him?  What if I had put his eye out?  Suddenly, that smirking symbol of all that I hated became a crying boy—a victim, a survivor, one of us.

Weirdly, that incident let to one of the few moments of casual friendship that I experienced that year with one of the “popular” girls.  When I told my parents what I’d done, they made me call one of his friends to find out how he was. (Conscientious and decent.)  When I spoke to the girl, she was…nice.  “He wasn’t that hurt,” she assured me.  Then she changed the subject to what boys were cute.  Numbly, I got through that part and hung up as soon as I could.  Now I realized that maybe this kid wasn’t as intractably mean as I thought she was; that when a crisis made me come out from behind my wall of cringing insecurity and talk to her normally, she could be perfectly pleasant, if a little narrow in her concerns.

What does Judaism have to teach us about all of this?  “You will not commit murder.”  Our Mishnah teaches potential trial witnesses that Adam (the first person) was created alone, to teach us that the destruction of a single human life is regarded as the destruction of a world.  Likewise, to save a life—perhaps to convince someone that their life is worth saving--is to save a world.  Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4.5)

Judaism teaches us to identify with the stranger, the slave.  It teaches us that the wan, tenuously connected scholars among us are to be respected.  It teaches us—or it ought to—not be jerks.  It teaches that Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: we are each responsible for one another (Shevuot 39a), and that we must never let anyone slip away into an inner world in which nothing but their own misery is real.

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Rabbi Robin Podolsky is an Educator at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.  Before she became a rabbi, she worked as a press secretary to an elected official, a...

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