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Nihilism, Heroic Doubling And The Crisis Of Violence

Just over a year ago, I addressed the issue of “nihilism” in Western civilization and the effect that it has had on the young males of the West in their quest to mature into full-fledged men and to find meaning in their lives.  The problem, I argued, is complicated and complex, as well as potentially deadly.  Simply stated, nihilism coalesces a multiplicity of philosophical, moral, educational and social trends to fashion a societal ethos that actually prides itself on the fact that it offers “nothing” to its citizens.  Nothing is real; nothing is important; nothing matters; nothing can be known; nothing is good; nothing is evil.  Hence the application of the term “nihilism,” the root of which, naturally, is the Latin word for “nothing.”

Among other things, I noted that this cultural embrace of nothing has helped to create a crisis of confidence and responsibility among the West’s young, a condition that is especially perilous among young men, who are hormonally and developmentally prone to violence.  Specifically, I wrote:

James Foley was executed by a man who spoke with a London accent and who was most likely a British citizen.  British intelligence estimates that there are more British Muslims serving in the militia of the Islamic State than are serving in the British armed forces.  Young men from all over the Western world – the United States, Canada, France, Australia, and especially Great Britain – have decamped to the Middle East to take part in the Islamic civil wars and to train for jihadi operations against their native lands.

The problem of the Western jihadist is likewise the problem of Western civilization.  Western morality and even much of Western religion has devolved, over the last century or more, into little more than the complicit rationalization of contemporary values.  The great moral tradition of the West has largely been jettisoned in favor of a contemporary, situational ethic, a moral system that values nothing so much as non-judgmentalism and which offers very little, if anything, by way of spiritual transcendence.

Confronted by this spiritual nothingness, many people, and many young men in particular, choose to forsake their decadent culture for something more traditional, something that offers a real and fixed belief system.  All too often, those who are best at marketing and promoting the solidity of their beliefs also happen to have rather perverted and sadistic beliefs as well.  All of which is to say that young men who are encouraged to believe in nothing often find themselves drawn instead to something.  And that something is far too often a primitive and violent misinterpretation of reality.

Man, as it were, yearns for something in which to believe; he craves something to fill his soul to give him hope.  As the apocryphal Chesteron quote puts it, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”  And in the case of the Western jihadists, that “anything,” all too often includes a brutal and blood-thirsty, primeval creed.

In the end, then, the crisis of Islamism is, in part, a crisis of confidence on the part of Western civilization.  A culture that no longer understands itself, no longer believes in its own righteousness – indeed, no longer believes in righteousness at all – is a culture that cannot long survive and certainly cannot be expected to fare well in a clash of civilizations.  All of which is to say that nihilism is indeed an enemy in this war.

This issue is worth revisiting today, I think, in light of the latest eruption of murderous violence – not in the Middle East this time, but right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.  The link between young men and violence has long been established.  Today, however, that violence tends to manifest itself in different and alarming ways.  While both the crime rate in general and the violent crime rate in particular, have generally fallen over the last couple of decades, the incidence of young men turning to mass murder and committing heinous acts of violence has nevertheless dominated our public consciousness.  This paradox is, unfortunately, explained at least in part by the fantasies that a handful of these young men create to compensate for the lack of real meaning or real human contact in their lives, to offset the nihilism that plagues their existence.

Psychologists who have studied violence in young men and especially young men’s willingness to forsake everything they know, everything they have been taught, and everything they might otherwise believe about right and wrong, say that there is a set of shared circumstances and “revelations” that link spree killers and self-radicalized terrorists.  Faced with the emptiness of their own lives, isolated from many of their contemporaries, and desperately in search of something substantive to give their lives meaning and purpose, young men – and especially young men who find refuge on the internet and in social media – tend to create fantasy lives for themselves, alternate realities in which they not only find the meaning and purpose they crave, but do so in heroic fashion.

The blogger and journalist Robert Beckhusen has written on this subject often, noting that the ties that bind spree shooters and self-radicalized terrorists are both numerous and consistent.  Young men confronted by the social and spiritual emptiness of their lives and society, default to what is often called “heroic doubling,” which is to say that they take on a symbolic cause and kill not just to slake their own bloodlust, but to exact revenge for a whole class of people with whom they believe they find common cause.  Just after the spree shooting in Isla Vista, California in May of last year, Beckhusen interviewed Roger Griffin, a professor of Modern History at Oxford Brookes University in the UK and the author of Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning.  Griffin explained the phenomenon of “heroic doubling” and “symbolic” murder as follows:

[I]n the mind of the killer, they’re not just killing someone as the sole purpose of the destruction.  They’re killing someone symbolic of something more general, which is also meant to send a message to the survivors.

What I theorize — is that what happens psychologically — the person has undergone a process whereby a rather confused, pained, ordinary self puts on a sort of mask, which turns them into an actor — or a protagonist — in a personal narrative drama. . . .

In his avatar double, he achieves the ability to run and fight.  I believe that’s a very powerful metaphor for what happens in the process of heroic doubling.  Because the person who’s previously felt impotent and had no agency . . . is made to feel potent and have agency returned to him by adopting this mission.  So in that moment, he becomes a heroic version, or avatar, of himself.

This process of heroic doubling is fairly pronounced and consistent, among both spree-shooters and Westerners who join terrorist causes.  Whether its Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris taking revenge on the “jocks” of the world; Christopher Harper-Mercer waging a personal war against Christians; Vester Flanagan/Bryce Williams, a “grievance collector,” fighting back against perceived repressors on behalf of his race and his sexual orientation; Dylann Roof trying desperately to start a race war; Elliot Rodgers specifically declaring his desire to seek “retribution” against the women who, in his mind, denied him love and sexual gratification; or radicalized Londoners attacking their own home city on 7/7/2005, the patterns and the fantasies are nearly the same.  Young men, lost in a world of meaninglessness, fashion for themselves a fantasy war in which they are the heroes and thus perpetrate all-too-real violence against those whom they perceive as symbolic of the “enemy.”

I would argue that it’s no mere coincidence that the earliest example of this “heroic doubling” cited by Professor Griffin is Friedrich Nietzsche.  “Nietzche,” Griffin says, “had this syndrome.  He said the whole of history was divided into two phases: before me and after me.  It’s very common, this over-estimation of who we are.”  Nietzsche was also, I’ll repeat from our original nihilism piece, the intellectual godfather of “nihilism,” both for his own study of the idea and his influence on Martin Heidegger, the Nazi sympathizer who through his interpretation of Nietzsche’s nihilism, effectively fashioned what we understand today as postmodernism and its denial of objective reality, values and truth.

There are, I’ll readily concede, several pathologies at work in the contemporary societal collapse that has produced the recent series of high-profile spree shootings.  My point here is not to discount or dismiss any of the other potential sources of these pathologies, but rather to note one striking and appalling consistency.  Like self-radicalized Western jihadis, American spree shooters are seeking refuge – a perverted refuge to be sure – from the nihilism of their day-to-day existences.  Society is crumbling, and this violence, sadly, is but one of the results.