Elliot Rodger, Our Children and Compassion: Can We Stop the Violence?

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In the days since the horrific mass murder and suicide in Isla Vista, Calif. it’s easy to get swept up into the news frenzy. The media has dissected every move and word—written or spoken—by Elliot Rodger, the disturbed young man who did this unthinkable deed.

Like many people, this atrocious event—six people murdered, one suicide and nearly a dozen other injured—is turning over and over in my head. The main reason it is affecting me so much is that for the last eight months and twelve days, I’ve been a parent. Everything changes when you have a child. Everything. Especially when news like this is becoming a regular occurrence. Especially when after hearing of the tragedy of seven young lives lost, I heard more than one person ask “Is that all?” We’ve become desensitized to these crimes in all the wrong ways. And we’re focusing on all the wrong triggers that lead up to these events. Like everyone else stunned by this tragedy, my heart goes out to all those affected by the incident. I have the questions we all have: How could this have happened? Why didn’t people see the signs early enough to stop it? What was wrong with this young man who had his whole life ahead of him and chose this instead?

Already, this issue has turned into yet another debate about gun control. Rodger reportedly bought his guns legally. But it seems clear that his rage could not be contained by whether or not he had a gun. He stabbed his roommates to death. Almost a year before the murderous rampage, he attempted to push people off of a 10-foot ledge because he was so outraged at being without a girl while at a party. Yes, we need to address gun access for the mentally disturbed while still honoring the Second Amendment so many people value. But this isn’t a gun issue.

It’s also turned into a discussion about the expectations he appeared to have about women. His “misogynous” rampage has resulted in the Twitter hashtag #yesallwomen, where women have taken to using this tragedy to share stories about their own sexual assault. We don’t need a tragedy like this to justify discussing women’s abuse. It’s its own conversation, one we should be having no matter what. Rodger called his final act of violence his “Day of Retribution,” which was pointed directly at women, because he said so many had refused to love him, to give him the “pleasures” he felt he deserved. This certainly speaks to a sickness in our culture about sexuality, particularly towards women, but it also speaks to something deeper: the people we ignore, the ones we don’t know well enough to sense that these tragedies are likely to occur. To say this is an issue about women’s sexuality devalues the women who lost their lives. It devalues their own sexuality. This isn’t about how women need to stop being labeled as objects. This is about undetected and untreated mental illness and the consequences. Elliot Rodger was disturbed. His perception was skewed about sexuality as much as it was about the significance of his violence. His untreated illness would have expressed itself in other ways regardless of whether or not he’d had sex once or a thousand times, found the love of his life or not. But what he represents, what seems to be a growing group of people we see at the core of these types of crimes, is important to discuss.

Let me backtrack. When I was in the 7th grade, I sat in front of a boy named Michael. He wore thick glasses. Dressed odd. Smelled like most boys during puberty do. He was quiet and very serious looking all the time. I don’t think I ever saw him smile. I couldn’t relate, and so, along with most everyone else in my class, I just ignored him. He wasn’t important enough for anyone to bully. That privilege was saved for other kids—usually the ones who threaten the bullies’ status. It’s sad to admit, but true: Michael simply didn’t matter to most of us. Until he brutally murdered one of my best friends five years later.

Once he arrived to high school, Michael became “Mic”—no longer the quiet guy we looked past—he was now a drama and poetry nerd from the poorer side of town who had a knack for befriending rich, white, awkward girls. And then, one night, just because he could, he stabbed and strangled my dear friend in her own backyard. He stole her parents’ car and drove off into the night, leaving her for dead. (He’s now serving a life sentence for his crime.) If Karen had known enough to look for the signs of mental illness; if she had been comfortable enough asking questions and talking to an adult about Mic’s mental state, perhaps she may be alive today. Perhaps not. But she didn’t have a fighting chance against a late night visit from a friend who in an instant, became a killer. She didn’t have a chance, because she didn’t know the signs.

Why these senseless murders happen may never be fully understood. There are now too many to list. Surely there are numerous factors that play into each case. But one factor that seems obvious is that these young men who commit such crimes tend to fit the same stereotype as Mic and Elliot. They may not be poor or rich, they may not be all that unpopular, even. But they tend to be the ones most other kids ignore. The ones we think choose to be loners all on their own.

What we’ve done to bring awareness to the issue of bullies in the last several years is phenomenal. It’s changing and saving lives. But it’s only one problem our children face when learning to deal with the intricacies of peers and cliques. We also need to put a big effort towards cultivating inclusiveness and respect. We need to teach our children that just because someone else may be quiet and different does not mean they don’t want to participate. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to have friends, to be loved. And it most certainly does not mean they aren’t hiding a serious mental problem. We so often assume mental instability manifests outwardly–the deranged homeless person shouting to no one. But mental illness, more often than not, is a silent affliction. People struggle and suffer with their issues behind closed doors, until the one day that they don’t.

Elliot Rodger made a horrific, unforgivable decision. But unlike others, like Adam Lanza, who opened fire on grade school children in Sandy Hook, Connecticut in 2012, Rodger did us the favor of sharing in gruesome and sober detail in his 137-page manifesto, how he felt. Or how he thought he felt, anyway. As deluded as he was, he seemed to be able to get clear about feeling that he had not been loved enough. Even if that came out in a misogynistic tone of sexual entitlement. But we know what drove him to his death–a rage and illness that was only fueled by feeling unlovable. That’s not enough to forgive or forget what he did. But perhaps it’s enough to remind us that in raising our children, we need to teach them that bullying is not okay, and neither is ignoring others, either.

Taking an interest in other children, being kind and genuine won’t prevent mental illness. But it can help our children to detect the signals that something is seriously wrong a lot sooner—and, it’s the one thing we can do right now. Gun laws won’t change over night. Neither will our culture’s perception about women and sexual entitlement. But empowering our children to be inclusive and compassionate towards each other can start today. It has to.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.