What they all have in common is their gender (male), their race (most are white), and their youth (almost all under 30 at their peak destructiveness). Beyond this, they seem to share little beyond a stubborn immaturity wedded to a towering narcissism. In almost every case, they dress their anger in the clothes of ideology: white supremacy, jihad, hatred of abortion, or anti-government paranoia. Stuck in perpetual adolescence, they see only their own imagined virtue amidst irredeemable corruption. In a typical sentiment, Roof wrote before his rampage that “someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
This is the battle cry of the narcissist, and we’ve heard it before. Western societies are producing more and more of these Lost Boys, the fail-to-launch young men who carry weighty social grudges. Some of them kill, but others lash out in other, more creative ways: whether it’s Edward Snowden deciding only he could save America from the scourge of surveillance, or Bowe Bergdahl walking away from his post to personally solve the war in Afghanistan, the combination of immaturity and grandiosity among these young males is jaw-dropping in its scale even when it is not expressed through the barrel of a gun.
Obviously, I am not suggesting that Snowden or Bergdahl are killers. If anything, these lost young men seem to be impossibly sensitive souls. (I will leave aside the actions of Chelsea Manning in this context, whose story is more complex than I can comprehend.) Yet all of them committed immensely destructive acts, and for reasons that were as rooted in their own failed manhood and maturity as Roof’s.There are others: John Walker Lindh, “the American Taliban,” spent his teen years hanging around in Internet chat rooms before became a jihadi at 20. Timothy McVeigh, a bullied little boy, planned his terrorist attack on a federal building after quitting the Army in his twenties. John Salvi, another loner, shot up an abortion clinic at 22. The list could go on.