For lost boys like Micah Johnson, any ideology is an excuse to kill

None of this is to deny that when Johnson finally opened fire on Dallas law enforcement officers, his head was full of racist poison. The outsider who was obsessed by military weapons as early as high school, whose stepmother was white, whose time in the Army came to an end with a handful of stolen panties, found an ideology that made him the victim of a race war and placed him in the role of a powerful avenger.

This is what Roof and Mateen did as well, like so many other “lost boy” killers. Roof, for his part, said he was sick of black men raping white women. Like Johnson, his friends said he made the occasional racist remark, but no one thought he was serious about violence. Mateen, likely a closeted gay man, lashed out at the gay community after a history as a difficult boy stretching back to third grade and more recent events in which his temper scared those who knew him.

In every case, we must study the professed motives of the shooters and hold those responsible who made the propaganda who inspired them: white nationalists, black nationalists, Islamic extremists. At the same time, we should not assume these young men are avatars of the ideologies they espouse. Rather, they are part of a new strain of violent losers, men driven by a combination of narcissism and insecurity and who latch on to heroic narratives in which they are the central figures in a morality play of justice and retribution.

Defending the white race, defending the black race, avenging Islam: all of them are the same story played out by the same type of man. In other cases (John Salvi attacking abortion clinics, Timothy McVeigh blowing up a federal building) the targets or the ideas may be different, but the actors and narrative are the same. The hero, spurned in his own community, takes matters into his own hands, and kills—usually in the most cowardly way possible.