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Nihilism and Mass Shooterism: Unclear Categories and Potential Dangers

Nihilism and Mass Shooterism: Unclear Categories and Potential Dangers
4th October 2022 Sammie Wicks
In Insights

In 2022, public mass shootings continue to present a serious societal challenge in the US. This year has already experienced over 500 mass shootings. These incidents include gang shootings, disputes at bars and clubs,  and what is frequently referred to as incidents of targeted violence. Targeted violence incidents such as school shootings are often viewed differently than other forms of instrumental violence, such as premeditated gang violence. However, the separation between these incidents is not as clear as is sometimes presented. Although some argue that domestic extremists and gang members are vastly different, recent research indicates that some domestic extremists (although less than 6%) have at some point been involved with criminal gangs. This is further complicated by the complexities in defining what some extremist groups are, especially domestic hate-based organisations that are sometimes described as gangs, such as the Proud Boys. Additionally, gang prevention strategies often influence preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and targeted violence prevention efforts in the US. 

As complex as the intersection between gang violence and ideologically motivated violence is, the overlaps between non-ideologically driven, nihilistic, grievance-driven targeted violence and gang-related violence may present even more intense complexity. This challenge is demonstrated in the recent mass casualty attack in Memphis, TN, which can be described as a series of random shootings conducted in different areas of the city. The incident resulted in three deaths and injuries to three others, occurring at nearly the same time as another non-ideologically-driven mass shooting in a suburb of Memphis the previous year (September 23, 2021). Although Memphis has experienced a wave of gun violence and murders, the September 7th shooting differentiated itself from other incidents of gun violence in that it resulted in Memphians sheltering in place for hours, with many watching the attacks on social media. 

The live-streamed attack illustrates the complexity of categorising incidents of extreme violence and the utility of technology, namely social media, in acts of targeted violence. The episode also exemplifies a continued wave of mass violence that can be described as misanthropic and nihilist in nature. It displays how social media presents a point of commentary from non-aligned extremists. 

Imperfect Terminology and Challenges to Clear Categorisation

The 19-year-old shooter, a Spring Valley Military (mostly Grape Street Crips and Gangster Disciples) gang member, live-streamed one of the shootings and a three-minute explanation for the violence. In the video, he detailed his previous acts of violence and his capacity for further violence, referencing his Crip gang affiliation. He discussed individuals “taking the stand” to cooperate with authorities and testify in criminal procedures – sentiments echoed in Instagram and Facebook stories he posted. He also expressed his intent to commit “suicide by cop” by forcing police to engage in a shootout with him while online. The Memphis shooter’s video was shared with posts he made containing suicidal messaging and threats to engage in further violence in other American cities. The presence of suicidality in this incident reflects findings from Joel Capellan’s study of ideological active shooter events in the United States, from 1970 to 2014. Capellan observed that generally, mass murderers tend to be suicidal, with most taking their own lives after completing the event. Capella also argued that ideologically-driven lone actors also tend to be suicidal and often view their attacks as suicide missions. 

Although much of the video and posts discuss gang politics and street-level activity, the victims of the shooter’s attacks appear to be unconnected to the incidents referenced. Instead, the shootings appear to be driven by grievances related to the recent death of a close friend and an impending criminal case in which individuals known to him were cooperating with authorities. These shootings demonstrate a phenomenon described as ‘mass shooterism,’ or the nihilistic subculture in which mass homicide and mass murderers are idolised and mimicked. 

Furthermore, the shooter displayed behaviours and characteristics reminiscent of the Highland Park shooter, in line with an inherently fatalistic and suicidal ideology that has been described as ideological nihilism, in which death isn’t something to be feared and is instead seen as something to be accepted or even praised. Although often disassociated, mass shootings such as the Uvalde shooting, Highland Park Shootings, and the one in Memphis indicate the presence of pervasive developed cultures of violence that undermine perceptions that there is a one-size-fits-all profile for a mass shooter. 

Violence Livestreamed: Technology, Violent Theatre, and Imitating Violence and Tactics

The similarities between these incidents reveal a need to interrogate the disassociation between different forms of grievance-driven community violence that are underpinned by revenge-seeking and nihilism as opposed to being motivated by monetary gain. This is especially important since a mass shooter cultural milieu exists in online spaces where incidents of violence serve as instructional material for those seeking to imitate and surpass the violence of others. Although the Memphis shooter was a gang member, his attack may prove to be viewed as instructional to others across ideological and racial backgrounds. In this sense, identity and ideology do not prevent potential violent actors from leveraging narratives and tactics from other violent extremist milieus.

The need for further investigation of the phenomenon is outlined by the rise in accelerationism. Within the accelerationist milieu groups and individuals hold beliefs that serve as an ad hoc, hodge-podge system of beliefs that at first glance may appear to be a nonsensical merging of divergent and conflicting extremist views. This movement and the organisations and cells within it marry ideologies such as Nazism and satanism, and worship figures who may not be accepted in mainstream white supremacist circles, such as serial killers. Because these exactors arguably hold beliefs that may be too extreme for other violent extremists and seek to accelerate the downfall of society, their views may prove to be attractive to other nihilistic mass shooters, such as some school shooters who display an affinity for chaos, satanism, Nazism, and societal collapse.  

Misusing technology has made the imitation of violence more easily accessible and replicable. Livestreamed acts of violence, such as the Memphis, Christchurch, and Tops Supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, serve several purposes; they act as propaganda that can be easily shared and accessed by interested parties who share an affinity with attackers. Once this content is online, it becomes challenging to remove entirely. 

The livestreamed footage also instils fear in an audience of onlookers, terrified by being transported to the scene of atrocities. N.G. Berrill, executive director of the New York Center for Neuropsychology & Forensic Behavioral Science, argues that those who livestream acts of violence may be chasing a brief, dark status of notoriety. By participating in acts of exhibitionism, they attempt to differentiate themselves from the crowd to become powerful and provide inspiration for others. 

The fear of copycat attacks was realised several days after the spree killing when a Memphis man was charged with the commission of an act of terrorism, civil rights intimidation, disorderly conduct, and harassment. The man was arrested after making and posting a video, which he claimed was in response to a comment by a “white lady” that made him angry on a Facebook video he made about the Memphis shooter. In the video, the Memphis man made the following threat:

 “I’m fixing to go on ahead and go Zeek Mode on nothing but white people. I catch any white h** on the sidewalk you going to get popped tonight. He already shot a white old man. I’m fixing to shoot a white old lady s***… while her grandkids in the car.”

Although the man said he had no intention of killing anyone, he admitted to having a gun in the car when he made the threatening video and told police that he came up with the term “Zeek Mode,” in reference to the act of killing people randomly. The man also told police that he was an active gang member. 

How Non-Ideologically Driven Violence May Fuel Extremist Violence

The Memphis shooting not only displays the instrumentalisation of social media within extremist milieus; the shooting and the video have also been instrumentalised by a range of white supremacists online. Following the incident, significant commentary on the shooting circulated on 4chan’s politically incorrect /pol/ message board, the Daily Stormer, and white supremacist channels on Discord and Telegram. The comments ranged from sarcastic to angry and hateful to solemn. Posters described the incident as another example of “anti-white violence” where African Americans victimise and target whites – a narrative that echoes tropes presented in the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. Posters also discussed their belief in African Americans’ inherently violent antisocial, destructive, and criminal nature, reminiscent of the narratives consumed by the Charleston, South Carolina shooter. This content included racist screeds, memes, and other images of stereotypical racialised caricatures of people of colour. 

Additionally, individuals in these online spaces engaged in trolling, sarcastically deriding this shooting as another example of white supremacy and seemingly making light of white supremacist terrorism. Other posters criticised criminal justice reform and blamed the shooter’s attacks on the courts’ inability to keep him incarcerated for previous crimes due to Democrat-led legislation. Some trafficked in conspiracy theories, discussing false flag events, FBI-groomed mass shooters, secret Jewish conspiracies, and revenge attacks referencing the Buffalo shooting. 

The observed discussions displayed actors in these spaces attempting to make sense of the attack, prove their racist narratives, and confirm the necessity of waking white people up to what they frame as a threat to their existence. This narrative has previously motivated others to conduct acts of terrorism in the United States and abroad. 

Key Takeaways

The live-streamed attacks display the complexity of categorising incidents of extreme violence and the individuals who engage in violence. The Memphis shooting also serves as an example of how violent extremist and non-ideological driven attackers find utility in benign, easily accessible common forms of technology like social media. Livestreaming for these individuals provides a platform for extreme violence and revenge-seeking. 

Additionally, the incident warns of a continued wave of mass violence that can be described as misanthropic and nihilist. The incident raises concerns that it may foster imitation attacks as the video has already circulated on the same types of gore sites frequented by the Highland Park shooter. Lastly, these incidents provide utility for other violent actors and may bolster extremist narratives, including justifications for actors intent on carrying out non-aligned extremist violence.