The Highland Park Shootings, Bobby Crimo III, and Mass Murderer as Social Identity

Robert E. Crimo III has been charged with 7 counts of murder in relation to his July 4 assault on the Fourth of July parade in his home town of Highland Park, IL about 30 miles northwest of Chicago.

Hours after gunfire interrupted the Highland Park, Illinois, July Fourth parade, killing seven people and wounding dozens more, police apprehended the man they believe was responsible. Robert “Bobby” E. Crimo III, 21, faces seven charges of first-degree murder in connection with the shooting, which authorities said he allegedly carried out by climbing onto the rooftop of a nearby business and opening fire minutes after the parade started, sending paradegoers and participants running for safety.

Except for right-wing propagandists like Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, the political discourse on how to stop the deluge of mass murders begins with gun access. People like Crimo III, Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron, and Uvalde murderer Salvador Ramos both signaled that their intent to commit mass murder and readily obtained high powered weapons to carry out their crimes. Like Gendron and Ramos, Crimo III had AR-15 assault rifles in his possession. and, in Crimo’s case it was his father who backed his application for a gun license.

While I do not want to de-emphasize gun access, more meaningful attention needs to be given to the sub-cultures of mass murder that are developing in the United States. The Buffalo and Highland Park shooters both declared their intention to commit mass murder in advance, participated in online communities that encouraged large-scale shootings, and thought of themselves in terms of mass murder histories. There is some distinction between the graphic violence/nihilism internet sites frequented by Bobby Crimo III (Highland Park) and Payton Gendron’s (Buffalo) white supremacist community but Crimo III and Gendron were both on Discord, announced themselves to their fellow participants, and referenced themselves to histories of mass violence that are now extended enough that they can be credibly called traditions.

Odette Yousef of NPR interviews “experts in violence and technology” who believe that “a number of “online milieus have been tied to an increasing number of mass shootings over time.” According to Alex Newhouse of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, “a lot of these communities are designed to spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over.” The mass shooter aesthetic of the online nihilism/violence communities focuses on gore and violence, draws on the history of shootings going back to the Columbine school shooting and Lee Harvey Oswald and “is all designed to be, one, shared; two, completely incomprehensible to anyone … looking onto it; and three, to be a way of breaking down a person’s natural reluctance to commit violence… It is designed to break a person’s brain.” Much like porn and Fox News pull people into an abyss where they are no longer able to engage in life outside those sub-cultures, online nihilism/violence communities can lead young white boys and men to “spiral deeper and deeper into really, really fringe, really violent spaces, there is some point on that spiral where you can’t just go back to being normal now.” “Awake” by Crimo III provides an arch example of what the terrorist analysts are talking about.

Like a sleepwalker, I am unable to stop and think. My actions will be valiant and my thought is unnecessary. I know what I have to do, I know what’s in it, not only for me but for everyone else. There is no past or future, just the now. It is more abstract than I can ever imagine. I can feel the atmosphere pushing me in. It’s unstoppable, like a wave pulling me under, I can’t breathe without it. I need to leave now, I need to just do it. It is my destiny, everything has led up to this. “Nothing can stop me, not even myself. Is there such thing as free will, or has this been planned out, like a cosmic recipe?

There’s a great deal of ambiguity that can be seen with Crimo III here. In online nihilist/violence communities, being impelled to move down a path where you finally “just do it” can be seen as a representation of the path in which which users fall toward a committing large-scale murder. In other words, Crimo III would be adapting an identity as a mass murderer hurtling toward his destiny–“Nothing can stop me, not even myself. Crimo III also could be expressing a specific intent to commit a murderous act when he says “I need to just do it” and he indeed took weeks to plan the massacre in Highland Park before leaving the Chicago area in his mother’s car to check out the possibility of shooting people celebrating the 4th in the city of Madison, Wisconsin the home of the University of Wisconsin. But terrorist analysts would also stress that Crimo III could have been taking an aesthetic stance as a mass murderer without either adopting a mass murderer identity or forming a plan to kill large numbers of people at the earliest opportunity as would eventually happen. In this sense, Crimo III’s October 2021 statement contains several possibilities.

Despite the mounds of interesting and original analysis, the NPR article expresses considerable uncertainty about the best approach for medical people, therapists, and law enforcement.

Experts worry that gaps in understanding the conditions that contribute to this kind of mass shooting, as well as legal limitations, could hinder efforts to prevent future, similar attacks. It’s not hard to to figure out where different violent spaces are,” said Conley. “What’s hard is what do you do once you find one, if the red flag still falls within free speech territory. Because currently we have no intervention abilities, we only have law enforcement.

But the experts err in underestimating the nature and scale of the problem. Given the frequency of large-scale shootings, the development of an online culture of mass murder, AND the easy availability of guns, large-scale shootings are now more about “domestic terror” than “gun violence” and it’s reasonable to think of Bobby Crimo III and Payton Gendron as terrorists than people engaged in gun violence without any specific purpose. Buffalo shooter Payton Gendron was specifically seeking to terrorize America’s black population by attacking a store in the black section of Buffalo. Crimo III attacked his own community but is also a terrorist who sought to and succeeded in creating a climate of fear for any kind of community celebration in the U.S. Where the Buffalo shooter identified himself with the “otherness” of white supremacy and conspiracy theories, Crimo III seemed to place himself outside the whole web of self-other relationships identified with “society” and launched his attack from what he viewed as the position of a pure outsider.  

There is considerable dispute over whether the U.S. government should deploy its considerable counter-terrorism apparatus against domestic terrorists like Gendron and Crimo III.  The argument against considering mass shootings like those in Buffalo and Highland Park is that the federal, state, and local enforcement apparatus is so steeped in bigotry that any enhanced law enforcement would result in increased discrimination against Black, Hispanic and Muslim men. But I still believe that the U.S. needs to categorize these mass murders as “domestic terrorism” rather than “gun violence.” The mass shootings in Buffalo, El Paso, and Christchurch, NZ   were attacks on minority communities in the name of the white replacement theory being promoted by extreme right-wing conservatives like Tucker Carlson. Perhaps more importantly, the United States needs to come to grips with the domestic terrorism problem before guys like Bobby Crimo III level up their terrorism to attacking conventions, downing planes, blowing up trains, or taking down bridges during rush hour. I’m not an expert on terrorism or terror technology but I would be surprised if discussion on larger-scale terrorism hasn’t already started on 4Chan, Discord, and other dark web outlets.

I think the Crimo III case can provide an outline of what could be done in the way of intervention though.

  1. Mass Murderer Identity: There should be a kind of red flag policy that allows state and federal authorities to detain those who enunciate mass murderer identities, threaten to kill large numbers of people, or outline schemes for attacking schools, night clubs, holiday parades, concert crowds and the like. Identifying “potential” mass murderers in this way would require some sort of law enforcement surveillance of dark web sites (something already being done by researchers) and confiscate weapons, put people on “no fly lists,” and other measures.
  2. Mass Murder Communities. Identifying someone as having already adopted a mass murderer outlook and identity, the authorities should be authorized to obtain warrants to investigate the online communities designed “to spin out mass shooters over time, over and over and over.” It’s not just the individual who is a danger, it’s also the online communities that encourage him and others to fall deeper and deeper into nihilism and violence. Those involved in online violence communities should be subject to the same weapons confiscation, no fly lists, and the like. In this sense, part of the point of identifying and investigating “potential” mass murderers is to gain access to their communities and break down the encryption barriers to that access that are currently in play.
  3. Online communities and THE community. There is a simple idea that committing crimes or being a criminal puts a person in a self-other relationship with the community with the “self” being the law-abiding members of the community and the “others” identified as being outside and opposed to the community. But it’s also possible to view a society like the United States as composed of self-other relationships of various sorts. In the case of mass murder communities, being subject to the criminal justice system has the ironic effect of drawing them back into society by treating them as suspects and possible criminals. According to online violence researchers, one of the effects of the mass murder communities is to draw participants away from all their other social contacts and interests. In this context, subjecting members of such communities subject to law enforcement processes would serve as a way to re-connect them to society by identifying them as criminals and potential criminals.

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