The 21-year-old alleged perpetrator of the mass shooting at a Highland Park, Illinois Independence Day parade, which left seven dead and dozens injured, is apparently cooperating with police, who remain unsure as to his motive. Police apprehended the suspect, Robert E. Crimo III, without incident as he tried to flee the scene while attired in women’s clothing. Lake County state’s attorney Eric Rinehart charged Crimo, who fired some 70 rounds from an AR-style rifle, with seven counts of first-degree murder. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence.
As law enforcement sifts through available digital evidence connected to the alleged shooter—a fledgling musician who used the alias “Awake the Rapper”—a common theme has emerged among Crimo’s myriad online videos, images, messages, and songs. Similar to many other young men who become mass shooters, his communications reveal a perverse fascination with violence and violent imagery. And while as yet no specific profile of mass shooters exists that would be useful for prediction, a limited set of commonalities and descriptors seem to apply. These include mental illness, a history of isolation, family instability, and the attacker’s sense of grievance.
In a 2019 column, Leigh Patterson highlighted several mass shootings in 2018 that featured “men acting after a grievance,” including a man who murdered five people at the Capital Gazette in Maryland in the wake of a lengthy dispute with the newspaper; a male attacker at a Tallahassee yoga studio who had exhibited lifelong antipathy toward women before murdering two people and wounding five; and a man who killed a domestic partner and two others at a Chicago hospital.
Jeff Daniels, a counseling professor at West Virginia University, is working to develop a predictive model that identifies preattack behaviors for those traveling along a “fatal grievance pathway.” Daniels examined 37 mass shootings around the world, as well as 25 averted school shootings. He describes Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold—the Columbine High School shooters in 1999—as having “felt very disrespected.” Harris and Klebold were apparently upset that “the state wrestling champion got to park in a handicapped spot without getting a ticket.” For the aggrieved, a seemingly innocuous slight can serve as a slow-burning fuel that eventually erupts into violence.
A 2019 report by the U.S. Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center, Mass Attacks in Public Spaces, noted that just over half of the 27 attacks in 2018 included grievance as a motivating factor. These motivations cut across political affiliations. The left-wing husband and wife who perpetrated the 2015 San Bernardino, California attack at a Department of Public Health Christmas party and training seminar that left 16 dead were homegrown violent extremists inspired by Islamic jihad, according to the FBI.
Though festering grievances can shape violent behavior across disparate races, ethnicities, cultures, and political ideologies, an eye-popping 97 percent of mass shooters are male. Furthermore, a 2018 FBI report that studied preattack behaviors of active shooters in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013 outlined several triggering events that precipitated attacks, including adversity encountered due to interpersonal, employment, governmental, academic, or financial actions taken against the shooter. These adversities—real or imagined—can also fuel political violence like the San Bernardino attack.
Right-wing attackers are also motivated by their sense of identity and its intersection with collected grievances. In 2019, a 21-year-old white male from the Dallas suburb of Allen drove 650 miles to a Walmart in the border town of El Paso and murdered 23 people. Some of his victims had traveled from Mexico to shop for the day. The shooter had authored a hate-filled manifesto in which he railed against a “Hispanic invasion.”
Race remains a motivating factor in instances where grievances metastasize into violence. Dylan Roof, an avowed white supremacist, was convicted of a 2015 racially motivated attack that resulted in the murders of nine black worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina church basement. More recently, an 18-year-old white gunman slaughtered ten shoppers at a grocery store in a predominately black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York. Yet again, the murderer’s manifesto cited racist, identity-based grievances.
Murders of police in the U.S. are up by 59 percent from 2021, with intentional murders reaching a 20-year zenith, and some of these attacks are grievance-related. Police assassinations, or “unprovoked attacks”—fueled in part by misperception that purportedly racist white cops are indiscriminately murdering unarmed black men—are becoming more common. This may be tied to the era of police demonization following the justifiable police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, during the summer of 2014. These grievance-inspired attacks include the assassinations of New York City Police Department officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in December of 2014 and Miostis Familia in 2017. In 2016, an aggrieved, 29-year-old black shooter murdered three Baton Rouge, Louisiana cops, and a 25-year-old black veteran murdered five officers in a Dallas area sniper attack motivated by a desire for vengeance.
Killers motivated by grievance don’t always use firearms. In 2016, a radicalized Tunisian drove a 19-ton cargo truck to kill 86 people in Nice, France, during a Bastille Day celebration. The following year, during Charlottesville, Virginia protests surrounding a “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists, neo-Nazi James Fields Jr. used his Dodge Charger to murder a 32-year-old counter-protester and was sentenced to life plus 419 years. During a 2021 Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, Darrell Brooks, a black man who had previously posted online racist rantings against whites, killed six people with an SUV. The focus of Brooks’ ire was the high-profile death of George Floyd in police custody in 2020.
The day after the Highland Park shooting, a neighbor of the alleged attacker revealed that she felt guilty for declining his request for a date, a refusal that might have made him angry. “I feel like I hurt him,” she said. How could such seemingly benign instances of adversity propel young men into violent reactions? Could it stem from a relentless inculcation of victimhood throughout our society? Academic theoretical frameworks such as critical race theory divide us into two classes—the oppressed and the oppressor, with the latter to be reviled and the former to be supported and celebrated.
Might we have foreseen this as one possible result of the 1960s counterculture? Perhaps the emergence of race hustlers who expertly exploit divisions and create “grievance industries” to monetize perceived affronts and injustices is partly to blame. Certainly, the repackaging of the white nationalist conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement” has nourished bigots who remain perpetually aggrieved. To some degree, there will always be those whose reflexive overreactions to minor inconveniences devolve into violence. But in our current circumstances, we must identify these crisis points before they give rise to the next round of attackers.
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