By the time Chris Harper-Mercer killed himself on October 1, he had already killed and wounded a number of people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, and sent the rest of the nation reeling in shock after yet another shooting spree. I will never forget the first time I ever heard of a public shooting. It made my blood run cold with an entirely new fear. Two boys pulled a fire alarm at their school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and then shot their classmates and teachers as they exited the building, killing 5 and wounding 10 more. One of the boys was 13, the other 11—the same age as me at the time. The malice of it confused me, and I could not wrap my mind around it. Something more than concupiscence moved mere children to cold-blooded murder. It is said that the three sources of temptation are the world, the flesh, and the devil, and it would seem that there was plenty of demonic temptation that day.
Though there have been many and varied public shootings before and since those boys in Jonesboro, certain aspects are shared among many of them. A vast number came from fatherless homes, or otherwise dysfunctional settings. Chris Harper-Mercer pursued the satanic. Notably, many other killers openly dabbled or actively pursued the satanic, including Pearl High School’s shooter Luke Woodham and Sandy Hook’s Adam Lanza.
Although surely hell revels in every sin, concupiscence and allurements of the world do account for many sins, and the devil does not get direct credit. When it comes to public shootings, however, even in cases where the shooters were not actual Satanists, several things do point directly to the demonic.
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The first trademark: hubris. In many, if not all of the cases of public shootings, the killers considered themselves superior human beings. Some said as much themselves.
- Dylann Roof, the killer of 9 people in a black church in Charleston this past June, wrote: “N**gers are stupid and violent.” He took it upon himself to show white superiority.
- Elliot Rogers, who in May of 2014 killed 6 and wounded 7 more near the campus of UC Santa Barbara, fumed before his crimes: “I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth the superior one, the true alpha male.”
These men evidence some of Satan’s own pride. Before his sin, Satan, or Lucifer, was the greatest among God’s angels. But he desired more, and not as God desires it. Isaiah 14:12-14 tells us: “What, fallen from heaven, thou Lucifer, that once didst herald the dawn? Prostrate on the earth, that didst once bring nations to their knees? I will scale the heavens (such was thy thought); I will set my throne higher than God’s stars, take my seat at his own trysting-place, at the meeting of the northern hills; I will soar above the level of the clouds, the rival of the most High.” St. Augustine says of the devil that as he was “inflated with pride, he wished to be called God.” St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the devil wished to be like God, not as saints desire it, in the sense that one’s will harmonizes with God’s through Divine charity, but rather that the devil could have A) desired such harmony of wills “of his own, and not of God’s power”; or B) he desired as his final end a state of goodness achievable through his own power, without God’s help; or C) he coveted an aspect of God’s which was not proper to his own nature, such as the ability to create heaven and earth. Perhaps the devil desired to be the master of life and death. It certainly seems that he incites souls to make themselves the masters of death.
The second trademark, envy, a sense of entitlement to what others had. Many, if not all shooters felt they were owed something by other people, and had been denied it. Examples include,
- Andrew Engeldinger killed 6 and injured 2 at Accent Signage Systems, in Minneapolis, MN, in September of 2012, because he’d been fired from the company.
- Elliot Rogers went on his rampage because women at a UC Santa Barbara sorority denied him sex.
- Seung-Hui Cho, the VA Tech shooter, thought himself entitled to riches, popularity, and a girlfriend, and was so offended by people who already had such things that he killed 32 and wounded 17 others.
Now, everyone does need the means to support themselves and their families, and everyone needs love (in the right context, of course). But to kill others because they already have what one lacks imitates the devil himself, who, as St. Ambrose says, always “envies those who strive for better things.” St. Thomas clarifies the envy of the demons thus: “After the sin of pride, there followed the evil of envy in the sinning angel, whereby he grieved over man’s good, and also over the Divine excellence, according as against the devil’s will God makes use of man for the Divine glory.” Satan hates man because man can still hope to achieve heaven through the grace of God. How very like the devil, then, to employ envy to motivate men to kill other men.
The third trademark, which puts all of these shootings into the same category in the first place, is the public nature of them all. The criminals desired that the whole world should see them, be filled with awe, and recognize their supposed greatness.
- Chris Harper-Mercer, the Umpqua Community College shooter, commented on Vester Flanagan’s murder (on August 26) of two on-air reporters, “I have noticed that so many people like [Flanagan] are alone and unknown yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the spotlight.” Mercer looked for his own spotlight, killing 9 and wounding 9 more on October 1.
- Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold recorded themselves ad nauseam in Harris’s basement, speaking of their homemade videos being viewed worldwide, even going so far as to suggest that Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino might be interested in directing the movie based on their lives.
This twisted desire for worldwide attention and admiration on the part of public murderers follows the precedent of Satan himself. When the devil chooses to manifest himself openly, it is always for the purpose of overwhelming lowly mankind. Father Mendoza Pantoja, who coordinates eight exorcists in his Archdiocese of Mexico City, confirms this as one of the Devil’s strategies: “Moreover, he [the Devil] manifests himself instead with oppressions and obsessions to torment terribly those who have opened the doors to him, so that they will be afraid of him and not try to close the doors to him and trust him.” The devil is very puffed up, and would like mankind to think him even more powerful than he actually is. Some souls willingly follow him for this reason, thinking he can give them great power, or protect them in some way. But the devil occasionally likes to draw attention to himself in order to make life difficult for mankind. For this reason he will often harass the saints, as he did in the cases of Padre Pio and the Curè of Ars. Or, using those committed to his service in one way or another, transmit such great fear and awe of evil that others will come away thinking that evil surpasses good in power. The devil would like us to think him the ultimate conqueror.
Consider how these public shootings plunge the nation into confusion. How can one fathom the evil actions of Adam Lanza, as he killed six-year-old after six-year-old? Many are tempted to despair of goodness in the world, and of Christ’s ultimate victory in the face of such evil. But these conclusions are not true. John 8:44 tells us that the devil “is a liar and the father of lies.” The devil certainly does not want us to dwell upon Jesus’ own words in John 16:33: “take courage, I have already overcome the world.”
In some sense, by showing his face in pride, the devil makes a fatal misstep. For we can know our enemy, and in knowing him, partake in his defeat. Because the fact of the matter is, while it appears that he goes unchallenged at times, the devil wages a war already lost to him. And it is a constant humiliation to him that his conquerors are a lowly angel, a virgin girl, and a bloody man on a cross. Even material beings such as men can be victorious over him, in Christ. Indeed, St. Paul asserts, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).
As we struggle to make sense of these shootings, rather than thinking of them as senseless or overwhelming, remember that we are always at war. The evil one strives against us always, and will employ the weakness of men to take the heart out of others. These violent outbreaks are horribly frightening, gutting. But, even though the devil appeared to triumph in the crimes of Chris Harper-Mercer a few weeks ago, ultimately Christ conquered in the 9 souls willing to call themselves Christians and be shot for that title. We are not defenseless. Determining these shootings to be demonic in origin ought to remind mankind of the demons, but more importantly that the demons have an enemy infinitely greater than they. Let us turn to Christ, who brings victory out of defeats, and with him (in the words of G.K. Chesterton) “Go gaily in the dark.”