Robert Bowers and The Risk of Radicalization

Jason Fehrnstrom, Scarlet Staff

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Robert Bowers, the forty-six year old man who gunned down eleven congregants at the Tree of Life Synagogue this past month, fits the mold of the archetypal mass shooter. He was a lonely, awkward man who, according to the few who were aware of his existence, “struggled with basic human interactions.”

His neighbors described his behavior as being non-descript and unconcerning. Indeed, Bowers worked as a truck driver and hardly maintained a presence in his apartment complex, which he used mostly to store his belongings and sleep.

While it is difficult to know with certainty the intricate details of Mr. Bowers life, it seems on the surface that he had no friends, no significant other, and nothing meaningful to look forward to in his day-to-day life.

Mr. Bowers receded into the dark, evil world of internet conspiracy theories to remedy this emotional, relational void. He conjured up grandiose, bigoted, and unsubstantiated theories about the efforts of the Jewish people to dilute the American citizenry with immigrants.

Gab, a social media platform that has positioned itself as a haven for those who hold similar views to Bowers, provided Bowers with a space to meet like-minded people who embrace white nationalist ideologies. The incendiary environment cultivated on this website compelled Bowers to propagate this unthinkable attack on behalf of his bigoted contemporaries.  

What is it that drives men like Bowers to become radicalized in these obscure, dark corners of the internet which often play a role in the radicalization that is necessary for mass shootings to occur?

Conversations about stopping mass shootings typically revolve around gun control. Indeed, these conversations are legitimate and desirable. However, in my estimation, there is an insufficient amount of discourse about the social conditions that prompt mass shootings.  

Perhaps people are weary to have these discussions because they inevitably convey an conscience-stricken, apologetic stance towards the lonely, isolated people who propagate such unforgivable crimes. Indeed, no one should feel sorry for these horrific people. However, it is possible to clarify the links between cause and effect without making excuses for the shooter.

Robert Bowers’ lonely, sad life is emblematic and indicative of larger social trends that threaten to undermine the basis of our society. The social fabric in this country has clearly been torn. All traditional systems of social solidarity are on a downward turn.

Participation in religious life is nosediving. Divorce rates are skyrocketing. Rates of mental illness are through the roof. Moreover, recent research suggests rates of loneliness are as high as ever. Drug and pornography addiction is rampant and tearing lives apart. The spirit of neighborliness that once characterized American life has been replaced with distrust and paranoia.

This molotov cocktail of social maladies creates ripe conditions for mass shootings. When the social fabric is torn, a portion of those who are struggling will begin to think in distorted, dangerous ways in a desperate search for meaning and purpose. For Bowers, this meant walking down the dangerous path of anti-semitic conspiracy theories.  

It would be gratuitous to suggest that there is a simple, soundbite solution for these increasingly complex social problems. There is no way to completely disembed deviant, aberrant behavior. However, we must not take a defeatist stance in the face of this fatal problem. There must be someway to mitigate these problems upstream.  

Some of the silent, isolated, struggling people in our communities may be at risk for radicalization. The things that can help these people are so simple. A nod and a wave, a short conversation about the weather, or an invitation to a community event or a cup of coffee may go a longer way than we think.