I live in Eugene, Oregon, just a few miles from where 15-year-old Kip Kinkel, in May 1998, murdered his parents and then went on a shooting spree at Thurston High School, killing two students and wounding 25 others. Kinkel had a history of mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia), reportedly experiencing hallucinations and paranoid delusions; he is currently serving a 111-year-long prison sentence.
Chris Harper-Mercer will not be spending any time in prison. The 26-year-old loner with a liking for horror movies and industrial music was killed earlier today by law enforcement officers (“neutralized”, in the carefully parsed explanation given by a sheriff), but not before he had murdered ten and wounded several more at Umpqua Community College. The school is located in Roseburg, a town of about 22,000 less than hour south of Eugene. Each summer, our family goes through Roseburg on the way to our annual camping trip; the town is typical of many Oregon rural communities: blue collar, a bit sleepy, and surrounded by beautiful scenery.
The shootings took place around 10:30 in the morning, and there was some confusion (understandably) for several hours about the number of fatalities and injuries, as well as the identity of the killer. This evening, CBS News identified him as Harper-Mercer, citing law enforcement sources, and some details about his background and his vile acts came to light. Originally from California, he was described by his stepsister, Carmen Nesnick, as “supportive and loving,” but also said she hadn’t been in contact with him for a year. Nesnick, CBS reports, “said her stepbrother was not a religious nor anti-religious person and that her family is Christian.”
That information does not fit well with evidence and reports indicating that Harper-Mercer was both non-religious and openly anti-“organized religion”. In an online dating profile found and posted by Heavy.com, he is listed as belonging to the following groups: “Doesn’t Like Organized Religion; Left-hand Path; Magick and Occult; Meditation; Spiritual But Not Religious”. (The same page identified his religious views as “Pagan, Wiccan, Not Religious, but Spiritual.”) The “left-hand path” is associated with black magic and satanism; as one site (positively) describes it:
The Left Hand Path is solitary, individualistic, personal, based on self development, self analysis, self empowerment. Altruism is materialistically equated as long term selfishness. I think all forms of Satanism are considered Left Hand Path, even Devil Worship and inverse Christian-Satanists are Left Hand Path, although they are frequently considered deluded. Frequently called “evil” and “dark” by non Satanic religions, the followers of the left hand path often have had to remain in the darkness or face severe persecution from the religions that ironically call themselves “good”. This is testimony enough that the image of the purely “good” icons is a veneer; a non-truth.
That is notable since it is being reported that Harper-Mercer, after trapping several people in a classroom, demanded to know who was Christian:
“The shooter was lining people up and asking if they were Christian,” tweeted“@bodhilooney,” who said her grandmother was inside the Umpqua Community College classroom that was the scene of the carnage. “If they said yes, then they were shot in the head. If they said no, or didn’t answer, they were shot in the legs.”
(See original tweet.) CBS also reports that the killer was apparently obsessed with highly publicized, murderous shooting sprees and saw them as a means of escaping a life of lonely anonymity:
Posts on an online blog that appears to belong to Mercer reference multiple shootings, including one in Virginia in August that left a television news reporter and cameraman dead. The last upload on the blog was Wednesday. when a documentary about the Newtown shooting was posted.
In one post on the blog about Vester Flanagan, the man who killed the reporter and cameraman in Virginia, Mercer apparently wrote, “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. A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems like the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.”
What to make of all this? First, the mystery of evil cannot be fully understood or explained through merely mechanistic analysis or medicinal formulas. Even in the case of “mental illness”–itself a sometimes hazy and unsatisfying term–there is the reality of The Fall and the damage done to one’s heart, mind, and soul. There is also the reality of the distorted, twisted paths that any man can choose, if he so inclines. “The heart is more deceitful than all else,” said the prophet Jeremiah, “And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” (Answer: God alone, as St. Augustine expressed so well.)
Secondly, each of us has a natural desire to be: to be known, to be seen, to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be loved. This, too, can turns down dark paths, warped into the desire to be feared, to be powerful, to be in control of life and death. And the latter, especially, is key, for anyone who freely takes an innocent life is also spurning God, the author and giver of life.
There is much that we do not know about this young man. But the state of Oregon, unfortunately, has a curious and unsettling relationship with death. It has the nation’s second-highest suicide rate, one that would be even higher if deaths assisted suicide were included (Oregon being the first state to legalize assisted suicide, in October 1997). Is that due to guns, as I suspect some would suggest? I doubt it, since Montana–my home state, with plenty of guns–is not even in the top thirty states for suicide. There are no easy answers; the notion that it is because Oregon is decidedly “unchurched” is undermined by the fact that Washington State, the least churched state in the country, is also not on the list of most suicides. The mystery of evil is just that–a mystery–and sometimes we have only glimpses and hints of what lies deep within the hearts of men.
Regardless, the murders in Roseburg were certainly acts of real evil, carried out by a deeply disturbed young man who apparently chose, for whatever reason, to pinpoint Christians and Christianity. May God grant mercy and peace to those he killed, and give solace to the grieving, suffering families and friends of the victims.
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