The Humanevangelist: The Austin Bomber and Our Need for Narrative

What’s the story with Mark Conditt, the Austin terror suspect who blew himself up as police closed in? That’s what we all want to know. Instinctively, we yearn for a storyline that tells us who to blame or how to prevent such atrocities. Yet, this one seems destined to remain a mystery. The only lesson we can draw from this tragic tale may be one about stories themselves. I’ll come to that presently.

No one seems to have had a clue that Conditt would go on a murderous bombing spree. His grandmother told the Washington Post that the family is shocked. “This is not the Mark that I know or the grandson that I know,” Mary Conditt said. “I don’t know who this person was that did all of this.”

It’s not just family members who have that impression. “He was a nice young kid,” a neighbor told the New York Times. Jeremiah Jensen, Conditt’s close friend during years they were home-schooled together was similarly dumbfounded. “He wasn’t like this in high school,” Jensen said in a public radio interview.

In his cellphone confession, recorded while police were closing in, Conditt reportedly described himself as a remorseless psychopath. Maybe so, but how useful is self-diagnosis under such conditions? What made him capable of cold-blooded random murder? Possibilities include genetics, brain damage, emotional dysfunction, and warped ideology, or combinations of the above.

What’s more, no obvious policy solutions suggest themselves. There’s no National Explosives Association, lobbying for the right to bear bombs. It does not appear that the suspect had any criminal, military, or mental health record that anyone might have acted on.

And so, we fall back on stories. What could possibly draw a young man into this death spiral? One storyline we must always consider is that of human nature. Like males of other animal species, young men are powerfully driven to compete for mating success.

In most species, male competition is brief and ritualized. No so in our hypersocial breed. Unlike most animals, we don’t have a “mating season.” From puberty, our sexuality is always on, and never more so than during the teens and twenties. The great evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson plausibly speculates that this is an adaptive feature. It functions, he says, to keep men and women pair-bonded so that they can raise children through the many years it takes our offspring to become independent.

But there’s a price to pay. Men who fall short in the mating competition often feel that most dangerous of human emotions: humiliation. Was this the case with Conditt? We don’t know for sure, but there are indications. Former friends—there don’t seem to have been any current ones—describe him as an intense loner. Jensen, his friend of five years ago, recalls him as socially awkward and argumentative. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, who has heard a recording the suspect left, describes it as “the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.”

But hang on. We have to keep in mind that millions of young men have their hearts broken yet  recover, move on, and find eventual happiness. Sexual frustration rarely results in a single murder, let alone a carnival of terror.

Our proclivity for weaving a story out of slender facts often distorts the truth. For example, we humanists may be tempted to make much out of the fact that Conditt was homeschooled in an intensely religious household. Now, I’m the first to admit that I object to raising children that way. Yet, I’ve known some to come through it in surprisingly good shape. For sure homeschooling per se does not cause bombing binges.

But our tendency to organize perceptions through narrative may be relevant in another way. Social media have created eddies and whirlpools of discontent. These can concentrate feelings and organize them around ideologies that break all constraints. Case in point: a “right to sex” meme. Amia Srinivasan reports in this week’s London Review of Books on how a sexually frustrated murderer named Elliot Rodger emerged four years ago from a 40,000 strong online group of “incels”—involuntarily celibate men.

But killer ideologies don’t have to explicitly focus on sex. Poisonous ideas have many wellsprings. From Islamist jihadis to rightwing race warriors to leftwing loonies, the internet is chockablock with violent inspiration. Whether or not that’s the case with Conditt, it is all too often true.

What can humanists do? First, resist the temptation of censorship. It will fail. Outside a totalitarian state, the internet has virtually infinite channels of communication. Driving angry people underground will only intensify their alienation and anger.

Second, resist the temptation of tribalism. Incidents like this prompt us to cast the perpetrator as “one of them.” It’s all too easy to spin a tale that reinforces our divisions. But as humanists we know that we are all only human. We know that we’re all in this together. And we know that when the core principles of humanism prevail, the best of humanity shines. That’s the story we need to tell—to ourselves, our friends, and those with whom we differ.