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Herostratos Rising, or: When Boomers Attack!

At the nadir of the Trojan War, with the Achaeans demoralized and defeated and King Agamemnon suggesting sailing home, Ajax and Odysseus were sent in a final effort to recruit Achilles back into the Achaean ranks. The hero, wounded by Agamemnon, is complimented, cajoled, and exhorted by Odysseus to fight for the Greeks against Troy—and then rejects them, declaring

My [immortal] mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may come to my end. If I stay here and fight, I shall lose my safe homecoming, but will have a glory everlasting; whereas if I go home, my glory shall die, but long will I await my end. To the rest of you, then, I say, ‘Go home…’

The insult he hurls at the representatives of the Achaean army is also the indication of his tremendous arrogance (which will, of course, later be his downfall – as it would be for Odysseus). He alone, he is declaring, is worthy of κλέος, the immortality of glory. Glory is the highest aspiration of the Greek man—it is the worldly manifestation and indication of his place in what Hesiod referred to as The Blessed Isles and Homer called Elysion. It was a sort of sainthood for the Greeks to achieve such a thing—and, like sainthood, it was attained through struggle and divine aid, and furthermore, there was no short-cut.

This did not, however, suppress what Valerius Maximus called gloriae cupiditas sacrilega—the unholy lust for glory, or stop men from seeking a sort of counterfeit κλέος. The Latins called it infamia, but this is misleading—it was not plain infamy, because κλέος is far more than mere fame. Rather, just as κλέος was a sort of greatness made manifest in reputation, something that does not vanish when a name is no longer spoken of widely. Achilles is barely mentioned these days—but his κλέος lives on because when he is mentioned, his greatness is known. This counterfeit κλέος seeks the same thing: a grace, or a grace in the negative, earned by great deeds—a sort of Pelagianism, if you will.

Only one man has ever achieved the zenith of this αντικλέος, the first man in history to have suffered what by the 17th century would come to be called the damnatio memoriae—a legal act of oblivion. It has proved unsuccessful, since Herostratos, while not well-known, has made it into the English language in the phrase Herostratic fame. His burning of the Temple of Artemis has become the defining moment of fame-seeking crime, though his sacrilege in the Classical World seems to us very little alongside the horrors upon which Western man has supped.

Herostratos is not likely the first name to come to mind even for most classicists when the press broke of Stephen Paddock’s decision to commit suicide-by-proxy after killing over 50 people at a country music festival in Las Vegas. Nor was it the name that came to mind when James Hodgkinson took aim at Steve Scalise and other Republicans at their annual boomer-only re-enactment of Sandlot. Yet, no better parallel can be imagined for these events—or other mass shootings, especially the suicide-by-proxy variety.

Herostratos was a small soul: he did not have the greatness to seek glory itself, but instead only to counterfeit it through an act of destruction of the beautiful. Many great saints certainly burned down pagan temples—it is not the target that is significant or even the arson. Rather, it is that he sought to destroy for himself, to cheat the demands placed on him by his people, and nevertheless reap the benefits, however shallow, and in so doing he avoided the responsibility of lifting up his city. Herostratos sought the fame of his own civilization— κλέος is a uniquely Classical glory, one which is defined as much by the people sharing it as its being shared. The Faustian soul does not necessarily seek such glory—there are celebrities, to be sure, but glory does not need to be outward in the West. It can come merely from personal satisfaction with one’s deeds—it can even exist, in the postmodern West, merely in the moment as it is perceived.

Suffer your author to digress for a moment and enumerate all of the mass shootings within the lifetime of most of our readers (the author imagines the bulk of Thermidor’s audience to be late GenX or younger). Readers will forgive the departure into the plebeian realm of statistics, but there are some interesting patterns that reveal themselves. First of all, there has been a demonstrable increase in mass killings unrelated to organized crime and the Lumpenproletariat. Between 1977 and 2017, there have been 133 “mass shootings” (with some dispute on definition); of these, 28 are essentially criminal actions—black-on-black street shootings, gang fights, and robberies-gone-wrong. Of the remaining 105, 77 of which have occurred in the last decade, there are six identifiable types: psychotic breaks, racial attacks, political attacks, Muslim terrorism, and Herostratic suicide. Psychotic breaks, in turn, can be categorized into two types: Type A are those which occur in a familiar setting to the killer, and typically only affect family and close friends, while Type B are those which occur in a public space, and victims are usually strangers. The ratios vary widely, but Type B is, in general, more common. Likewise, these psychotic breaks are more prevalent among Boomers, but after 2000 more Gen-Xers seem to be experiencing this. Less than half involve anti-depressant drugs—age seems the greater factor, with most individuals being between 35 and 45 when the break occurs—a sort of violent mid-life crisis.

The table below offers an illustration of the numbers:

It’s clear to see that there’s been a great increase in the rate of these public acts of violence—but your author would like to draw attention to the dramatic nature of this increase by reinterpreting the numbers. From 1977 to 1990, the US averaged about one major shooting every two years. After 1990, shooting rates more than double to a rate of 2.5 per year (even adjusting to exclude purely criminal shootings, it is still 2 per year). Between 2000 and 2010, it jumps again to 3 per year. After 2010, it escalates yet again to 7 spree killings per year. Other patterns reveal themselves—from about 1995 until 2003, school shootings make up the vast majority of mass-shootings. Non-Hispanic Whites and Asians have a near monopoly on the public psychotic events prior to 2005. Above all, the number of individuals seeking to “go out in a blaze of glory”—our titular latter-day Herostratoi—has spiked since 2006, and based on the most recent event, shows no sign of slowing down.

The economic, social, and generational patterns here should be obvious, and indeed, should be so unsurprising as to strike our readers as elementary to our very worldview. It goes, of course, much deeper than the “discontented White male” explanation proposed by the narrative-makers. Rather, it is a profound slothfulness of heart and smallness of mind endemic to certain social strata that drive men (and women) to seek death by atrocity. While the most economically and culturally distressed population—that is, poor Whites—do factor in psychotic mass shootings, they are disproportionately focused in racially-motivated and localized acts of violence. School shootings, the greater portion of workplace shootings, and other forms of public violence are almost exclusively committed by entry-level professionals and members or children of members of the beleaguered Middle Class.

Keeping with the academic/statistical model already adopted, let us turn our attention to some case studies. For our purposes, the author would like to shine the light on 1984’s James Huberty, 1999’s Mark Barton, and 2017’s Stephen Paddock. We have chosen these individuals not because of their victims—though their body counts are quite high—but because of who they are. Likewise, Huberty does not immediately meet the criteria of the bugman killer, but it can be demonstrated that they do represent a prototype that would become far more prominent as we get closer to the Current Year.

Huberty fits the standard type for a mass-shooter in most respects—in and out of work, “history of domestic violence”, and radical anti-government views. He is described by his Wikipedia page as a “welder and security guard”, suggesting he was of blue-collar origin and a lower-class White. This is not the case, however—rather, following his academic career there is a distinct downward trend: he first pursued a sociology degree and then transferred to study embalming. His wife was a peer at his first college, a small liberal-arts school in Ohio, who had pursued her own degree. However, his professional life fell through after two years and he was forced into welding and then eventually into a security guard position. He was a superstitious spiritualist, whose wife would calm his fits of rage by reading his fortune on Tarot cards. As time wore on, he came to believe that the world would end at any moment, and began to stockpile weapons and food. Then, finally, at the age of 41, after living briefly in Mexico and then moving to California, he lost his job as a security guard after a brief tenure and decided to attain to the greatness his college education failed to gain him. It was to be a grand immolation that would satisfy his smallness.

Huberty, therefore, constitutes a prototype for Paddock’s “Mad Boomer”. A mid-life crisis triggered by a series of failures coupled with a sense of entitlement typical of his generation leads to the small-souled aspiration to momentary and illusory αντικλέος. Over a decade later, a different pattern would unfold for 44-year-old Mark Barton. Born into a suburban setting worthy of The Graduate, his Air Force brat upbringing led him from base to base, though he spent most of his youth in South Carolina. Having studied at Clemson University and receiving a degree from the University of South Carolina, Barton used his chemistry degree working as an investment day-trader first in Alabama and then Atlanta. Aside from anecdotal paranoia typical of the professional world, he possessed none of the eccentricities of Huberty, no strange spiritualism or apocalyptic beliefs. He was, by most accounts, utterly banal in his attitudes and outlooks; a sort of suburban bugman before the social media age.

Barton’s existential crisis saw the murder of his immediate family first, then public shootings at two day-trading firms in the city of Atlanta before he committed suicide surrounded by police. Like Huberty, he began his spree with the clear knowledge and intent that he would not survive it. Unlike Huberty, he chose to remove his family from the aftermath of his melodrama. Moving forward another decade, we arrive in Las Vegas, where questions are still hanging in the air, and, despite the wheels already turning among the conspiracy theorists, no clear narrative has yet emerged regarding Paddock’s motives. What is certainly true is that Paddock had clear intent to kill large numbers of people and that he had no intention of escaping alive.

Several competing versions of the story are still unfolding, including a puzzling ISIS connection. However, these narratives will not change the fundamental truth that Paddock clearly fits a pattern among previous spree killers; he belongs to a species of individual clearly divorced from ties to ancestral home, lacking any sense of future and a profound mental change overtook him in the midst of this existence. His stunted, still-born life produced little more than a gambling habit and a foreign girlfriend. Older, with more time and greater wealth than other shooters, Paddock could plan his exit to maximize his impact and feel that he had greatness in his final adrenalin-filled moments.

Brett Stevens has his own take on the Las Vegas event, and while his usual fixation on the (very narrowly defined) White Race obscures some of his finer points, he does make some valuable observations, and while he does not name Herostratos, he no doubt has such a creature in mind when he talks about Paddock and Hodgkinson. Looking at Hodgkinson, Paddock, Huberty, and Barton, among others, it is difficult not to see the Generation of Sociopaths expressing itself in an extreme way. The phenomenon echoes the stereotype the Baby Boomer has come to represent: wreaking destruction for personal benefit, seeking to escape self-awareness, and being willfully unaware of the victims of the destruction (who represent objects for consumption, not "other selves") or the aftermath of their actions (for which they will not be present).

In this way, Stevens is wrong to think that Hodgkinson and Paddock are seeking approval of others the way the Orlando shooter did. The Faustian Herostratos does not need to seek outside approval. His αντικλέος, like his life, is completely focused on and in himself, without regard for outside approval, which is taken for granted. It is, rather, the moment—the fantasy and the kill—that constitutes the αντικλέος. Nor should we imagine these people to be gripped by guilt, fleeing the consequences of their actions. Rather, having achieved this highest experience of personal satisfaction, these men, locked in spirals in their regular lives, know they can never attain to such heights again, and therefore invite their end in the midst of their own narcissistic glory. Sometimes, they are successful, and are killed; sometimes, they fail and depending on the degree of their intoxication in the moment, kill themselves.

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