The Santa Barbara Killings: When Envy Becomes the Deadliest Sin

The writings and videos of mass murderer Eliot Rodger reveal a young man eaten up by envy and demonstrate the reality of evil.

Contrary to the claims of many commentators, Elliot Rodger was not insane. He was neither delusional, nor paranoid, nor schizophrenic, nor were his beliefs and feelings so detached from those of normal people that his behavior becomes incomprehensible. If one reads the 141-page “Manifesto” he left behind and watches the videos he uploaded on YouTube, his decision to kill six people and himself in Santa Barbara last May becomes fully comprehensible even to the untutored layman. Elliot Rodger was evil.

Rodger was a young man whose life was a mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages. A spoiled and pampered rich kid with above-average intelligence and generally good physical health, he suffered from a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome that made it difficult for him to form friendships. In his later teenage years, he was driven by a vicious, spiteful, all-consuming envy that was directed at young people richer, more popular, more attractive, physically more imposing, and above all more romantically successful with women than he was.

This envy eventually drove him to the depths of moral depravity and a murderous rampage. Like Shakespeare’s Iago, he shows why envy is known as a deadly sin.

Far from being crazy, Elliot Rodger was simply human—“all too human,” as Nietzsche would say. What he needed was not a psychiatrist—he had been seeing therapists and psychiatrists for much of his life—but a preacher or a priest who could explain to him the self-destructive vice lurking within his soul, the importance of gratitude, the necessity of repentance, the evil of covetous envy, and most crucial of all, the importance of charity, humility, loving kindness, and trust in a higher power. What he seems to have gotten instead was reinforcement of his infantile narcissism and his sense of privileged entitlement.

Covetous Envy: Its Definition and Scope

In a previous article here at Public Discourse, I spoke of the covetous envy that seemed to motivate many of those in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The definition of covetous envy I used was taken from the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics:

Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him. . . . There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness. He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. . . . Envy is in itself a painful emotion, although it is associated with pleasure when misfortune is seen to befall the object of it.

Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage brings to light both the extreme destructiveness of covetous envy and the fact that material prosperity is only one of many human goods that the envious soul can set its sights upon.

For a young college student, Rodger was hardly deprived of desirable material things. He had a new BMW sports car, nice clothes, $300 Gucci sunglasses, college tuition fully paid for by his parents, and thousands of dollars in spending money. But his envious heart easily found other outlets, and he never learned either the importance of human gratitude or the self-destructive effects that runaway envy inevitably entails. Malicious envy directs its gaze upon all sorts of desired goods, not just material things: superior musical or athletic ability; a ready wit; physical beauty; healthy children; a prestigious job; a high IQ; or, as in Elliot Rodger’s case, romantic success with pretty women.

Rodger’s Envy-Driven Hatred and Rage

Roger’s manifesto, titled “My Twisted World—The Story of Elliot Rodger,” is profoundly disturbing. In a lifetime of reading, I have never come across a more candid and chilling account of the willful descent of a human soul into the depths of depravity and unrepentant evil. It’s enough to make even the most committed atheist or dogmatic materialist begin to wonder whether Satanic powers really are loose in the world. There may not be a God, some will reason, but surely there must be a Devil to account for such diabolical evil.

A warning to those proceeding further: this is extreme wickedness unsettling even to read.

Rodger explains early in his narrative that he has an unusually envious, jealous nature. He describes this in a matter-of-fact tone, without the slightest indication that there may be something morally wrong with jealousy or envy, or that there might be vicious kinds of human dispositions that decent people should struggle to control.

By nature I am a very jealous person and at the age of nine my jealous nature sprung [sic] to the surface. During play dates [a friend] would have other friends over as well, and I would feel very jealous and upset when he paid more attention to them. . . . I would find a quiet corner and start crying. . . . Jealousy and envy . . . those are two feelings that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain. The feelings of jealousy I felt at nine-years-old were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to how I would feel once I hit puberty and have to watch girls choosing other boys over me.

On one of my very last days as a teenager, as I was sitting at my usual place at the food court outside Domino’s, I saw a sight that shattered my heart to pieces. A tall, blonde, jock-type guy walked into one of the restaurants, and at his side was one of the sexiest girls I had ever seen. She too was tall and blonde. They were both taller than me, and they kissed each other passionately. They made me feel so inferior and worthless and small. I glared at them with intense hatred as I sat by myself in my lonely misery. I could never have a girl like that. The sight burned into my memory, and it caused a scar that will haunt me forever.

From that point on, he was stricken by an envious rage whenever he saw popular kids, happy couples, or attractive young men with attractive girlfriends.

In telling us all this, he expects the reader to sympathize with his plight. He is the victim, he wants us to believe, of a great cosmic injustice that has bestowed on other boys an attractiveness to girls that they do not deserve. In one of his videos, he describes how the sight of a happy couple kissing on a bench ruined an otherwise pleasant visit to the California shore:

In front of me, sitting right there on that bench is a young couple, I presume about my age. I was enjoying such a nice view [of the beach] until they came and sat down and started kissing. . . . This is the reason life isn’t fair! Why does that guy get to have such a beautiful girlfriend while I’m all alone? Why? . . . They’re kissing right now. It’s torture for me to watch. .  . Look at them. He’s in heaven right now sitting on this beautiful beach with his beautiful girlfriend, kissing her, feeling her love, while I’m sitting here all alone because no beautiful girl wants to be my girlfriend. I hate them! I hate them so much. Why does he deserve to get that experience and not me? I bet he goes to the same college as me. Yet he gets to experience his college life with this beautiful blond girlfriend and I have to suffer this miserable loneliness. It’s not fair! Life is not fair!

The above remarks bring out the nature of covetous envy with a candor and in a form that even Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare would be hard pressed to match. The envious soul is consumed with venom and spite against those who have what it covets and against the cosmic injustice that has allowed such a different fortune to occur.

What is most frightening is that Rodger’s manifesto shows no awareness that his feelings might be immoral or contrary to a nobler imperative that calls us to rejoice in the happiness and well-being of others. When combined with his infantile narcissism, his spiteful envy blinded him to the higher possibilities of human empathy. The demon of envy entered his heart and, meeting no opposition, metastasized to consume his entire being.

“Lavish Mansions”: Rodger’s More Conventional Envy

I argued in my previous article that envy is often most intense when a difference in wealth is large but not extreme. Members of the upper middle class, not the poor or lower middle class, are often those most envious of the truly wealthy. This perfectly describes the aspect of Rodger’s venomous envy that was directed at those with more money and wealth.

At one point, he describes a private concert by singer Katy Perry. Wealthy friends had given tickets to the concert to Rodger’s father, a mid-level Hollywood producer. But instead of enjoying the privilege of attending, Rodger was consumed with bitterness over the fact that so many of the concertgoers came from truly affluent families.

I couldn’t help but feel a bitter form of envy at all of the rich kids at the concert. They grew up in lavish mansions, indulged in excessive opulence, and will never have to worry about anything in their pleasurable, hedonistic lives. I would take great pleasure in watching all of those rich families burn alive. Looking at all of them really drilled in my mind the importance of wealth. Wealth is one of the most important defining factors of self-worth and superiority. I hated and envied all of those kids for being born into wealth, while I had to struggle to find a way to claim wealth for myself.

Rodger realized that wealth was a way to attract beautiful women. With his keen intellect, he could have become a successful professional of some kind and brought in a nice income. But his inability to plan for the long run, to set disciplined goals for himself, or to be satisfied with a decent but not spectacular degree of material wealth led him to desperate attempts to win mega-million-dollar lotteries in neighboring states. Needless to say, he wasted his money.

Plotting Revenge against the Happy and Good Looking

Rodger’s envy and frustration produced malevolent fantasies of murder and revenge—fantasies that seem to have filled him with a sense of god-like power and malicious joy. In his fantasies, he was an avenging god, a wrathful Lucifer raining death and destruction upon all who refused him honor and love. These fantasies became particularly dominant in his later teen years.

Ever since my life took a very dark turn at the age of seventeen, I often had fantasies of how malevolently satisfying it would be to punish all of the popular kids and young couples for the crime of having a better life than me. I dreamed of how sweet it would be to torture or kill every single young couple I saw. . . . Then I came upon a name for this. . . . I named it the Day of Retribution. It would be a day in which I exact my ultimate retribution and revenge on all of the hedonistic scum who enjoyed lives of pleasures that they don’t deserve. If I can’t have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer for rejecting me. . . .

The females of the human species have never wanted to mate with me, so how could I possibly consider myself part of humanity? Humanity has never accepted me among them, and now I know why. I am more than human. I am superior to them all. I am Elliot Rodger . . . Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent . . . Divine! I am the closest thing there is to a living god. . . . On the Day of Retribution I will be a powerful god, punishing everyone I deem to be impure and depraved.

Initially, such fantasies were probably not intended as guides to any real action. They were simply ways of imaginatively indulging Rodger’s malicious desires. But as time went on and envy, hatred, spitefulness, and murderous rage gradually consumed him, Rodger began to translate his fantasies into a plan of action. For more than a year, he took steps to provide for his Day of Retribution.

He began by acquiring an arsenal of three semi-automatic handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, spending time at shooting ranges to improve his handgun skills in order to kill as many people as possible. Rodger eventually quit all his college classes and spent all his time plotting mayhem and destruction. He never believed he could get away with mass killings without being stopped by the police, but he wanted to kill as many people as he could.

When I ended my college classes . . . it completely ended all hope I had of living a desirable life in Santa Barbara. I realized that I would be a virgin forever, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don’t fancy me, because their sexual attractions are flawed. . . . I always mused to myself that I would rather die than suffer such an existence, and I knew that if it came to that, I would exact my revenge upon the world in the most catastrophic way possible. At least then, I could die knowing that I fought back against the injustice that has been dealt to me.

I will start the First Phase of my vengeance silently killing as many people as I can around Isla Vista by luring them into my apartment through some form of trickery. . . . I will torture some of the good looking people before I kill them, assuming that the good looking ones had the best sex lives. All of that pleasure they had in life, I will punish by bringing them pain and suffering. I have lived a life of pain and suffering, and it was time to bring that pain to people who actually deserve it.

The Enigma of Evil

Elliot Rodger’s rampage and the distorted thought processes that preceded it remain an enigma. We can think of many factors that might explain how a young man of such considerable talent and privilege could end up the way he did, but they are not likely to be wholly satisfying. Mild Asperger’s syndrome, a narcissistic personality structure, the early trauma of his parents’ divorce, the sex-fame-and-money-obsessed culture of Hollywood and its environs, a rich kid’s sense of entitlement, the non-judgmentalism of the psychotherapeutic culture—all these factors and others may have had something to do with Rodger’s descent into murderous mayhem, but, somehow, they come up short.

“Evil, be thou my good!” proclaims the Miltonic Satan in Paradise Lost, and Elliot Rodger seems to have adopted a similar apothegm. With him, we are left with the mystery of human evil and the diabolical wickedness to which it can lead and for which no explanation is entirely adequate. God alone may understand. And perhaps God alone can be merciful to a young man so wicked and depraved.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.