On Monday morning, Brian Clyde, a 22-year-old who served two years in the Army, stalked outside of the Earl Cabell Federal Building in a black mask and body armor, a long knife, and a semiautomatic rifle with an array of high-capacity magazines. After firing shots at the facade of the building, Clyde was killed by federal agents. No one else was hurt.
Clyde’s social media presence was similar to that of a number of mass shooters. He shared memes that contained references to “incels,” a subculture of men who declare themselves “involuntarily celibate” and who have proven themselves capable of mass violence in places like Isla Vista, California, Toronto, and Parkland, Florida. He referenced Alex Jones and “Hollywood pedophiles,” attacked Hillary Clinton, and was comfortable with swastikas and confederate flags. A week before he went to the federal courthouse, he posted a video declaring “the storm is coming,” a phrase popular among the QAnon conspiracy theorists. He referenced the sort of memes that were popular on sites like 4chan, where users employ nihilistic humor and obscure references—a body pillow featuring anime characters, for example, is a reference that “normies” who live outside of the subculture are unlikely to pick up.
In other words, Clyde was immersed in the same sort of radicalized online culture as a lot of other mass shooters. The question is how he got there.
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Normally in situations like this, we refrain from talking much about the shooter. Doing so, research suggests, can inspire copycats who imagine seeing their own names make headlines for mass murder. It feels disrespectful to the victims of the gunman to expend too much empathy on their attacker. Who, in the end, gets to be “a nice kid from a great family” in these situations?
But Clyde’s situation is different. He didn’t shoot anyone else, and there’s no glory in emulating someone who failed in their objective, if Clyde did indeed go to the courthouse looking to kill. Because the only person who died at the courthouse on Monday was Clyde, we can spare a moment to consider how the online swamps he swam in may have lead to his death.
There’s no clear trail when it comes to Clyde. Unlike a number of shooters, he didn’t pen a lengthy manifesto before he left home for the final time. If he posted on the anonymous 4chan message boards—which, based on the memes he enjoyed, seems possible—no one has yet connected the activity there to his real-world identity. But we do know, in a broad sense, how the culture that Clyde identified with radicalizes young, mostly white, men into storming a public space with a weapon.
The online culture that Clyde found himself posting memes from is constructed to appeal to people who feel isolated, alienated, and depressed. The incel subculture is built specifically around the idea that some men are too undesirable to fit with society, and it encourages men who identify with the group to take their frustration out on women. The Isla Vista shooter, who described himself as a “supreme gentleman” in videos before his attack, is a meme among the group, referenced with the same are-they-serious tone by both trolls at home and people who are about to commit mass murder. None of it, the incel doctrine says, is worth taking seriously. Instead, incels urge one another to get a “high score” with the veneer of irony that says that nothing matters—not their own lives, not the lives of others, not even actually going through with an attack. It’s not the dark seduction of someone being urged to commit violence in the name of a cause so much as it’s the constant one-upping of a dare, where men who were drawn to the community out of a sense of worthlessness challenge each other to prove otherwise, never really expecting that they will.
Trolling online is as old as the internet. Intentionally provoking people is nothing new, but the version we see today exists, in large part, to spread radical messages behind a veer of sarcasm. A person can troll by posting racist memes, anti-feminist propaganda, hate speech, or calls for violence, all with a practiced insincerity that says “I don’t mean it,” even if the poster doesn’t not mean it, either. That ironic grey space is where the memes that Clyde posted online live. The Christchurch shooter from March was part of that world; the screed from the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina shooter drew heavily from it. And, increasingly, young men like Clyde are courted by members of that culture for recruitment.
In May, an anonymous author published a story in The Washingtonian called “What Happened After My 13-Year-Old Son Joined the Alt-Right.” In the piece, the author details how her son was recruited: A zero-tolerance policy at his school led to him being pulled out of school and losing his friends for what she characterizes as a misunderstanding of an inside joke. He spent more time online, interacting with people on 4chan and Reddit who insisted that what happened to him was part of a pattern of women lying, governments oppressing people like him, and a wider world of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic conspiracies. When left to research these claims online, he was guided by Google’s algorithms to arguments that confirmed what he had been told.
In addition to active recruitment, that algorithmic radicalization happens frequently. It doesn’t take too many “up next” jumps to be pushed from watching video game walkthroughs on YouTube to consuming content declaring that feminists want to destroy families. Earlier this month, the New York Times chronicled the role YouTube plays in steering young men toward content of that nature, which has a higher rate of retention among viewers than less incendiary videos. The more you watch, the more YouTube recommends, creating an information bubble that further steers viewers toward online communities full of talk about “Chads” and “Stacys,” anti-Semitism, and white nationalism.
Brian Clyde’s family doesn’t know how he ended up radicalized, masked, and armed, firing shots at a federal courthouse before his death. We do know that in 2016, Clyde’s half-brother called the FBI to warn that Clyde was “suicidal and had a fascination with guns.” In the lead-up to the shooting, Clyde posted incel memes about a “Chad rampage” and a “virgin shooting,” but despite his mental health history and the infatuation with toxic online culture, the family says they didn’t see it coming. In a statement released shortly after the shooting, they said, “We don’t understand any more than anyone else why he chose to do what he did, but we are very thankful that there was no other loss of life.” Later, his father told the Dallas Morning News that he returned to the site of the 2016 ambush that killed several police officers with the intention of committing “suicide by cop.” He believed that it was never his son’s intention to kill anyone. “My son was a very good shot,” he told the paper. “He didn’t have an intention to shoot anybody.”
Perhaps this is a grieving father just trying to make sense of an unspeakable tragedy. He may have gone out with the intention of being killed by dressing as a killer; he may have gone with the intention of hurting people before finding that, in the moment, he couldn’t bring himself to do it; he may have just missed his shots. He’s dead, and we’ll never know. But the link between the online world he was drawn to and the scenario in which he died is a clear one, and since there was only one body on the ground at the courthouse, it’s worth talking about how people who get sucked into a hateful vortex that tells them that their lives are only valuable if they go out bringing death are victims of a nihilistic online culture, too.