July 8, 2022 - 7:00am

Before law enforcement released his name to the press, Robert Crimo, III — or his digital persona — was a largely ignored figure on the internet. The 22-year-old was a SoundCloud rapper who went by the name “Awake”, whose music went virtually unnoticed. But since the Highland Park shooting, it has been played for tens of thousands of people all over the nation. His apocalyptic clichés, odd filming locations, and the meaningless symbols he’d chosen to tattoo onto his face were all analysed by amateurs and professionals alike. It was just the sort of attention he’d always craved.

By now, his profiles have been scrubbed, and the makeshift manifesto he sold on Amazon is gone. But Crimo left plenty for interpretation by those that got in before the purge. His songs were about going insane, being killed by police, and taking his life after romantic rejection. One of his videos was shot in an empty classroom. Another was a crudely drawn animation; it ended with stick figures bleeding. 

I’ve been asked repeatedly whether this might be an ‘incel shooting’, and whether the number 17 tattooed on his face carried any significance for incels. Or did the tattoo mean that was he a white supremacist? Highland Park was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, after all, and that symbol by his name vaguely resembled perhaps a Celtic cross or… a Swastika? That said, the way he crouched over his weapon suggested military training. Then again, he committed his attack on the 4th of July, and was later pictured dressed in women’s clothes. Could this be anarchism? Antifa? ISIS? 

These details will never fit, because this attack was motivated by no single ideology. It was a senseless, depraved attempt to watch it all burn. It was a desperate attempt to be seen. Like YouTuber Randy Stair, who killed three people and then himself in Pennsylvania in 2017, Crimo crafted a flamboyant online identity that he used to court recognition, to exorcise his bizarre personal demons, and ultimately to add an additional element of intrigue to his ‘legacy’ by leaving cryptic video clues. According to a friend of his, who spoke out on social media shortly after the attack, Crimo was not at all political, just “a stoner who completely lost touch with reality”, that had co-opted “aesthetics from the left and the right” that he found interesting.

This statement reveals a facet of Crimo’s psychology that is noteworthy and alarming: he found extremist aesthetics to be “interesting”. The look of terrorism has become an edgy style to adopt. We live in a culturally conformist time; outsiders seek out excitement on the fringes. And when someone is so desperate to be notorious, all they have to do is look at the headlines and they’ll quickly find that political violence — from antifa, neo-nazis, or incels — get all the headlines. 

Alek Minassian, one of the most infamous ‘incel killers,’ admired mass murderers from a young age, but ascribed his attack to the “Beta Uprising”, parroting Isla Vista shooter Elliott Rodger. In his sentencing, Justice Anne Molloy stated that he wasn’t motivated by ideology, and had “piggybacked on the incel movement to ratchet up his own notoriety”. It worked. 

More recently, Salvador Ramos, perpetrator of the devastating attack in Uvalde, Texas, was another killer with no apparent motive — just an inspiration. He was enthralled by Luka Magnotta, a Canadian wannabe model and serial killer who uploaded snuff films to YouTube as he went on his murderous spree. Like Magnotta, Ramos filmed himself killing cats and posted the videos online. He had also told people on Yubo, the live streaming app, that he was going to be famous before going on to perpetrate his horrific attack.

There is something deeply broken in a society where young men are using the aesthetics of terrorism just for some online notoriety. We are a long way from repairing it. For as long as we live in a country traumatised by carnage and divided by toxic politics, we must not allow it to destroy us completely.

Naama Kates is a writer, producer, and creator of the “Incel” podcast.