Crimo’s intent to terrorize is self-evident: After murdering seven people and wounding 30 others from a rooftop in Highland Park, authorities say, he started to drive to Madison, Wisconsin, to attack that city’s July 4 celebration, but called it off because he had not done any reconnaissance there. He had a second rifle with about 60 rounds still in the car when he was arrested.
He was able to obtain the weapon he used, a Smith & Wesson M&P15 semi-automatic rifle, despite having been the subject of a police intervention at his home in September 2019 after a family member reported that he had said he was going to kill everyone inside the home. Highland Park Police confiscated a collection of 16 knives, a dagger, and a sword, and submitted a "Clear and Present Danger" report about the visit to the Illinois State Police, the agency said.
"Additionally and importantly, the father claimed the knives were his and they were being stored in the individual's closet for safekeeping. Based upon that information, the Highland Park Police returned the knives to the father later that afternoon," state police explained.
A spokesperson said state police looked at whether Crimo had a firearm owner's identification (FOID) card that should have been revoked, but he did not. However, four months later, in December 2019, Crimo applied for a FOID card that was sponsored by his father, and state police found “there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the FOID application.”
So between June 2020 and September 2021, Crimo passed four background checks while purchasing firearms. These included both rifles in his possession and three handguns.
All during this time, Crimo was diving deeper into far-right internet subcultures. Police said that his internet history showed he had researched mass killings and had downloaded multiple photos depicting violent acts, including a beheading. This kind of content is typical of online spaces at sites such as 4chan devoted to “goreposting,” and Crimo appears to have been active in one large so-called “gore forum.”
Online sleuths later found indicators that he had become enmeshed in right-wing causes. He posted a photo of himself wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the image of Pepe the Frog, the alt-right mascot. A review of photos from Trump rallies showed that he had turned up at some of them in Highland Park, dressed as the “Where’s Waldo?” character and wearing an ironic smile.
A person who claimed to have known Crimo said that he was neither right-wing or left-wing, but “coopted aesthetics from left and right,” but mostly was “an isolated stoner who lost touch with reality,” and was not a “MAGA supersoldier.” Another local resident said that Crimo was a “known agitator" who "joined a group of pro-Trump and militia supporters in the summer of 2020 to intimidate residents.”
A local Jewish community reported that Crimo had shown up wearing a yarmulke at their Chabad synagogue during Passover services, but encountered security who questioned him and turned him away after he acted suspiciously.
Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering told the Today Show that she knew Crimo as a Cub Scout from when she served as a group leader. “He was just a little boy,” Rotering said. “It’s one of those things where you step back and you say, 'What happened? How did somebody become this angry, this hateful?’”
At least a partial explanation can be found in his online output, particularly the videos he posted of himself under his nom de plume, Awake the Rapper. The videos he produced in the past few years were increasingly filled with violent imagery: animated panels of himself committing a mass shooting, and then dying in a mass confrontation with police; drawings of bullets hitting a torso; and outtakes from first-person shooter video games in which the player is firing at people from a rooftop. One of the crudely animated videos features one of his raps with the refrain: "Living the dream, nothing's real. I just want to scream 'fuck this world.'"
The videos also feature certain numbers with which he appeared obsessed, as well as the regular appearance of the angular Bowen knot that is the symbol of the Finnish neofascist group Suomen Sisu, though there is no other indication of affinity with the group or its ideology.
These videos—as well as the online chat forums where he is known to have participated, such as “Documenting Reality,” a forum that specializes in “goreposting” that features photos and videos of people being killed in a variety of fashions. Moreover, these forums are noted for hosting a particular style of posts, memes, and videos known as “schizoposting” and “schizowave,” in which participants affect an embrace of mental illness as a natural outcome of modern society, leading some to suggest that the violence they exhort is caused by these forces.
“It's nihilism. It's depression. It's extremely digital culture,” researcher Emmi Conley told Ryan Broderick. “[But] the aesthetic, not the ideology, is the thing that ties the violent actors together.”
“I first heard this term [schizoposting] used I think around 2019 or 2020 but over the past year or so have seen it—both the word and the aesthetic/subculture—used much more often,” researcher Carolyn Orr Bueno of the University of Maryland told Daily Kos. “The best way I can describe is, a type of shitposting that sort of ironically riffs on the idea of going crazy because of what you’re seeing/reading online.
“Some of it is violent, but a lot of it isn’t. Most of it is nihilistic, basically edgelord/memelord style content. Where does edgelord end and schizopilled begin? That’s a great question and I’m not sure there’s an answer. That’s kind of the point. It’s supposed to be confusing and weird and fluid/shapeless enough that it’s impossible to draw a line or put it in a box or apply a label. It’s online/chan culture mixed with mental illness mixed with nihilism/fatalism, with bits of incel culture/blackpilling/trad cath/vaporwave/fashwave depending on the day and person.”
Independent extremism researcher Sarah Hightower, who specializes in violent cults, told Daily Kos that the “schizoposting” subculture manifests how nihilism can become its own ideology. And for many of the subculture’s inhabitants, the implicit embrace of mental illness is often a kind of affectation predicated on stereotypes about schizophrenia.
She pointed to one of Crimo’s videos in which he reads an extended soliloquy calling himself “like a sleepwalker, unable to stop and think,” but that “my actions will be valiant,” all delivered in an odd monotone. “I know what I have to do. I know what’s in it, not only for me, but for everyone else,” adding: “I need to leave now. I need to just do it. It is my destiny. Everything has led up to this. Nothing can stop me, not even myself.” He concludes: “It is what I have been waiting for in the back of my head, ready to be awakened, to what I was sent here to do.”
“It almost sounds like he’s putting on this affectation, like he sounds like what someone with schizophrenia might sound like: very muted, you’ve got the word salad, and the sound—very muted, very monotone,” Hightower said. “He’s adopting schizophrenia as an aesthetic. And right now, we don’t know if he’s actually sick.”
Schizoposting, Orr Bueno said, “does cross over into some more recognizable extremist subcultures/movements, like accelerationism. I see fatalism and nihilism as the common ground there. But on its own, I don’t even know that schizoposting is tied to an ideology as much as it’s just defined by its incoherence. But any time you have people who exist in a space like that, all encouraging each other and feeding off each other, you also have a space that extremists can (and do) exploit for purposes of radicalization, recruitment, and so on.”
This is what Hightower sees as well: A subculture ripe for recruitment and radicalization by far-right extremist elements that have long operated in this zone of the online world, particularly accelerationists whose ethos is built around the destruction of modern society.
“Four or five years ago, when I first started trying to point out certain extremist networks going into various online communities with the sole intention of getting all sorts of people to commit both ideological and not explicitly ideological acts of violence, few understood and agreed,” Hightower recently tweeted.
She puts it in blunt terms: "They're trying to get Columbiners and the like to pop the fuck off because any act of mass violence is a net win for these collapse cult assholes."
But antisemitism and neofascist ideas are part of the bedrock of these subcultures. As Hightower notes, one of its most recurring memes in this subculture involves the belief in Hyperborea as a mythical place populated with superior Aryan beings descended from aliens, a product of the esoteric Nazi teachings of Chilean author Miguel Serrano.
“It’s almost like an addiction,” said Hightower. “It’s like, oh this concept, you like this concept, you think it’s cool, you think it’s funny, and you become immersed in it. And you just want to keep going, whether it’s like the Pepe entry-level bullshit, or it’s like extreme gore—watching videos of people dying or being murdered.”
She noted that Crimo’s most recent musical output was a song released a month ago titled, “I Am The Storm,” which he promoted online with a “catboy” avatar wielding a semiautomatic rifle. “Catboys” are a popular neo-Nazi motif/meme.
So the lack of a typical political frame in Crimo’s terrorism, as Alex Newhouse of Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism explained on Twitter, doesn’t doesn’t mean his act was apolitical nonideological.
“I’m suggesting that we’ve moved into a phase where the memified post-ideological reality destruction of these shooters IS BUILT ON TOP OF a baseline of immense anti-Semitism and racism,” he wrote.
“The Highland Park attack did not explicitly have a political agenda. But that does not mean the events had no political content,” Brian Hughes of American University and cofounder of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) explained. “The subcultures where the shooter spent time are cultivated by certain extremist movements for the very purpose of provoking this kind of violence.
“The nihilistic desire to destroy society, and the overwhelming whiteness and exclusive maleness of these events, reveals deep political implications even beyond that. Violence can have not only explicit political content, but/or implicit political context.”
One of the features of accelerationism is that its targets are broad and often depend on the personal obsessions of the individuals involved: the Christchurch killer was focused on his hatred of Muslims, the Pittsburgh killer fetishized Jewish “globalists,” the El Paso killer wanted to kill Hispanic “invaders,” and the Buffalo killer considered Black people to be target-worthy “replacers.” But its broader ethos—the desire not just to see the world burn, but to facilitate it—encourages this kind of lethal violence as part of a larger far-right project to attack and destroy any kind of pluralistic and multiethnic society.
As Hughes points out, the same dynamic is at work with so-called “lone wolves,” which is a term frequently used to dismiss these mass murders as “isolated incidents.” He writes, “Highly online extremists are neither alone nor formally part of an extremist terror network. They operate as prostheses of a cyborg system with strong antisocial components.”
‘I think it’s basically worthless to try to understand someone like him in terms of where they exist on a left/right or pro/anti Trump spectrum, because he was basically spinning on an entirely different axis than most of us — different information space, different norms and worldview, a totally different way of conceptualizing the line between the digital world and the ‘real’ world,” explained Orr Bueno.
“When I see someone like him wearing a Trump shirt or going to a Trump rally, I generally assume it’s being done in an ironic way or a mocking way, not actually to show support for Trump. My guess is that his political views, to the extent he had them, were largely incoherent and would include ideas/beliefs that are not consistent with one party or one style of governance.”
Hightower is concerned that these kinds of subcultures are going to grow in reach as well as become increasingly extreme and violent, in part because their complexity isn’t easily explained in mainstream media.
“I’m worried, and I’m not the only one who is worried,” she said. “A lot of people don’t like the fact that we’re using their terms for their bullshit, like schizowave, schizopilled, schizoposting. They’re taking their understanding of the stereotypes of the mental illness and turning it into an aesthetic. But I’m also worried that there’s going to be a kind moral panic backlash.”
Orr agreed: “The thing that I’m not sure we’re (collectively) really grappling with yet is that although all of these things are clearly outside of the norms of ‘normie’ society, they don’t necessarily distinguish him from a whole lot of other young guys who exist in those same spaces and engage with the same content.
“I think we all naturally want to find The Thing that made him do it, or The Thing that should’ve been a red flag, or any other Thing that we can hold onto and say ‘here is the problem!’ because if we can ID the problem, we can ostensibly find a solution, too. But in his case, and others like him, I kind of think of it like a buffet where no two people are going to share the exact same combinations of foods (beliefs/subcultures) and it’s not really clear which of the things on their plate was The Thing that gave them a heart attack (pushed them toward violence) or if maybe they had some predisposition to it and the ‘food’ just triggered it.”
One of the universal traits of all domestic terrorists, and particularly accelerationists, is their purpose: to destroy public confidence in the ability of the government to keep people safe—to build a perception of perpetual threat from actors like themselves. Far-right extremists believe this will lead the public to eventually discard liberal democracy as viable and turn to the kind of authoritarian rule they envision for their security.
As we have learned with Crimo, they don’t even need to believe in their ideologies to act. They only need to embrace an easily manipulated aesthetic that’s congruent with that ideology. Which means that the threat facing such vulnerable communities as Jewish people, women, and other preferred targets has expanded and deepened.