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The Navy Yard Shooter's Mysterious Carvings: "Better off this Way" and "My ELF

Updated on October 2, 2013

Alexis' Phrases Carved on his Weapon Provide Insight on Motive in the Navy Yard Massacre


Aaron Alexis, the Washington Navy Yard shooter, who killed 12 Ship Yard employees and wounded others before police officers killed him in a shootout, carved onto the stock of the shotgun used in the killings the words “BETTER OFF THIS WAY” and MY ELF WEAPON,” according to leading television news reports. Investigators who examined the phrases were at a loss as to the meaning of the phrases. Therefore, they wondered out loud whether the phrase “BETTER OFF THIS WAY” means that Alexis knew he would die in the shooting rampage, and they guessed that the phrase “MY ELF WEAPON” means “extremely low frequency.” Later, however, the FbI updated its guess of the meaning of the later phrase. Based on an electronic note in which Alexis said he was "subjected to an ultra frequency attack," the agency now believes it means "Electromagnetic Low Frequency."

Looking at the phrases in the context of psychology and in light of violent video games may provide additional insight on both phrases.

Insight from Psychology

Alexis' life experiences, as reported in the news, helps one to arrive at the conclusion that the first phrase, "BETTER OFF THIS WAY," may certainly mean that he was suicidal--that he knew he was going to die in the massacre.

Alexis possessed many suicidal symptoms known to psychologist. Some such symptoms are highlighted by Charles Zastrow and Dale Chang in their book The Personal Problem Solver. The symptoms are

  • Depression
  • A marked change change in sleeping habits, moving in the direction of insomnia
  • The feeling of hopelessness about things getting better in the near future
  • The feeling of helplessness over control of the course of life or the current situation
  • Psychosis.

"The basic factors underlying suicidal thoughts center upon feelings of depression and dissatisfaction with life," wrote Clyde M. Narramore in his book, Encyclopedia of Psychological Problems. "The person who considers taking his life is an unhappy individual who sees no purpose or meaning in living. He feels that the only way to escape his continual feelings of worry, despair and depression is to end his life."

Alexis’ life story clearly shows that he possessed the symptoms of suicide. USA Today reported that he was “arrested in 2004 for firing a gun in Seattle” and “arrested again in 2010 for firing a gun in Forth Worth.” The report also said he “had a pattern of misconduct in the Navy,” which lead to “an honorable discharged.” In fact, Mark Potter and Charles Hadlock of NBC News said: “Military officials acknowledged that Alexis had disciplinary issues including absence without permission, insubordination and disorderly conduct.” They also reported that a friend, Kristi Suthamtewkal, told them that “Alexis was so unhappy with his life in America that he was ready to move out of the country, because he was beset by money woes,” “felt slighted as a veteran” and had gotten “tired of dealing with the government.” Instead of leaving the Country, he moved to Virginia, where an IT company that had government contracts in Washington hired him.

The Associated Press reported that, in August, “he called police, in a city in Rhode Island, to complain that voices were harassing him through a wall at his hotel, and he worried that they might harm him.” Furthermore, the Associated Press reported that he “told police officers he had gotten into an argument while boarding a flight in Virginia, and he believed the person he argued with sent three people to follow him. He said he never saw the people but believed they were using a microwave machine to send vibrations into his body so he could not sleep. He said he checked into two hotels previously, one on the Navy base, and could not get away from them.”

Clearly Alexis' history shows that he possessed symptoms of suicidal victims—especially depression, hearing voices in his head, hopelessness and, above all, psychosis. Not being able to find his place in the world and not being able to escape the voices in his head, he perhaps decided that death, for him, was the better way out.

Insights from Violent Video Games

The second set of words carved on Alexis' gun may be more difficult than the first to interpret. “MY ELF WEAPON” could mean a lot of things. Investigators guessed at its meaning, based on other writings. Perhaps a key to better understanding what the words mean can be found in the fact that news reports indicated that he was overly obsessed with violent video games. A quick computer search of “ELF video games” identified a trove of information about “ELF.” The most notable pieces of information are two You Tube videos: “ELF STORY. Part1: Entering the Video Game Realm” and “ELF STORY Pl – Gry Zabijaja.” The videos disclose that the ELF is not pronounced E.L.F. but elf, which suggests fantasy. ELF, or elf, is the name of a bunch of video games. A glance at the two You Tube videos shows an animated character who called himself “a spark” and who finds several weapons with which to fight his way out of a cave-light place but gets killed time and again. Each time he was killed, the player restarted the video and he came back to life, finds another weapon and gets killed again. With his obsession with violent video games, Alexis no doubt had played that game. If that is true, it explains the phrase “My ELF Weapon.”

The mere suggestion, however, that Alexis’ shooting rampage was connected to violent video games provides a spark to reignite the debate about the negative effect of violent video games. Some critics argue that violent video games "desensitize player to real-life violence, teach them "that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict, and "cause them "to confuse fantasy violence with real-life violence," according to Video Games PorCon.org. Others argue that no one has proved that there is a causal link between violent video games and violent behavior, and "violent video games provide a safe outlet for aggressive and angry feelings.

History of the Violent Video Games Debate

The debate can be traced back to 1976 with the release of the game Death Race, according to videogames.org, which traces the history of the debate. The game ceased, it says, after protesters dragged the machine out of arcades and burned them.

In 1993, following the release of the violent video games Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, the public outcry prompted Congress to hold hearings on regulating the sale of video games, but the industry voluntarily established a rating system and Congress backed off.

Following the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, the controversy resurfaced because “the two teenagers were avid players of weapon-based combat games.”

In 2005, the psychological Association “called for the reduction of violence in video games because of possible links between violent video games and aggression.”

On June 27, 2011, the United States Supreme in Brown vs. Entertainment Merchants Association “ruled that the California law banning the sale of violent games to minors violated free speech rights.”

The debate was again reignited within hours of the Virginia Tech shooting on April 16, 2007. But “it was later revealed that the shooter did not play video games.”

On February 18, 2013, CBS News reported that the shooter at the December 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was motivated by violent video games.

If indeed the words carved on Aaron Alexis’ weapon were taken from violent video games with that title, the debated over violent video games will continue.

The truth about the effect of video games on violence, however, may not be found in either extreme but in the middle. It is clear that violent video games may play into some violent acts, but games, in and of themselves, are not the sole cause. Two people may play the same video games. One may come away unmoved toward violence and the other, profoundly moved. It depends, basely, upon the mental health of the person.

Insights from psychology and insight from violent video games clearly show that Aaron Alexis was suicidal and that video games played a role in his shooting spree, but the greatest motivating factor was, no doubt, mental health issues—especially paranoid schizophrenia.

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