Thoughts on a Death
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The GULAG Archipelago
I need to write a few words about Christopher Dorner.
Following his story in February 2013, I was in turns terrified and saddened by what seemed to be a physical manifestation of some Hollywood scenario: a well-trained, heavily-armed man on a Pyrrhic mission of vengeance, apparently undetectable by police and delighted to use their own tactics against them. And then, when he was ultimately cornered and killed so squalidly, all of his words were revealed to be the pure hubris they had truly been.
As the story unfolded, I began to read Dorner’s “manifesto”, invariably described by the BBC as “rambling” and “profanity-laced”. Reading his own words, it became apparent that the few reporters who had actually read the full document had not taken the time to analyze it effectively—they had simply grabbed enough adjectives for a facile description and moved on.
Yes, it is lengthy: it stands at 11,337 words, and ends mid-sentence. The prose style lapses into bursts of internet trash talk: caps lock, multiple exclamation points and inconsistent spelling, with self-indulgent discursions about impending acts of violence. But beneath this lies a clear and distinct structure. Dorner knew what he was writing about, and his words had a purpose. Reading his essay, it is possible to distinguish that it no more “rambles” than does a final-year high school essay or a revolutionary epistle. It seems discursive only because it is four related documents strung together:
1) Defense of Dorner’s position
2) Declaration of war against the LAPD
3) Revolutionary appeal
4) Suicide note
This was no madman going off to kill people arbitrarily to prove a point. Dorner was a man at the end of his rope with a clear, defined grievance that he felt had not been adequately addressed, and he targeted his anger—or so he thought—at the people who he believed to have wronged him. In reading his essay, it becomes apparent that, had anyone understood his thought processes, the entire outcome was perfectly preventable. Had anybody taken the time to understand this man’s psychology, nobody would have died.
Defence of His Position
Dorner opens with a preamble and statement of purpose, then promptly lays out his argument: Accused of falsifying a charge of excessive use of force by a superior officer, members of his review board were biased in favour of the officer. Dorner cites specific instances of the board members’ own use of excessive force, points to several instances of conflation of facts in the favor of the officer he accused, and indicates sources that could be investigated to verify his claims.
Within this, Dorner also mounts a character defence against charges of racial discrimination, outlining his personal history of standing against racism. However, it is here that he slips, and actually reveals the psychological flaw that led him to murder.
Declaration of War
Having outlined his case, Dorner states his frustration with his unsuccessful appeal process, contrasts his strength with the apparent weakness of his adversaries, then outlines the action he will take in response. He names his enemies, defines his tactics, and declares conditions for cessation of hostilities. It is, in short, a declaration of war.
Dorner then outlines his broader justification for war against the LAPD, painting it as a righteous cause against a system of which he is but one of many victims. He works to intimidate his potential adversaries, appeals for neutrality of the general populace, and closes with an open call to action on a handful of issues. It’s your standard revolutionary appeal, straight out of “Do You Hear the People Sing.” He ends by lending his support to the Assault Weapons Ban, using his own actions as an object lesson in its necessity, then goes on to recommend general changes in US politics, mainly appealing for amelioration of the negative attitude of modern political discourse.
Dorner suddenly digresses into a case of misrepresentation by a school principal. While this may seem arbitrary at first glance, he is laying down the foundation for his lifelong sense of victimhood, which leads directly to his impending suicide. He describes his depression, sends messages of hope and apology to his friends, offers praise to those who inspired him, takes a few parting shots at those who frustrated him, and ends halfway through a word.
Dorner in Word vs. Dorner in Action
That is his essay. Now it must be considered in light of what he actually did.
Dorner’s actions did not live up to his words. First and foremost: he listed his enemies very specifically, yet struck none of them. He declared open war on the LAPD and their families, yet in the opening moment when he had total freedom of action, he chose to strike the family of the man who defended him rather than a single person who had actually done him direct harm. How would killing the daughter and future son-in-law of a retired captain have any effect on the policies Dorner said he hoped to change? He only took two lives to punish a man who had failed him, thinking of the people he killed not as humans who felt and suffered as he did, but as tools in the achievement of his goal.
In his first act, Dorner was a traitor to his own cause: for what would the headlines read except that he had killed the child of the man who had defended him? What effect would this have? If your family might be in danger when Dorner is dissatisfied with your services, why should anyone else stand beside him?
From the outset, Dorner strangled the spigot of any sympathy he might have hoped to garner. He was not out for justice. He was out for vengeance. While they painted a picture of a man in legitimate pain, his 11,337 words were ultimately just a desperate attempt to justify to himself what he had done.
“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.”
–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The GULAG Archipelago
“You have awoken a sleeping giant,” Dorner wrote. “I am here to change and make policy.”
It is in his justifications that Dorner gets preposterously grandiose, attempting to build himself up into a revolutionary to justify the horror of his actions. Here the word “ramble” does indeed apply, a super-villain monologue that amounts to little more than variants on “What I’m going to do to you when I have the power to do what I want.” It’s a teenaged kid railing at his parents, except this teenaged kid was a 270-pound navy reservist strapped with automatic weapons.
Dorner tried to make himself into Maximilien de Robespierre, intent on washing everything away and starting new and just, regardless of the blood spilt to bring about novelty and justice. But Chirstopher Dorner was not even a Robespierre—he wasn’t the head of a political party or even a member of some investigative action group. He was a lonely man with a small arsenal of weapons, with no support from anyone anywhere. And here is a key point—for had he had any support, Dorner might not have done what he did.
He could have had it. Had he taken his essay and allegations public, taken the time to devote to their dissemination and stood behind his claims unyieldingly, he might have become what he sought to be in his 11,337-word after-the-fact justification. Rather than firing hundreds of rounds at police from the cabin in which he’d holed up, had he turned himself in he might still have made his case during his trial and from his prison cell, though the taint of murder would ultimately undercut his arguments.
Even had he given himself up unarmed and been shot nonetheless—and there’s no guarantee he wouldn’t have been—he might at least have become a martyr to his cause. Christopher Dorner chose quick action and boiling rage over the slow, simmering determination required to effect real change. Because he was never interested in change for everyone. He just wanted change for himself.
Dorner’s problem was a lifelong disconnect in his sense of proportionality. Throughout his attempted character defence, he illustrated a history of employing violence to resolve issues of personal insult. Not only did he consider choking a fellow officer for a racial remark to be justified, he suggests that killing the officer would have been a preferable outcome. When he hit another child in school for using denigrating racial remarks, Dorner writes,
“The principal swatted Jim for using a derogatory word toward me. He then for some unknown reason swatted me for striking Jim in response to him calling me a n*****.”
This is the key. Dorner did not disagree with the reason for his own punishment—he stated that he was punished “for some unknown reason.” He literally did not understand how violence for a just cause could be reprehensible. And the more I read, the more it was clear that in Dorner’s mind, there was one constant rule:
sense of personal injury = violence
violence to redress personal injury = unquestionable good
Reading, I felt a strange sense that I wished Christopher Dorner had sent me his essay to edit before posting it. It seemed that nobody had ever required him to justify this thought process. He had never been forced to face the possibility that, while his feelings of hurt might be justified, his reactions were disproportionate.
Dorner was a sensitive, and he lashed out in proportion to the pain he felt—pain that was amplified inside of him. Nobody ever helped him understand that, whatever he felt, his pain did not justify his response. Then, dealing with his years-long struggle with the LAPD, he put his ideas of victimization together so definitively that he trapped himself in an unbreakable chain of action: “If I am slighted, I must react with violence. I have been slighted by the LAPD; I must react with violence. I have been slighted to such an extent that my life has been obviated. As my feelings are very strong, the obviation I feel is very great; thus, the obviation of my one life means that I must react with violence that obviates many lives.”
Whatever the validity of his grievance, when it became apparent to him that there was no peaceful resolution possible, his reaction was predetermined to be excessive and violent.
Possibility of Change
“The only thing that changes policy and garners attention is death.”
I worry that Dorner may be right when he writes this. The last decade has seen some of the largest public gatherings and protests in history, yet their effect had been reduced to drops of water in the ocean as information becomes diluted. It seems easier and easier to set aside the wishes of portions of a national populace as the desires of an “extreme fringe” on some side of a political spectrum. It is easier and easier to tune out messages we don’t want to hear.
This is directly tied to the question of how the individual is defended from the system when the system requires the destruction of the individual to save itself. If Dorner’s allegations are true, and he had indeed taken every step available to him within the system to protect himself, what was his next course of action?
Another man, speaking at the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress in March 1962, said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent change inevitable.”
One man’s terrorist is another’s revolutionary. Often the only difference is the success with which violence is carried out. Terrorists lose; revolutionaries win. So Dorner painted himself as a revolutionary to justify his actions.
Was he right to act in violence? Of course not. But when all peaceful processes seem futile, what remains?
And this is where the true argument lies: the argument for imagination. Because the key word here is “seem”. For it is very seldom that “all” peaceful processes have been exhausted—only all the processes that a particular individual can conceive.
The system itself should have safeguards for the individual. But when these do not exist, it is necessary for the individual to step outside the system. We all have our own ways of stepping outside the system. Throughout his life, Dorner’s method of stepping out was violence. He needed to learn a different way. He already had it. But he did not trust it.
Thus there exists the perpetual, inescapable need for the alternative—the other systems of information, the other means of defence. When a closed system converges to destroy an individual, the system itself can be forced to relent through the convergence of a society upon that system. Only broad awareness can achieve this. Broad awareness is possible through art and through the media. And today everyone has immediate access to both.
Solzhenitsyn said of artists and writers, “They can perform a miracle: they can overcome man's detrimental peculiarity of learning only from personal experience so that the experience of other people passes him by in vain. From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on Earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all its burdens, its colours, its sap of life; it recreates in the flesh an unknown experience and allows us to possess it as our own.”
If Dorner could have been convinced, before this all began, that he had other courses available to him, this could have been prevented. If someone had recognized the consistency with which he reached for violence to resolve feelings of hurt, he could have been put under observation and given proper counseling when it became apparent that his appeals would fail. This was ultimately someone who needed to feel that someone was listening, and needed a friend to convince him that the way he reacted to his pain was wrong.
Perhaps that sounds simplistic. But more than anything, this story made me sad because none of it needed to happen. Dorner had a voice. He just didn’t have confidence that anyone would listen.
Though We All Feel Differently At the Time