February 11, 2013

Redemptive Violence and the Los Angeles Manhunt

Renegade former Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Christopher
Dorner believes
himself wronged
by his superiors. In his manifesto, he repeatedly
emphasizes that he embodies the honor and discipline of the paramilitary
institutions he served and "died long ago" as a result of the
betrayals he allegedly suffered. His solution: kill as many police officers and
their relatives as possible. He threatens to eliminate police officers and
everyone they hold dear, boasting of his military aptitude: "[t]he
Violence (sic) of action will be HIGH. I am the reason TAC alert was
established. I will bring unconventional and asymmetrical warfare to those in
LAPD uniform whether on or off duty.” Dorner claims he will only stop killing
when the police returns to him the validation he once possessed as an police officer. 

Dorner is currently the subject of a massive manhunt conducted by California law enforcement with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The UAV-phobic corners of the Internet buzz with thinly sourced rumors that the 21st century's most fearsome and dangerous weapon, the (unarmed surveillance) drone, may be unleashed. Potential sightings of the fugitive prompt evacuations. Dorner still remains at large, wanted for the ambush murder of a police officer, a basketball teacher, and her fiance. The slain teacher's former police officer father claims Dorner personally called to inform him that "he should have done a better job protecting his daughter." If true, this would resonate with Dorner's chilling threat to wipe out his enemies' families:

Suppressing the truth will leave to deadly consequences for you and your
family. There will be an element of surprise where you work, live, eat,
and sleep. I will utilize ISR at your home, workplace, and all locations
in between. I will utilize OSINT to discover your residences, spouses
workplaces, and children’s schools. IMINT to coordinate and plan attacks
on your fixed locations. Its amazing whats on NIPR. HUMINT will be
utilized to collect personal schedules of targets. I never had the
opportunity to have a family of my own, I’m terminating yours. Quan,
Anderson, Evans, and BOR members Look your wives/husbands and surviving
children directly in the face and tell them the truth as to why your
children are dead.

If Dorner's actions were not so horribly real, they would be the stuff of
bad direct-to-video action cinema. The honorable soldier/law enforcement officer pushed by corruption,
turpitude, and injustice to wage a one-man war against authority? Check. Ditto to
the cliche of the "rogue" operative that turns his deadly skills
against the government. Hyperbolic promises
of an orgy of bloodletting that spares neither "combatant" nor family
member? Been there, done that. The spectacle of hundreds of men, machines, and
animals on the trail of one man using his survival skills to elude them is also
perennial. We could name dozens of films that fit this archetype, but the most
recent that comes to mind is Antoine Fuqua's Shooter. In Shooter, Mark
Wahlberg is framed for a crime he didn't commit and uses his Marine Corps training
to rack up a body count that includes both humble henchman and high-ranking politician.

When watching Shooter, the
viewer does not think of the real-life parallel: the DC snipers.
Of course, all of the people Wahlberg guns down are part of The Conspiracy. No
basketball teachers and their loved ones, just the private military operators that Hollywood
loathes enough to use as a stand-in for the Communist Chinese in the 2004
of The Manchurian Candidate.
The setup is identical in both films---the honorable fighting man wronged by a
cabal buried deep within the bowels of respectable society. In Shooter, Mark Wahlberg has no choice but
to fight The Conspiracy with the very weapons he once wielded in the service of
the state. Of course, Hollywood rarely shows the deliberate killing of noncombatants
or even sympathetic combatants by the lone hero.

The only exception to this
general rule is The Matrix, in
which men and women in black leather gun down waves of hapless security guards
unaware of their manipulation by the machines. Yet perhaps The Matrix (a work of science fiction!)
is a more realistic portrayal of the indiscriminate nature of redemptive
violence (and its intellectual justification) than Shooter. Dorner undoubtedly believes that everyone he kills is part of the general web of injustice. There is no typological difference between fellow law enforcement officer, political authority figure, or family relative in his mind. All can be targeted with a grim sense of calculation and premeditation. All must and will pay for the sins of the system.

The idea of redemptive, even purifying violence
has a long pedigree in Western life. At the end of his long journey, Homer's
Ulysses returns to find his home defiled and reacts by concocting a situation
in which he can slaughter those responsible. Shakespeare's Titus first kills
his own sexually assaulted daughter and then tricks his nemesis Tamora into
literally consuming her own children. And as Samuel Goldman notes,
the major revolutionary terrorists and insurgents of the Cold War all stressed
the purifying nature of violence as a means to self-actualization. The vulgar
American derivation of this already ignoble narrative tradition can be found in
the explosion of revenge-driven antiheroes, particularly those that seek to
punish a system that they hold
collectively responsible for their individual plight. There are both pro and
anti-authority versions of this parable--Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry as the penultimate example of
conservative reaction expressed through purifying violence and Alan Moore's V for Vendetta as a more explicitly
anarchistic perspective. These tales all command wide audiences and fanbases.

This should not be construed as a claim that there is a causal relationship between cultural tropes and Dorner's violence. Rather, we can deploy those tropes as a vehicle for understanding the violent aesthetics inherent in Dorner's perception of himself and how they really are not of his own making. Dorner is an actor on an already well-trodden stage, acting out a script he
likely believes that he alone has authored. He may be violent and dangerous, but he is also little more than a
copy of a copy. He plays to the well-established tropes of social
that his supporters
also unconsciously draw from while
cheering his massacres. The repetoire is tired and well-worn, however genuine or unique he may believe himself to be.

Dorner sees himself as a man who played by the rules and was nonetheless driven to violence, instead of an indiscriminate murderer whose writings drip with bigotry and violent contempt towards his fellow officers and their families. Assuming Dorner did call Randy Quan to insult him over Quan's supposed failure to prevent his daughter's murder, it would complete the cognitive dissonance between the social bandit/conspiracy anti-hero Dorner (and his local followers) believes himself to be and the real man who would deliberately kill an unarmed schoolteacher in order to hurt her father.

Whether or not Dorner dies in a hail of bullets or escapes the California law enforcement community and the Joint Terrorism Task Force, he may very well live on in some quarters of society with the same mixture of reverence and fascination that fellow murderer Jesse James continues to evoke. The only question is how many more people Dorner will kill in his murderous quest for self-realization before he exits the stage.