Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Race, Rage & Revenge: Forensic Commentary on the Dorner Case

Can racial discrimination create mass murderers?

Christopher Dorner is dead. So are four people he murdered during his week-long rampage. Like many mass killers, Dorner apparently took his own life before being consumed by a fiery conflagration reminiscent of how the standoff in Waco between ATF and David Koresh and his Branch Davidians tragically ended.(See my prior post.) Therefore, this will, as in the cases of other suicidal mass murderers I have previously posted about here, be another post-mortem commentary.

To state the all-too-obvious: Mr. Dorner was a very angry man. Mass murderers are always frustrated and angry about something: work, love life, finances, social status, loss, failure to attain grandiose fantasies, lack of recognition or acceptance, feelings of persecution, rejection, childhood trauma, etc. (See my prior posts.) And there is often some significant grain of truth in their wrath against reality, some comprehensible reason to be furious about their lives. Two things distinguish the Dorner case from most others. One is his having been a former police officer, a "good cop" gone bad, angrily assassinating one-time colleagues and their families. The other is the racial component: Mr. Dorner was an African-American who believed he had been unfairly fired because, in part, of the color of his skin. His ranting allegations of racism within the LAPD are hardly without historical precedent, and, despite the progress rooting out these problems within the department in recent years, certainly should have been taken seriously at the time. Indeed, it is only now, after the terrible fact, that his case is being reopened to review whether Dorner's incendiary claims of cover up and racial discrimination had any merit. But whether race specifically played some part in Mr. Dorner's 2008 dismissal, as he suggests, remains to be seen. And may never be known.

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Whatever the outcome of that new investigation, the truth is that mass shooters like Dorner always harbor some festering grievance against the world, whether related to ethnicity, gender, race, religion, romance, economics, politics or status. And, like Herman Melville's Ahab did with the white whale Moby-Dick, they all heap their ire, resentment, bitterness and discontent onto that which they blame for their bad luck, neglect, suffering, humiliation, loss or mistreatment, be it parents (Adam Lanza murdered his mother before randomly slaughtering school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School), government (former soldier Tim McVeigh"s 1995 bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City was intended to reform governmental injustice), teachers, spouses, bosses, technology (as in the case of the Unabomber), Wall Street, or society at large (as in the case of Charles Manson and other vicious sociopaths). 

What apparently infuriated Christopher Dorner most about losing his position as a police officer was what he perceived to be the destruction of his good "name." In his bitter online "manifesto", recalling the cases of both Ted (the Unabomber) Kaczynski (see my prior post) and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, he recounts his Southern California childhood in almost exclusively caucasian neighborhoods and schools, and mentions painfully encountering racism early on. He further describes the racism he later found rampant during his stint with the LAPD, racism that he believed--along with the unspoken "thin blue line" that bonds police department members in professional camaraderie yet strongly discourages reporting bad behavior in fellow officers--led ultimately to his unfair dismissal from the department after witnessing and formally documenting the alleged use of cruel and excessive force by a senior female training officer during the arrest of a mentally ill man. From most available accounts, Chris Dorner held himself and others to a high moral standard, and was especially sensitive to and aggressively vocal about racial discrimination. Judging from his manifesto, he was deeply disillusioned to discover such hurtful racism still lingering in the Los Angeles Police Department after all these years. Of course, despite having elected and re-elected our first African- American president, to deny that racism still exists in America and likely lingers to some degree in the LAPD would be ludicrous and delusional.

Regarding the issue of racism, rage and mass muder, another case comes quickly to mind: that of Colin Ferguson in New York City. In 1993, Ferguson, a black man born and raised in Jamaica, calmly boarded a Long Island Rail Road car during rush hour commute and started shooting, finally killing five and wounding eighteen. He did not try to commit suicide as do many other mass killers--either out of an embittered sense of despair, rage and hopelessness or in order to cowardly avoid having to face the consequences of their evil deeds. Not all mass killers are acutely suicidal, wanting instead to stick around and bask in the notoriety and infamy relished by their wicked rage for recognition (see my prior post) and enjoy the chaos and suffering they create.

Traditionally, most mass killers single out and target specific victims--spouses, lovers, family members, co-workers, employees--toward whom they seek revenge to repay some perceived or actual insult. Others, like Seung-Hui Cho at Virgina Tech, accused "Batman" shooter James Holmes in Colorado (see my prior post), Anders Breivik in Norway (see my prior posts), for instance, make premeditated, subjectively meaningful choices about where, when and how to commit their crimes, randomly killing those who unluckily happen to be there. For instance, once aboard the train, Ferguson's victims were selected more or less impulsively and haphazardly. Dorner's, on the other hand, were  specifically listed, allegedly staked out, and targeted: He waged skilled guerilla warfare against those individuals he believed had done him wrong during his disciplinary hearings, their families (he executed the daughter of his defense counsel along with her fiancee) as well as former fellow LAPD officers at large. Though he had ample opportunity to kill other individuals not related to law enforcement, he chose not to do so.

So, in this sense, these two horrific crimes, that of Colin Ferguson and Chris Dorner, were  different. However, both men had apparently been at some point deeply wounded and incensed by the injustice of racism: Ferguson, upon arriving in America as a naive young man from his privileged upbringing in Jamaica, and Dorner while growing up in a predominantly white enviroment and purportedly later as a rookie police officer in Los Angeles. Both men were extremely frustrated and angry. Infuriated and enraged. Tormented by their unfair fate. And both allowed their rage to stew for some time. This "stewing" or festering period is typically present in mass murderers, lasting from days to decades, and comprises a key factor leading up to and driving their violent outbursts. It is a tragic example of what I call chronic  "anger mismanagement." (See my prior post.) Finally, both men eventually chose to exact hateful and violent revenge on those they felt had somehow stood in the way of or impeded their progress in life. Colin Ferguson, who was apparently depressed and likely psychotic at the time, deliberately targeted mainly middle-class caucasians on a commuter train, strangers symbolizing for him the elusive "American dream" he never found, and deeming them the cause of his personal frustration, failure and disillusionment. He violently victimized those he viewed as his victimizers. Dorner--also reportedly depressed, embittered but not necessarily psychotic like Colin Ferguson--a former Navy reservist prior to joining the LAPD, directly declared outright war on his fomer brethren he felt had betrayed and destroyed him, and was out for blood and retribution.

But according to Mr. Dorner, his motivation transcended mere revenge. It was driven by a compulsive need to right a wrong and to clear his "name." In his so-called manifesto, he goes on at some length about the meaning and  vital importance of one's "good name," one's professional reputation, and the devastating effects of having what he worked toward all his life sullied and tarnished. Surely this is something that concerns us all. An existential fact of life. For as Dorner rightly wonders, what else do we really possess if not our reputation? Our "good name." And, in the blink of an eye, what William Shakespeare poetically calls the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" can take our hard-earned reputation and good name from us. Despite our best efforts to maintain it. We are all potentially susceptible to such a cataclysmic loss of that which we hold most dear, precious and meaningful in life. And none of us can say with any certainty exactly how we would react to such a profound existential crisis, especially when that devastating blow is seen to be unfair, injust, and, at least partly, the product of racism.

Racism--which is rooted in a fundamental fear and defensive resentment and hostility toward those we project our rejected "shadow" upon, deem different, inferior, the "other"--and the demonic rage, racial animus and outright hatred that accompany it, remain among the foremost social evils Americans still face. Yet, as we see, the crucial question of how an individual--any individual, be they black, white, brown or yellow, Hindu, Muslim, Jew or gentile--deals with such self-evident evils and the frustration, anger and rage they are bound to provoke, is of paramount importance. Colin Ferguson found his few remaining shreds of meaning and purpose in hating white people, whom he saw as prejudicially subverting his economic success in this country, success he may have felt narcissistically entitled to. (We can say much the same thing about the psychology of KKK members.)  It is always easier to blame someone or something other than ourselves for our own problems, frustrations and failures. From Ferguson's paranoid perspective, his victims symbolized the very "devils" he became convinced had been victimizing him all along.

Chris Dorner's righteous indignation about being dismissed by the police  department turned into a violent one-man crusade to "clean up" the residual racism in the LAPD and, perhaps more importantly, to redeem his ruined reputation as a good police officer: "I have exhausted all available means at obtaining my name back. I have attempted all legal court efforts within appeals at the Superior Courts and California Appellate courts. This is my last resort." He had apparently always wanted to be a cop, and it seems his self-esteem and sense of meaning and purpose in life were closely linked to having finally attained his dream. With that dream shattered, Dorner's violent reign of terror became his sole remaining raison d'etre, meaning, sense of power and purpose. Mr. Dorner was undoubtedly deeply wounded by his treatment by the department, and writes in his manifesto of falling into a state of "severe depression" following being fired. In any case, there is little doubt that what happened to Mr. Dorner must have been experienced as a massive narcissistic injury, resulting in immense narcissistic rage. Psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1978) defines narcissistic rage as, "The need for revenge, for righting a wrong, for undoing a hurt by whatever means, and a deeply anchored, unrelenting compulsion in the pursuit of all of these aims, which give no rest to those who have suffered a narcissistic injury--these are the characteristic features of narcissistic rage in all its forms and which sets it apart from other kinds of aggression."

Does this mean that Dorner met diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Not necessarily. (See PT blogger Joe Navarro's take on the Dorner manifesto here.) He reportedly had been bullied as a boy and hurt and angered by racial taunts. My impression based on reading his manifesto and watching interviews of friends, co-workers, and a former girfriend is that Mr. Dorner was a sensitive and idealistic man, with a somewhat rigid and dogmatic sense of right and wrong. His ex-girlfriend told of how he would be "moody" at times, shifting back and forth between being  "good Chris" and "bad Chris." It sounds as though Mr. Dorner struggled with what Jung called his "shadow," his "dark side," or what I describe as the "daimonic."  Especially his fury. And sadly, in  the end, succumbed to and was overtaken by evil himself. A man of high principles and moral virtue, unable to come to grips with his own raging demons of resentment. Someone who, feeling victimized by evil, lacking any constructive solution, decided to fight evil with evil. Fire with fire. Clearly, Dorner, like Ferguson and most other mass killers, had been in a dangerous state of mind for some time prior to taking his violent course of action. He himself considered his homicidal behavior a "necessary evil," evidently recognizing the difference between right and wrong, good and evil.

Like Colin Ferguson, Adam Lanza, Anders Breivik and other mass murderers, Chris Dorner did not know how to contend with his frustration, disillusionment, anger and festering rage constructively. Nor, so far as we know, did he seek any professional assistance to try to do so. Denying or repressing rage over time tends to intensify it, making it more dangerous. The tragic result, in both cases, was a catastrophic detonation of destructive violence. Violence, while clearly not the solution in such cases, can be understood, as Rollo May (1972) writes, "an eruption of pent-up passion. . . , an explosion of the drive to destroy that which is interpreted as the barrier to one's self-esteem, movement, and growth." We are all susceptible at times to feelings of frustration, anger or rage and the talionic fantasies that tend to accompany such primitive daimonic affects. What distinguishes most of us from the Colin Fergusons, Seung-Hui Cho, Anders Breiviks, Adam Lanzas or Chris Dorners of the world is the fact that, for various reasons, we do not literally, like the mass killer, as Shakespeare has Hamlet say, "take arms against a sea of troubles." But this is precisely the last desperate stance of the troubled and embittered mass shooter.

In the end, Dorner died in infamy. His detestable retaliatory tactics did not redeem his reputation as desired, but, on the contrary, permanently destroyed it. Whether his evil deeds will play any part in reforming and improving the LAPD as he allegedly intended is dubious. Some good can occasionally come from evil deeds. But, as Shakespeare in Julius Caesar so poignantly puts it, "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones."

 

 For more on this subject, see my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic (SUNY Press, 1996) still published in paperback and now available in a newly revised e-book re-titled Anger, Madness and the Daimonic: The Paradoxical Power of Rage in Violence, Evil and Creativity (2013). 

Dr. Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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