February 23, 2013

What to Make of Chris Dorner's Admirers

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last weekend, a small number of people turned out at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, in some combination of protest and memorial for former LAPD officer Chris Dorner, who killed four people in Southern California, before killing himself during a standoff with law enforcement. Meanwhile, in the virtual world, a Facebook tribute describing Dorner as "a man who is willing to die for something instead of living for nothing" has received over 20,000 likes, while the Occupy Los Angeles Facebook site has offered a wish of condolence that Dorner "rest in power". While the number of admirers that Dorner has should not be exaggerated, he does have them.

It is obviously not simply Chris Dorner's grievances or the content of his "manifesto" that won him whatever number of admirers he has. Dorner was not the first to accuse the Los Angeles police department of corruption or racism, and he would have very likely remained mostly unknown had he not taken to murder. Dorner has become the focus of a fringe mini-movement because there are people who believe that his claims against the LAPD are more deserving of attention than they would otherwise be because he started killing individuals not directly related to his "issues".

During an interview on CNN, Columbia University Professor Marc Lamont Hill opined that Dorner had "been like a real life superhero to many people" who could find watching him "kind of exciting". Dorner supporters are certainly more excited by his violence than they would be by the details of an administrative and judicial grievance procedure minus the murders. And while many of Dorner's supporters will explicitly disclaim that murdering innocent people is bad, it is the murder spree that has elevated him to the status of a cause, with the celebration of "action" trumping concerns about its justification or consequences.

There have been times in the past when the idea of the pathway to social change following behind a violent superhero might generate support beyond that of a weekend protest and some Facebook likes; we don't have to go very far back into history to find such times. Thoroughly modern ideologies with substantial followings from the first half of the twentieth century, e.g. various fascisms and some (but not all) forms of anarchism, regarded the individual acting on his will-to-power, with total disregard for societal norms that might impede ego-determined ends, as the example to be emulated and the natural leader of society.

The admiration expressed for Chris Dorner makes evident that impulses in humanity that drive people to idolize the violent superman still exist. It is not impossible to imagine that such admiration and idolization can be turned into a willingness to follow, if the superhero had an interest in doing so.

* * *

This is a very important reason why thinking about the possible forms of political ideology and political philosophy, what they look like and where they might lead, one version of which Justin posted a few weeks ago, is important.


The philosophies/ideologies that Justin placed in the ring represent, roughly, the post-World War II Euro/Atlantic consensus about what's legitimate, running roughly from various forms of soft-socialism to various forms of welfare-state capitalism. The cross-bar holds forms of "extremism" that don't fit neatly into that consensus. One idea that differentiates the ring from the cross-bar (though not necessarily the only one) is that the will-to-power of a violent superhero can be accepted as a legitimate political force in the cross-bar, but not in the ring. (Some of the best work I am aware of about how to appropriately separate extremism from its mainstream political relatives was done by a young Jerry Pournelle, back in the 1960s; I am of the opinion that 2 dimensions for political classification which he defined, and a third that he proposed, are still very relevant today)

What throws a society into a state of extremism, i.e. from the ring to the cross-bar, isn't wholly understood, making it all the more imperative to think a bit about what the beginnings of a slide into extremism might look like and what its warning signals are, so that folks who favor a more peaceful system can be ready to challenge and defeat any movement towards the social and political institutionalization of the barbaric side of human nature.

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"willing to die for something instead of living for nothing"
This is a quote from Rambo, isn't it?

While Dorner is certainly a poor Serpico, a question remains. Will anything be done about the notoriously corrupt Los Angeles police? Admittedly, Serpico's effect was not long lasting.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 23, 2013 8:39 PM

The relevant thing to notice about the crossbar is that it represents the axis along which there isn't some abstract social mediator for the expression of moral judgment and through which to seek moral justice. As you say, the complaint process isn't all that exciting, but it would be if it were able to bring about change (think of any courtroom drama). The extra-legal violence is (by its fans' lights) an admission that neither government nor culture can redress the perceived grievances.

Dorner fits a little more comfortably toward the anarchist side of the line, where the belief in the fundamental fallibility of humanity excuses his violence and speaks to the impossibility of redress, while the emphasis on the individual speaks to the harm done to him (or some other individual he imagined himself to be representing).

On the other hand, his race taps into the numinous purity of the minority (supposed to be more closely tied with nature and purified by oppression), which makes him a sort of focused voice for The Race, with the implication that human perfection is being held back by the same forces that hold The Race back.

Theoretically, then, this precipice offers multiple paths away from the edge, corresponding with the axes in the chart.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 23, 2013 10:47 PM

I don't agree entirely with Justin, above (Dorner seemed to strongly believe in the rule of law. Violence =/= anarchism) but I do agree with the dangerous nature of elevating a murderer to hero status.

One of my greatest grievances with Occupy Wall Street, which I participated in, was that after engaging for a while, it became entirely obvious that the concept of nonviolence was just that: an empty concept that didn't carry a whole lot of weight with certain people. It was apparent that religion and/or humanism were necessary to get someone to viscerally experience the need for non-violence. In all but the religious, the humanist, and a few of the laughable but sincere pot-smoking hippie types, the appreciation of the need for non-violence seemed to be lacking.

I do not think that Dorner's rampage and elevation by a select few as a hero represents a society sliding into barbarism... but I do believe that society is always in a state where it could, by various means, slide into barbarism.

It never failed to be disturbing, when during the Occupy Movement you'd run into the "By Any Means Necessary" crowd. These were folks who were unhinged from social norms. Ihey usually had at least one solid grievance, but that grievance was piled high upon a host of other social, economical or political concerns that eventually allowed them to see society as one big enemy. They didn't appreciate much of the value that society presents in its current form. These are the "ends justify the means" people. Now.. that's not to say they didn't have a sense of responsibility or morals. The key element was that they didn't feel a responsibility to those who didn't share their narrative. They were especially capable of demonizing those who were benefiting from the system they hated. Thankfully, many of the more truly extreme political people I've met here in RI, from both ends of the spectrum, are still a little shy of violence. That's something to be thankful for.

This degenerative effect was equally obvious to me when I was overseas; Marines could easily justify their malfeasance whenever it could be easily argued that "this guy is Taliban," or "a scumbag" ..usually a dubious claim. You could always tell you were going to have a bad day when a few of the boys would start saying, "Hey, you think this guy is Taliban?" Cops do this too, sometimes. It's how bad things happen.

A similar thing is at work here: "Hey, that cop in LA that beat that guy is racist." "Yeah, LA Cops are all racist." "Yeah, f*** cops, they're all racist!" "Yeah, I like it when someone kills a cop, because they f***ing kill people too!" It stops mattering anymore if you can or can't prove the now-dead cop was a racist, murderer (or his daughter was!) or whatever. It's all justified somehow. It all eventually becomes okay... because... because, the system is messed up right? Ugh.

The most important element of a civil society, and some here may disagree with me, is a belief that the society itself is important beyond your narrative, and that your personal beliefs, though important, must (and always will be) in reference to our society as a whole. I don't like it, and perhaps you don't like it.. but it's true. What we have is what we got, and if we don't like it, there are responsible means to change it.

One way to avoid elevating someone like Dorner, in the past, was to elevate someone who took similar drastic, BUT NONVIOLENT action. I believe we still have plenty of non-violent heroes, but they aren't always obvious, and they're not always fighting for causes everyone can appreciate.

To close up: I appreciate the writing. Dorner bothered me too. I felt for the guy, but not too much. He was killing people, and that's wrong.

If I could amend Justin's graph, one way to do it would be to make it 3 dimensional. I would delete the center bar, and instead show a core that was non-violent, graduating into a spherical fringe that is willing to take the easy way out. The majority of us don't listen to our more primal urges. (I joke that I'm a fairly angry person when I get a speeding ticket, but not outwardly. I imagine that would be all the more true if I was a victim of violence or racism.) As a society, as a whole, we accept the rule of law, or barring that, the decency of humanity.

Posted by: Mike at February 24, 2013 2:35 PM


I would say, first, that I understood the question to be the beliefs of Dorner's admirers, not of the man himself. Be that as it may, I'd say, second, that it strains credulity to think that somebody who resorted to murder was ultimately a believer in the rule of law.

With regard to your suggestion, I think the question of violence/force is distinct from political philosophy. A libertarian may believe that he should be able to shoot somebody who's stealing his stuff, and moderate may believe that he had a right to beat up anybody who is harassing a woman. At the same time, a sort of principled anarchy or totalitarianism, as rare as it might in practice be, could be based on principles of nonviolence.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 24, 2013 4:16 PM


Thanks for the insights.

Jerry Pournelle's 3rd axis, that I mentioned in the original post (his first two being attitude towards the state and attitude towards rational social planning), was some concept of a "Brotherhood of Man", which he thought might be the clearest dividing line between extremist and non-extremist ideologies. Your experiences with the importance of religion and/or humanism to a political/social movement seems to be a pretty good real-life example of what he was thinking about. (Pournelle chose that term as a way of saying that Judeo-Christian ethics was one possible basis of such a belief, but not the only one that was possible).

Also, I basically agree with the idea that society is always in a state where it could, by various means, slide into barbarism (I've decided I don't really believe in "modernity" as some kind of discontinuous break from the past; we could end up living in medieval type social structures with modern technology, if not careful). Like Justin said above, the cause for concern is Dorner's following, and what it suggests about the number of people there are out there who would be willing to follow a charismatic leader who "revealed" himself to the masses by acts extraordinary violence.

Posted by: Andrew at February 24, 2013 5:03 PM

All this discussion about a man who (a)lay in wait and murdered two people who had not harmed him in any way(b)ambushed 2 police officers at a stoplight from a different department than the one he had a complaint with,killing 1 of them(c)killed a 2nd officer from yet another department he was not involved with.I'm really not interested in what his problem with LAPD was.He had other ways of pursuing his issues.I am sure LAPD has some rot in its culture-most agencies do.If you want to ambush people.okay-but don't expect to be admired as some kind of hero for it.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 24, 2013 9:01 PM

Joe, I am surprised at you "He had other ways of pursuing his issues."
You are a New Yorker and old enough to remember Serpico, the Knapp Commission, etc. Regardless of the movie version of the facts, what broke the police was a retiring contractor. He was tired of paying off the police to bring trucks over the sidewalk (this was in addition to "detail" fees), so when they were shaking him down he had a crane crew deposit the police car on the 30th floor and told them to "Go explain that to the captain". That got newspaper articles, news film, etc.

How many jobs were lost in Providence over the "pay for promotion" scandal with the police under Cianci?

Check out Tom Wolfe's latest book which treats racism on the Miami police now that it is primarily Cuban.

I am not a fan of Dorner, but to suggest there were avenues open to him doesn't seem to square with reality.

The LAPD is famously corrupt and requires investigation. Dorner might be a catalyst.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 24, 2013 10:07 PM

@Warrington-maybe I wasn't clear enough-Dorner's problems became moot when he gunned down the couple in the parking garage.We have a legal system-it may interest you to know that I started as a NY State Court Officer at 100 Centre Street in 9/71 on the cusp of Attica and the Knapp Commission-the courts were as corrupt as the police department.There is no justification for murdering innocent bystanders no matter what perceived wrong a relative of them might have done to you.Dorner apparently wasn't that sharp a recruit-he managed to shoot himself in the Academy.Maybe he had no case.There was corruption in the INS when I was there-I just did my job and retired 5 days after I was eligible.I wasn't going to bang my head against a wall-I did accuse an Assistant Director of corruption for actions she took on a case of mine-nothing really happened to her-she was transferred though.I know she put $5000 in her pocket to release a convicted drug dealer against all applicable regulations.Fortunately he later went down for a multi kilo sale.I could not get the testimony from the informant because it wasn't my informant and they wouldn't do it for well founded fear of their life.Under Carter there was serious corruption right at the top of the agency-in Chicago there was corruption in the upper management of the District office-not everyone for sure,but it was bad enough-I always wanted assignments that kept me busy and out in the hinterland or on midnights or anywhere else I didn't have to see what I didn't want to.I'm sure that isn't very admirable,but that's life.

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 25, 2013 9:57 PM

Joe, don't misunderstand me. I am not sympathetic with Dorner's actions. But now that the spotlight is on, I don't want it turned off. I expect every method will be used to deter investigation of activities which might have prompted Dorner.

Diverting the conversation to "what kind of person would sympathize with Dorner" is not helpful.

The story of your career only adds to the urgency.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at February 26, 2013 12:01 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful replies, Justin and Andrew.

Andrew: I think you're right on with Jerry Pournelle's 3rd axis. In my short but intense journey on this crazy planet, I've already seen quite a few cases where that 3rd axis is all that stood between survival and a very bad situation. So, it sounds like a guy as smart as Jerry already nailed it!

Justin: I still disagree, but only just a tad. When it comes to Dorner, its hard to argue; he killed people. He definitely ceased to care about society in reference to his problems, no doubt! I see Dorner in the same light as a number of others: Ted Kaczynski, Tim McVeigh, or that Beltway Sniper.

All of their actions were inherently political to different degrees. All of their actions were wrong, immoral, and obviously not in the best interest of society. But, I'd say, in Dorner's case in particular, I get the sense that he wasn't anti-establishment at large. He justified what he was doing from a slightly different angle (but, not one that makes him any more or less forgivable to me, mind you)

In other words, per what Andrew expressed about Jerry Pournelle's 3rd axis, I feel like any political ideology contains persons capable of murder.

I don't think you'd disagree, that within one person there is the possibility of supporting the idea of the welfare state, and yet totally be capable of disdain for police and the legal system all at the same time. Dorner was, after all, a Naval officer and a cop. Having served in the military with guys in the same position as Dorner, I believe that Dorner truly thought he was a true defender of the rule of law. Yup, that makes him crazy. Truly crazy. But, we're talking about what his politics may have been. I think he was an otherwise law-respecting (perhaps too much so!) liberal man who didn't have the human sense not to do what he did, per that 3rd axis. I see him as politically liberal, manifesting similar pathology as what was seen in Charles Whitman, that Texas tower sniper. At 25, Whitman was a seemingly decent human being who could easily have been taken as a traditional conservative good ole boy.

Dorner in contrast had a particular bone to pick with the system, but his rants seem to show that he felt he was ultimately defending society. Whitman, of course, just just-plain mentally unwell and was less politically motivated.

It strikes me that whenever I'm in a rural community, that its nearly impossible to outwardly tell who's a liberal, a conservative, an anarchist, libertarian, and so forth. I spent time in Maine, and while there, we visited a family friend. He was a complete "gun-nut" libertarian, just like my father was before he died (my dad drove a ridiculous camouflage truck, and was in the NRA.) Then again, like my dad, this guy was largely a harmless libertarian that just didn't want the government to take his guns or tell him not to smoke marijuana. Someone I met in Maine the same day showed all the same signs of having a similar ideology, but was instead a full-blown Obamaholic. Even though this guy completely looked like a stoner, he was a sober-minded, church-going Christian bookstore owner that just happened to buy the Democrat narrative, for whatever reason. He also looked like a Grateful Dead fan.

It would be easy to say that Ted Kaczynski was "left" and Tim McVeigh was "right"-winged, but that's inaccurate. I think these terms fail us time and again, and so do the spectrums and graphs.

I always have observed that my conservative Evangelical Christian family is prone to saying "we're so wicked, Jesus is going to come back and destroy the earth." Likewise, my all-too-liberal ecologically radical friends say "we are so polluting, and fundamentally unethical, that Mother Nature is going to destroy mankind."

Foolishly I guess, I keep on believing in both God and humankind. I think we're going to be okay. I must be crazy too! But, I actually think that we don't suck, and are going to turn out alright.. minus a few extreme cases of course.

And if the rapture and/or global warming is indeed going to take us up or take us down? I suppose that for me process remains the same: don't kill people and get along (but apparently not too much, cause this is a democracy and its our job to argue with each other.)

I'm a fan of that 3rd axis.

Posted by: Mike at February 27, 2013 11:12 AM
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