Tag Archives: violence

Wolves Run in Packs

On Sunday, a pair of Las Vegas police officers was shot to death while eating lunch at a local CiCi’s Pizza. The two shooters then proceeded to a nearby Walmart, where they murdered another person before killing themselves in an apparent suicide pact.

Many details are still sketchy – there are reports, for example, that the shooters exchanged gunfire with a civilian who was carrying a concealed weapon – but one thing is clear even from the early coverage: this was an act of political violence. After stripping the murdered cops of their weapons, the shooters draped their bodies in a Gadsden flag. They reportedly shouted “This is a revolution!” during their rampage; authorities are investigating anti-government literature and paraphernalia including swastikas found in their home.

Early reporting from the Las Vegas Review Journal also indicates that the attackers bragged about participating in the recent standoff between Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management representatives in Bunkerville, Nevada. It’s unclear in what capacity they participated and under what circumstances they left; one allegedly told a neighbor that he had been “kicked off.” When reached for comment, Bundy’s wife Carol told the Review Journal: “I have not seen or heard anything from the militia and others who have came to our ranch that would, in any way, make me think they had an intent to kill or harm anyone.”

It’s easy to call out the ludicrousness of Carol Bundy’s statement by observing that, during the standoff, militia pointed their weapons at Federal Agents, blockaded an interstate, set up armed checkpoints, and announced that they were “willing to do whatever it takes,” which included dying in a gunfight with the Feds. The manifestly threatening dimensions of what happened at Bunkerville are clear, and were clear from the start.

It’s also not hard to imagine what the response to this most recent incident will be, particularly on the right. The undeniable political dimensions of the killers’ terrorism will be discounted – it will become a singular incident, the isolated act of a pair of lone wolves. Then their personalities will come under the microscope, and their connections to others downplayed: They were just a pair of crazy tweakers, totally deluded. And finally we’ll throw our hands up in the air and lament the senselessness, the incoherence of it all, consigning Sunday’s killings to the remote abstraction of an act of nature. What a tragedy. Nothing to see here; move along.

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Over twenty years ago, another standoff between a group of zealots and Federal authorities drew a similar gaggle of militia-minded supporters. They stuck to the sidelines, didn’t draw their weapons on anyone, didn’t kill any cops. But they were there, they watched, they waited, and they planned. You’ve probably heard of this standoff, and of one of the folks who watched from the sidelines. It was at Waco, Texas, and that person was named Timothy McVeigh. He even gave an interview to a reporter while he was there.

“The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government…The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” McVeigh went on to quote “the U.S. Constitution and said U.S. armed forces should not be used against civilians, yet they were used against Koresh and his followers…[he said that] the Koresh standoff is only the beginning and that people should watch the government’s role and heed any warning signs.”

Sound familiar?

Back in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on domestic terrorism threats from right-wing extremists, the blowback was intense. John Boehner labeled the report “outrageous” and “offensive,” and demanded “an explanation for why [Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano] has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” In response to that backlash, the DHS withdrew the report, and Napolitano was forced to apologize.

Five years later, folks at the Bundy ranch proudly wore outfits identifying themselves as “Domestic Terrorists.” And now two people who were there have committed an act of political violence in a Las Vegas strip mall.

Sure, the affair in Bunkerville may have attracted a lot of different people, many of whom Bundy and some of his erstwhile high-profile supporters might not like to be associated with – especially since some of the latter have now distanced themselves from Bundy himself. Maybe even some of those people were downright crazy, and got kicked off (although watching this and this, it’s clear that bar would have to be set pretty high.) But let’s not kid ourselves. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Wolves roam in packs.

Update: 6/9, 1PM The shooters have been identified as Jerad and Amanda Miller. Jerad Miller’s Facebook page is still up. It includes the following posts:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.35.31 PM


Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.46 PMAnd, finally, on Saturday:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.59 PM


The Velocity of Rage

“I decided to purchase the Glock 34 semiautomatic pistol, an efficient and highly accurate weapon. I signed all of the papers and was told that my pickup day was in mid-December. That fell in nicely, because that was when I was planning on staying in Santa Barbara till. After I picked up the handgun, I brought it back to my room and felt a new sense of power. I was now armed. Who’s the alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who’ve looked down on me in the past.”

– from Elliot Rodger’s “manifesto,” My Twisted World

Early Saturday morning, the headlines were dominated by news of gun violence in the West – a “drive-by” in Southern California. Doubtless the first impression of many readers upon seeing those headlines was that they referred to some horrific episode of gangland violence – maybe a LA drug deal gone bad, with a body count high enough to make national news.

Within hours, though, the coverage morphed. The six dead victims weren’t gangbangers, they were “normal” people, including several students at the University of Santa Barbara. The crime scene wasn’t some bombed-out lot in South Central, it was in the prosperous beachside community of Isla Vista. And the perpetrator, who was also dead, wasn’t some drug-dealing Blood – he was 22 year-old Elliott Rodger, the son of a Hollywood filmmaker. Suddenly, the “drive-by” had become a “mass murder.”

As with the coverage of all mass murders, an immediate propensity to label Rodger a mentally ill “spree killer,” was on display, particularly within the pro-gun community.  But the question of Rodger’s psychiatric diagnosis is not just thorny but also fundamentally irrelevant. Determining whether, as his family claims, Rodger suffered from an Asperger’s-spectrum disorder, or, as seems more plausible to me, he was a malignant narcissist, is a red herring. This is not only because such speculation plays into a documented media tendency to over-emphasize mental illness as a factor in gun violence, nor because it ignores the fact those with mental illness are some five-to-six times more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. The real problem is that focusing on Rodger’s individual pathology sidesteps the fact that his actions are symptomatic of sicknesses that are social, on the upswing, and far-too-often ignored.

Writing in the New Statesman, Laurie Penny powerfully identifies Rodger’s actions as acts of terroristic violence part-and-parcel of an existing ideology of misogynist extremism. Penny writes:

The ideology behind these attacks – and there is ideology – is simple. Women owe men. Women, as a class, as a sex, owe men sex, love, attention, “adoration”, in Rodger’s words. We owe them respect and obedience, and our refusal to give it to them is to blame for their anger, their violence – stupid sluts get what they deserve. Most of all, there is an overpowering sense of rage and entitlement: the conviction that men have been denied a birthright of easy power.

This analysis is brilliant, and, I think, absolutely right. Echoing Penny’s argument, I would also add that Rodger’s sense of frustrated masculine entitlement very much resonates with the misogyny that seethes just beneath the surface of some of most militant pro-gun extremism, and with issues of racial and financial privilege as well. Like Adam Lanza, the twenty year- old shooter at Sandy Hook, Rodger came from a background of incredible wealth and opportunity. Much as Nancy Lanza purchased numerous guns that she gave Adam as gifts, Rodger’s mother bought him a BMW 328i – the vehicle he used in his rampage – “to give him confidence.”

Just as it is hard to imagine an African-American mother spending thousands of dollars on guns to give her teenage son, it seems equally hard to imagine that a young black boy who had experienced numerous previous encounters with police and who had posted disturbing messages on the internet, as Rodger had, would be free to drive a luxury car around the California boardwalk instead of languishing in Juvenile Detention or worse. By the same token, it seems hard to imagine that, were Rodger black, largely white Men’s Rights advocates would sympathize with his experience of “loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” for “blonde sluts.” In fact, Rodger himself found it “rage-inducing” to see a “black guy chilling with 4 hot white girls.”

To borrow a metaphor from psychiatrist Daniel Schechter the causes of violence, like extreme weather events, are multifactorial and, to some extent, impossible to predict. The interaction of wind shear and pressure differentials and atmospheric humidity can transform balmy skies into a tornado in a matter of minutes. With societies and individuals, the dynamic systems that produce violence are even harder to track, and acts of violence even more difficult to anticipate. To take but one example: insecure white men can be dominated by fears of black male sexuality, and not infrequently buy guns to defend “their” women against it – although of course the harsh statistical reality is that those guns are much more likely to be used by those men against their wives or partners than defending them against home invaders. Such acts of violence are not directly predictable, nor reducible to any single causative factor, but the bodies are very real all the same.

In the case of Rodger, where details are still being disclosed, things also seem particularly murky. But some of the interlocking, precipitating forces are visible even now, and they are both individual and collective: scorned white privilege and class entitlement in a feedback loop with festering misogynistic rage, for starters. And at the center of this particular storm, the inevitable, precipitating ingredient: guns.

There are few more brutal and irrevocable ways to subject others to your fantasies of power, to make them suffer your rage, than with a gun. Elliot Rodger may not have been as swift or smooth as he might have wished when it came to meeting women – and even his BMW’s top speed of 140 mph apparently didn’t make up for that lack of confidence – but none of that ultimately mattered, because had three handguns and thirty-odd ten-round magazines of bullets that could go 1,500 feet per second into the bodies of people he had never met.

We live in a country where public space can become the stage for some demented person’s acting out their rage, their brokenness, their hate. Although born of impotence, the velocity of their fury is deadly – it can collide with us at any time, in any place. On Friday, that place was Isla Vista.



Living with Fear

Two things. First, this piece is longer and more personal than what I normally post. There isn’t any Constitutional reasoning here, no policy positions, no advocacy. Second, while I don’t normally go in for “trigger warnings,” I think in this case that I should flag that what follows is going to be intense, and involve some very real, very violent, and very troubling things.


Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, from all sorts of people – civilians, both gun owners and non-, law enforcement officers, veterans. Some of the letters have been supportive, others have been critical; some have been uplifting, others, terrifying. An Op-Ed of mine that ran in the New York Daily News generated the most of the last category, including a series of emails from someone I believe is associated with a specific extremist group. This individual wanted to let me know that America was on an inevitable path towards a second Civil War and that, when it finally broke out, I would be a prime target for liquidation.

Understanding my NYDN piece as a call for a renewed Assault Weapon Ban (which in fact I don’t support), he told me that such a measure would represent “the complete and total rape” of his “human rights.” Claiming that my position, as he understood it, made me a “slave-owning scumbag” – a term which he insisted had nothing to do with race, not least because he despised what he termed America’s “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class” – this person went on to write that that “background checks are a gross violation of my human rights…ALL existing firearms laws are.” “Get this through your dumb fucking head,” he wrote, in his last, most agitated letter. “This isn’t “absolutist,” this isn’t “rhetoric.”  I will defend my rights with my life, and if you don’t understand what that implies, then I will state it plainly: I am willing to kill for my rights.”

He didn’t have to put that last bit in bold to make his point, although he did anyway. For my part, I got the message loud and clear: however idiosyncratic his understanding of what constituted rape or slavery, this man was not afraid to kill people.


His militancy, and the response to the NYDN piece in general, rattled me. But while all that left me afraid – scared to go out, at least for a while, skittish leaving the library late at night, jumpy on the decks of dark parking lots – nothing hit me quite like another letter I received, in response to another piece, this time in The Daily Beast. My friend Jason and I had gone to an Atlanta-area gun show to take portrait pictures and interview the attendees. We were there with the permission of the organizers, and entirely open about what we were doing. For the most part, the folks we met were welcoming, chatty, and even warm, but the private sellers – people who were there looking to sell guns for cash and handshake, no questions asked – didn’t appreciate the exposure. One in particular got agitated by our presence, threw a fit, and forced us to leave. Paradoxically, it seemed that my notebook and Jason’s camera frightened him – even though he was the one walking around with a Colt AR slung across his back. “We leave,” that article concluded, “without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.”

The letter I got about that piece wasn’t typed. It had been painstakingly handwritten on a few pages of looseleaf and then mailed to the coordinator of a prison outreach organization that had reprinted the piece in its newsletter; the coordinator had then scanned the letter and sent it on to Jason and me. I won’t share the author’s name, or the names of his victims – I have no desire to give him an extended platform, or to magnify the suffering of their relatives – but suffice it to say that he’s currently serving a life sentence in prison somewhere in the South for his role in a multi-day, multi-state crime spree that he undertook with his two brothers over a decade ago. He was eighteen at the time; his older brother was twenty-one; the youngest accomplice, fifteen. Their meth-fueled rampage culminated when, just a few days before Christmas, they arrived at the home of a woman in her mid-twenties whom they later told authorities they had intended to rape and rob. Her three-year old daughter answered the door. Hours later, the girl’s naked body was found on the house floor – she had been sexually assaulted, her throat slit multiple times. Her mother’s corpse was found handcuffed to a bed, covered with a cushion, shot once in the head.

This man did not write to apologize. By his own admission, his actions were beyond atonement. Nor still did he write to place the blame for his crime on guns – although he did note that despite the fact that his older brother had been previously institutionalized for behavioral problems and a suicide attempt, he had encountered no problems acquiring “a sizeable little arsenal.” Those weapons included “a Colt AR-15, 12ga Mossberg, 9mm S&W SA, 9mm Ruger P95, .38 Charter Arms, .44 Colt Anaconda, .380 Bryco and a .22 Lorcin. I distinctly recall [being at one gun store],” this prisoner wrote, “[where] the cashier eyed us nervously and said ‘Y’all don’t kill nothing that don’t need killin.’” But the primary purpose of his letter wasn’t to talk about guns. Instead, he wrote to Jason and me about the last line of our article, which had “gotten” him.

This leaves me with the last line – “What are they so afraid of?” In a word, “Society.” I sincerely hope that what I am about to say isn’t misconstrued. I have no defense in what I was a part of and I got exactly what was coming to me. But it is of vital importance (I believe) that it be said that victims generally learn to fear, and that fear very easily translates into hatred. Such was my case in all this. I was an 18 year-old carrying guns, knives, tasers, you name it. All those things were my shield. I only felt secure when I could see myself being able to lash out. To a greater or lesser degree I think that’s precisely the fascination with guns today. The relationship between fear and hate I feel is closely mirrored in the difference between the responsible use of guns and the explosive violence they have gained notoriety for.

This man, who claimed to have re-converted to Catholicism in prison, concluded his letter with something that brought me up short. “There is no atonement for what I [was] part of. I will forever recall [the victims] as the greatest tragedy of my existence. But out of all of this I have learned something I never thought of. It is impossible to love with fear in your heart.”

Right after I got this man’s letter, I Googled his name, and clicked on the first link that came up. The first thing that flashed across the screen was a photo of that little girl, her eyes big and blue, her grin, toothy and wide. For weeks after getting her killer’s letter, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my dreams. A doorbell rings, and she bounds to answer it, bright-eyed and smiling. She opens the door, and the brothers are there, standing on the porch.

The letter from that militia sympathizer may have given me panic during the day, and occasionally it still does if I think about it too much, but he doesn’t invade my sleep. The three year-old girl opening that door, though, is a nightmare I still can’t shake.


Just last week, Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, received a sentence of life in prison for the premeditated murder of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, a pair of cousins. Smith had grown exasperated with previous unsolved burglaries, and so, on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, he decided to set a trap for anyone foolish enough to enter his home. Smith moved his car to make it appear that he was not at home, and then waited in his basement in a chair he called his “deer stand,” equipped with energy bars, bottled water, and two guns. He also took an audio recording of the entire affair – you can listen to it here, if you want to.

On the tape, we hear glass breaking as Brady enters the basement, and then we hear Smith shoot Brady twice. Brady collapses and moans, and then Smith shoots him again, saying, with evident relish, “You’re dead!” after he fires the last round. Smith drags Brady’s corpse away on a tarp he’s laid out specifically for the purpose of not getting blood on his basement carpet, and then he adjusts his weapons while waiting for Kifer, who enters moments afterwards. He shoots her, and she falls down and gasps.

“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he says to her, sweetly. Kifer begins to weep, “Oh my God!” Standing above her, Smith then fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he exults. And then one more round, followed by Smith sneering: “Bitch.”

After cleaning up the bodies, Smith delivers a breathy tirade into the still-running audio recorder. Among the other things he says, he offers the following:

“I refuse to live in fear. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like diarrhea, the worst mess possible. They weren’t human. I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin. This bitch was going to go through her life spoiling things for other people. Stealing, robbing, drug abuse. It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable, until someone kills you. Like I give a damn who she is? “Oh, sorry!” …. I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should, be friendly to other people, help them when I can, try to be a good citizen, not cheat people, be fair. And because I’m a good person, they think I’m a patsy, I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of. Is that the reward for being a good person? And if I gather enough evidence, they might be prosecuted. If they’re prosecuted, it might go to court. If it goes to court, they might be found guilty. And if they’re found guilty, they might spend six months, two years in jail, and then they’re out, and they need money worse than ever, and they’re filled with revenge. I cannot live a life like that. I cannot have that chewing on me for the rest of life. I cannot, I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life.”

No one disputes that Kifer and Brady were attempting to burglarize Smith’s home. No one also disputes that, all told, Smith fired nine shots from two different weapons, most after the two teenagers lay wounded at his feet, and that both Kifer and Brady were unarmed.


"Information Desk" - by Jessica C. White

“Information Desk” – by Jessica C. White

Not too long ago I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina. In a gallery near French Broad, I found myself transfixed by a piece of art in a way that’s never happened before. The piece was by Jessica C. White, a brilliant artist who does woodcuts on a variety of themes, including a series of images that appear to be taken from surreal, faintly macabre children’s books. The one that caught my eye was called “Information Desk.”

The scene is somewhere in a thick, ominous forest. A girl in a cute little dress with an orange bow stands in front of a large office desk behind which sits a large brown bear, his paws stretched out neatly in front of him. She seems diffident and fragile, vulnerable, but also graceful and present and strong. Silhouettes of wolves lurk among the trees behind her, no less foreboding for being shadowy and spectral. The girl looks over her shoulder in their direction, at once seemingly worried but also somehow untroubled, as she asks the bear, “Can you tell me how to live without fear?”

Looking at the girl, reading her question, I stood transfixed, and then I started sobbing, crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I thought about that girl in the photo, about the men at her door, about fear, about how there are wolves and bears, some imagined, some dreamed, and some so very, very real. I thought about all the letters, about the calls, about the threats, about the nightmares, and about how nothing made me want to go out and buy another gun and keep it under my pillow more than people telling me that they would relish watching me die for the outrage of using my First Amendment rights to ask them to reflect on how they understood our Second Amendment ones. I thought about how it’s impossible to love with fear in your heart, and I thought about how being unafraid to kill people doesn’t mean that you are actually free from fear – that in fact it can mean just the opposite. And I realized then and there that I was OK with being scared, that I was OK with being frightened, but that I wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.

Because there’s fear and then there’s fear. There’s a way to “refuse” fear by doubling down on living in it, and then there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition. I think living in a democracy means accepting that we are ultimately fundamentally vulnerable to each other, like it or not. Of course, some days, I’m terrified by this fact, and I feel like I don’t have firm answers about anything; other days, I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less. But for all that, what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.



Shelter in Place

Starting a new week, let’s take a brief moment to reflect on the one just past. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday – on each day, a High School or college campus somewhere across this country was either locked down because of reports of an active shooter or because of an actual shooting (two of which were fatal). On Saturday, a mass shooting in Columbia, Maryland, that left three dead and five injured, while in Baltimore proper, the murder rate is now just about one per day. And if you’ll look, you’ll find that Sunday was marked by violence too – not least in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where a group of local Pastors who had planned on marking the day as “Justice Sunday” and preaching against community gun violence did so as local police put in weekend hours investigating a triple shooting.

This is our normal, now.

On Twitter yesterday, the writer Jessica Luther of the Atlantic noted that, of the Columbia victims, one, Brianna Benlolo, was only 21 years old, and leaves behind a two-year old child. “There’s apparently no story tragic enough to create change RE: gun control laws,” observed Luther.

This is simply true, on the face of it. If the story of twenty toddlers mowed down within minutes in a wealthy Connecticut suburb can’t galvanize policy change in this jaded nation, then no story will.

No stories, no matter how tragic, will change anything, because this is how we’ve decided, collectively, to live. Or at least, it’s how some of us have decided that we are to live, with some of us living it more than others.

Stories are vital. But stories – no matter how heartbreaking – won’t end structural violence and broken lawmaking.  Either we confront our national history of violence, the way our culture is steeped in it – or we don’t.  Either we confront industry capture of our legislature, the ability of an extremist minority and the corporate interests that encourage them to overrule common sense and majority sentiment – or we don’t.

But for those of us who believe in the power of stories – and I’m one of them – maybe, also, there’s a place for talking about those structures in terms of stories, however crude.

A nation built with guns, under the sign of guns, is consumed by them. America’s ballistic growth has reached its limits, can go no further, and now turns in on itself. What gave us our manifest destiny now claims our future, robs us of our children in brutal atavism.

But: “Our” future. “Our” children. “Us.”

Therein also lies the problem.

Because some of the people who live on this continent, in this place, have been losing their children to this thing for much, much longer than others. And some people who once lived here are just gone because of it. Gone. Children, parents, entire peoples. Just gone.

Who are we to think we can live without this touching us? Do we really believe this?

We built this country – built “us” – on the premise that an economy of violence can maintain a strict logic of externalities, brutally enforced borders between oppressors and oppressed, settlers and natives, masters and slaves, citizens and non-. But violence doesn’t work that way, on principle, and definitely not in our crowded, contentious democracy. Violence cannot be contained. And there is no external, no outside anymore. Not here, not in this place, not within us.

So we go to the mall. We go to work. We take our kids to school. We wait for the bus. We walk across campus. We take in a movie. We sleep in our beds.

We shelter in place.

But there is no shelter.

Not in this place.