Society secretly wants crime, needs crime, and gains definite satisfactions from the present mishandling of it! The crime and punishment ritual is a part of our lives. We need crimes to wonder at, to enjoy vicariously, to discuss and speculate about, and to publicly deplore. We need criminals to identify ourselves with, to envy secretly, and to punish stoutly. They do for us the forbidden, illegal things we wish to do and, like scapegoats of old, they bear the burdens of our displaced guilt and punishment.
~ Karl Menninger
The Wave of Evil
Rich in eyeball kicks, murder provides a quick climax, relieves boredom and tension. As the human tragedy evolves into real-time infotainment, so we learn to enjoy dinner parties enacting the murder of one of the guests, as a clever magazine, "Murder Can Be Fun," urges. No wonder our lives produce scenes straight out of the movies, with strutting shooters smirking for the cameras, "I'm a natural born killer!"
Before blowing away two classmates and injuring two dozen more in May of 1998, Kipland Kinkel had started the day by killing both of his parents. "I didn't want to," the Portland student wept as he confessed. "I loved my dad."
Kinkel was taken back to his high school three hours after he opened fire on his fellow students and asked why he did it. As he surveyed the carnage, the dazed 15-year-old hung his head and mumbled, "I had no other choice."
"What's the program?" screamed Larry Ashbrook before opening fire inside a crowded Texas church. Though Ashbrook had sent letters to reporters detailing his complaints of harassment by an array of sinister forces including the FBI, the CIA, and the KKK, and had been falsely targeted by local police as a serial killer, "he's an absolute enigma to us," said Fort Worth Police Lieutenant Mark Krey. "We have no clue to his motives and we haven't found anyone else who does."
Pressed for a reaction to the church shooting, George Dubya pronounced it part of "a wave of evil" and professed dismay as one inexplicable public slaughter after another rippled across this land from sea to shining sea.
After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed Columbine High on April 20, 1999, killing 13 of their classmates and wounding two dozen more before killing themselves, Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone couldn't explain why. "It's not something I could logically fathom," he admitted.
This time, however, the homicidal teens had recorded ten hours of secret videotapes explaining their suicide mission for posterity. Time Magazine reporter Tim Roche was allowed to view the footage and nine months after the mass murder, the bombshell was dropped.
"Directors will be fighting over this story," gloated Klebold in one of the videos, as they discussed whether Spielberg or Tarantino should be allowed to do the honors. After all, they were carefully planting "a lot of foreshadowing and dramatic irony," said Harris.
The boys detailed their humiliation at rejection by their peers. Harris described having to move from place to place as an Air Force brat, always starting over "at the bottom of the ladder" with classmates mocking "my face, my hair, my shirts."
A grandiose rage informed every pronouncement. "We need to fucking kick-start the revolution here," said Harris. After their own demise, they planned to haunt survivors, to "create flashbacks from what we do, and drive them insane."
Editor Walter Isaacson observed that this story "is not so much about kids seeking glory as it is about grownups not looking and seeing, about people who preferred to sugarcoat rather than confront reality."
"If only we could have reached them sooner or found this tape," Klebold imagined their parents would say when they got the news. "If only we would have asked the right questions," added Harris.
Victim's family members were enraged when they heard the tapes had been released, and Jefferson County Undersheriff John Dunaway immediately began spin control, accusing Roche of violating a confidentiality agreement that the reporter was only supposed to view the tapes for background, not to quote from them - a claim disputed by Time.
"Our reporter was allowed to watch the tapes and take down notes," said Time's Diana Pearson. "No one ever asked us not to report on the contents of the tapes."
Dunaway claimed Roche had told him Time was not interested in Harris and Klebold, but rather in the investigation and the response of SWAT teams. "On that basis, we allowed him to see these segments of the tapes," but if they knew he was going to make reference to the tapes in his story, they would never have allowed him to see them.
"The buck stops here,” said Stone. "I made a mistake by trusting a journalist that I thought was trustworthy."
Investigators professed disappointment at the release of the tapes because they contributed to the fame of the killers. "This was their legacy," said John Kiekbusch, head of the Columbine investigation, and that was "exactly what they wanted."
A scandal had erupted in October when live footage of the shooting was leaked to CBS television. The sheriff's office had protested that they had released the dramatic tape to several law-enforcement agencies nationwide, but were not responsible for it appearing on television.
Rich Petrone, stepfather of slain student Daniel Rohrbough, called the second release "another knife in our hearts.”
While most of the survivors were outraged by learning why their loved ones were slain via the public release of these tapes, the new information caused others to rethink their assumptions. "It makes me realize that we need to look deeper into society's ills that we're creating kids like this," said Dale Todd, whose son was wounded in the massacre.
"Things happen every day the newspapers don't print and the TV's don't show," warned Charles Manson. "You're only told a small part of what's going on and that part is only to control your mind, to get you to stay in line, to avoid panic and to create a social thought to keep down total chaos of the masses. The lie is becoming so big that no one can believe it. This is what isolates people, for soon no one will know what to believe."
On Christmas Eve of 1996, a little girl from Georgia was violated, strangled and beaten to death in her own million-dollar home. Three years later, her glamorous image was still being used to titillate unregenerate sexual predators, while striking a dark, sympathetic chord with approximately one-third of all American women, who used the same images to massage memories of their own sexual exploitation.
The salacious relish of every intimate detail, the prurient obsession concealed by shocked indignation, all hyped by weekly tabloid cover photos of the little painted lady and saturation coverage of her pimped-up runway strut: it was as if Jon Benet Ramsey were the only child who had ever been murdered.
But at the time the poster girl for pedophilic lust was laid to rest in her native state, every week an average of three children were killed, after their families were reported for mistreating them. Georgia Department of Family and Children Services recorded 844 such deaths between1993 and 1998. All of these children, and each of them, died small and lonely, weak and nasty.
In a state routinely spending millions to project a pristine image worldwide via spectacles like the Olympic Games and the Superbowl, college-trained social workers are paid less than garbage collectors. Many are even eligible for welfare. They carry case loads triple the nationally recommended limits. Records are disorganized, there are no specialized programs for sick babies and disturbed children, and there is a critical shortage of foster homes. All of this preventable mayhem only persists because we are satisfied to leave it that way.
While our contemplation of the Jon Benet icon may give us the warm fuzzies, the truth is we don't even know the names of these victims - because we don't want to. We don't want our jolly trance disturbed by the depressing fate of these losers in the game of life. We actually prefer to return such helpless victims again and again to pernicious neglect and abuse so profound their only relief is by an unremarkable death.
We have learned to crave a daily diet of mayhem, but we want it served up as part of a glamorous fantasy.
But this is not murder; it's Murder Lite. OJ, Columbine, and Jon Benet all fall well within the theatrical tradition. Will Shakespeare routinely littered his stage with corpses, and no Greek tragedy ends without mortal combat claiming half the cast.
Joel Achenbach observes that the serial killer has become an American icon, like the cowboy. But why does our culture romanticize the outlaw? Increasingly driven by the weight of numbers, we are forced to give up our sense of control over our lives. Authoritarian repression combined with manifest corruption in high places can be downright demoralizing. One way to seize back that sensation of personal power is to defy authority, to go out of bounds, to transgress.
The dizziness of deviance, the sensuality of sin is intoxicating in a double sense ... first insofar as it gives you a euphoric, manic sensation, a rush... and secondly, you have the toxic thought syndrome. These thoughts affect your mind much as toxic substances affect your body.
Back when the first few cases of serial murder were beginning to surface, the symbolic "fuck-you" of the Elvis pelvis gave most wannabe free-spirits enough of a buzz to get them through their own personal night. But succeeding waves of disaffected youth have pushed the envelope of rebellion further and further, until in their quest for the edge that really *cuts,* they arrive at the ultimate American iconoclast, the modern serial killer who personifies Carl Panzram's grim motto, "Rob 'em all, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all!"
The serial killer has become an icon because he has maxed out, gone over the top. We all imagine outrageous acts, but few actually do them. We are fascinated by those who have ventured further into the forbidden zone than our timid souls dare.
But the mystique of lawlessness is scarcely new. Isn't the modern serial killer cast from the same mold as dark folk heroes like Wyatt Earp and Jesse James, Robin Hood and Lancelot? The legendary Viking chieftain Eric the Red wasn't called Red for his hair color.
The Old Testament provides a marvelously bloody panorama. But in those doughty days of old, ruthless slaughter was openly celebrated, not deplored. We read of famous mass slayers racking up higher and higher scores, while the ancient people glorified them, chanting, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands." Saul was apparently driven to a murderous rage with envy of the charismatic young lyre-slinging lyricist who had become the most ruthless mass slayer of all, and stolen the hearts of Saul's bloodthirsty followers.
Today such overt adulation is frowned upon, but still the encouragement goes on at a more unconscious level. Within their own minds, mass and serial slayers may well be fulfilling their idea of an honorable profession. One who shot his father and stabbed at least five to death tells me he feels like he comes from another time.
In stories and songs tracing the road he took toward the inevitable murders, this serial killer often refers to himself as a sort of Jesse James, and writes wistfully of "legends of lion-like men and beautiful lasses who stole their hearts away... a magical, simpler time when one won the favor of his Lady Fair by how well he could wield a two-edged sword and stand his ground against his enemies... it must have been a glorious era for man."
The romanticization of the high-profile criminal is a function of the aesthetic of ugliness. The whole world is experiencing an auto-immune reaction. As our civilization enters its end-stage in this post-apocalyptic age, our dreams are full of struggle and foreboding. Artists everywhere are spewing forth a limitless barrage of anger, fear, disgust and outrage as the fabric of our existence shreds: "I've seen the future, and it is murder."
This is not to put the murderer on the level of the artist, but the violent criminal has a message for us the same as the artist does. In their own grim, pre-conscious way, murderers are expressing a reaction to the same deep seismic temblors.
But how to decipher these cryptic messages inscribed in blood? The killer may discern no cosmic significance to his acts. He may believe he is merely fulfilling his own personal agenda. But the very fact that these dramas can destroy our lives makes it our business to interpret them. We turn our eyes away from the bloody truths scrawled on our floor. But they don't go away. In the darkness of our will to ignorance, these messages gain more power.
Our brain houses a magic theater where little holographic models enact what we perceive as reality. Once we comprehend what a killer is, we bring him to life within our own mind. Thanks to media dedicated to conveying the vivid imagery our enthralled minds demand, we all have at least one little phantasmagorical Charlie Manson dancing around in a dark corner, casting his helter-skelter spells.
If the Manson in our mind somehow loosens the bonds of fantasy, breaks out of the Theater of the Mind, and springs full-fledged to life in the Theater of the Real... somebody's bound to get hurt.
But of course, we wouldn't want that to happen. Nobody in our audience wants to get hurt; they just want to watch... while somebody else gets hurt.