How Art Can Help Us Understand Christopher Dorner

It's tempting to think of killers as separate from the rest of humanity. But the stories we tell in novels and films suggest that we know better.

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AP Photo/Irvine Police Department

Christopher Dorner seemed to think of himself as a character in a novel, though it's hard to tell which one. As in James Ellroy, a cop was ostracized from the famously corrupt LAPD, he claimed, for being incorruptible. Wandering into the paranoiac dystopias of Philip K. Dick's fiction, Dorner believed himself to be in a world gone mad, the lone possessor of the real truth, who must fight to clear his name. Casting himself a righteous avenger, Dorner sought to join the canon descended from Monte Cristo, meting out violence in return for the injustice, as he saw it, done to him. And, at the end, Raymond Chandler was there to greet us with a shootout and a burned-down cabin in Big Bear.

But the last chapter in Dorner's life is not art. The fits of gun violence proliferating across America do not a motif make. And our punditry and moralizing in the wake of these events has precisely the reverse effect of literature. That is, it isolates the actors for dissection and condemnation, rather than filling the rest of us with a broader understanding of the forces at work—and, perhaps, even with empathy.

Even as Dorner began his flight from Los Angeles, while he was scripting his own strange version of events past and present, the media and officials put him under the microscope. The facts of his life were made into bullet points and strung together to make sense of his heinous crimes. And yet very little has been unearthed in his biography that would lead one to predict he was capable of killing a policeman's daughter and at least two others—little, in fact, to separate him from everyone else.

But once removed from society by committing murders and by posting his ludicrous rantings on Facebook, the details of his life begin to glow with the radiation of illness. And as we pore over these vitals, Dorner becomes something very different from a psychological case study: He becomes a lone gunman on the loose. He is now "a madman," different from you and me, riven from empathetic considerations given to, say, non-murdering sufferers of PTSD or garden-variety depressives, though he may have a back story very similar to theirs.

Thus cast away, he is unique, no longer deserving of treatment. We don't see the lone gunman as a cog in a pressurized social machine that blows under a strain. Rather, we seem to see him as an inherently corrupted element who, as is often said of lone gunmen, just cracked. As such, he does not implicate us in his actions. We are let off the hook. And our hand wringing, then, needn't reach the level of depth and nuance of a novel.

And yet, in attempting to understand how some people break the gravitational pull of societal norms with an escape velocity sending them to killerdom, our best resource is art. Not in some form of exculpatory relativism. Nor in any sense that if we, say, watch Bogdanovich's sniper-horror film Targets, we'll know anything of Charles Whitman's mental state. In fact, revenge fantasies and killers-on-the-loose tales told from the point of view of the outlaw probably have little to tell us of the gestalt of a real killer.

But doesn't the fact that works like Shooter and Taken and Oldboy and Tarantino's bloody operas are so plentiful and popular indicate that we identify, at least in part, with their protagonists? Doesn't it say that we know some glimmer of their desperation, their frustration, their isolation, their futility, and their rage? Once we have acknowledged that truth, art can help us look deeper into ourselves, into our communities, and into our culture that so often ends up producing people beyond empathy.

As the Dorner case was unfolding, I gobbled up Ben Fountain's great book of last year, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Dorner's story is not Billy's, but the book filled my blood with pop rocks of anger, broadening my understanding of what it is to feel truly trapped by the world.

Billy is a hero of the Iraq war, home for only a brief publicity tour. At every turn he is used, paraded, and whored out in advertisements for things (security, safety, success, freedom) he has no access to himself. Even at home Billy is a compacted spring of lust and financial frustrations. And still he has to return to this absurd war, all for his abysmal $14,000 salary.

There is a subtler irony at work too, in that the book is set amid a spectacle of institutional violence—an NFL game—from which a few owners profit off the combatants in their employ. As we now well know, the injuries suffered by these players in the performance of their entertainment (of which, incidentally, Christopher Dorner claimed to be a victim), can lead to irreparable brain damage, mental illness, and violent outbreaks similar to those of warriors with PTSD—and whose pathway to compensation are equally gnarled.

Halfway through the book, these absurdities, and Billy's Sisyphean desperation to climb out of his personal quagmire, stir us into a frothing lather of outrage. We can at least see into John Rambo territory from here, even if we cannot fully grasp it. And while I didn't glean from these pages some firsthand insight into Christopher Dorner's breakdown, I wouldn't have been surprised if one of Billy's Bravo company snapped as he did. I felt what it is to be infuriated, and I knew that fury to be one piece in a stack of factors that, for Dorner, finally toppled into madness.

It is impossible to yet say what exact safeguards could have been in place before Dorner was fired, before he wrote his "manifesto," before he holed up in his isolation, and before he took lives. But as we look for answers, we may find that no one man is alone, sui generis, outside of the system we are all building. We may finally learn that men become killers not because they are freaks who have lost the plot, but because they are desperate characters in the broken narrative we as a whole are writing. We may find that to rewrite that story, so that it doesn't end with Christopher Dorner, we need to read other ones.