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Assessing Christopher Dorner

Feb 09

In the aftermath of Christopher Dorner’s shooting spree it would be easy to overlook the fascinating peculiarities of his behaviour.  The American mainstream media would like us to see him as just another “tragic coupling” of an irrational individual with high-powered weapons.  They would like us to view his acts as inexplicable and a reflection of his mental instability.  Christopher Dorner has written a letter entitled “Last Resort” and addressed it to “America”.  The major portion of that letter clearly outlines his grievances, his objectives, and the rationale behind his behaviour.  The mainstream media, however, has largely focused its attention on the few ramblings that could be interpreted as “crazy”.  They would like us to overlook the very real human issues that are at play beneath Christopher Dorner’s murderous behaviour.

At the time of this writing Christopher Dorner is alleged to have killed three people.  This is not the, now routine, American situation of a random shooting by a right-wing gun-nut pushing back against a government infringing on his rights.  These acts have been committed by a young man who espouses liberal democratic ideals, supports Hilary Clinton, supports stricter gun control, is a former policeman, and a naval reservist.  The target of his attack is his former employer (the Los Angeles Police Department), that he accuses of racism, violence and corruption.  (It is not my intention in this article, to put the LAPD on trial).

What is of interest to me, in this all-encompassing tragedy, is where we look for answers.  As usual, our initial focus has been on Christopher Dorner; his character and his mental status.  What is missing, and not likely to be found, on MSNBC or Entertainment Tonight, is a long hard look at the context in which he came to embrace such violent tactics.

I indicated in a previous article (RCMP Employee Relations:  A Model for Disaster) that much of the study of violent acts, like Christopher Dorner’s, are carried out from an individual perspective.  So in this case that would entail examining his personality, attitudes, values, beliefs, mental status, etc.  This approach, though, has proven less than adequate and is unable to account for the interactional nature of violence.  Why has Christopher Dorner targeted only certain persons?  The individual approach doesn’t account for variability over time and place.  Why is he not killing now and in his present location?  Why did motivation, context, and precipitating factors equal violence on February 3, 2013 and not before or at present?

An excessive focus on Christopher Dorner fails to recognize the contextual and systemic factors at play in his violent behaviour.  Contemporary thinking suggests that the genesis of his violent behaviour lies as much within the systems, policies, and procedures of the institutions that he moves through (especially the most meaningful ones, like his employer) in his day-to-day life.  Christopher Dorner in addition to being an individual was a member of a large bureaucracy (the LAPD) that consumed much of his life.  Any violence that he may have perpetrated will have been the result of a process, too rich and too complex to be explained as solely coming from his individual make-up.  When thinking of Christopher Dorner, keep this in mind:

“Violence is a process, as well as an act.  Violent behaviour does not occur in a vacuum.  Careful analysis of violent incidents shows that violent acts often are the culmination of long developing, identifiable trails of problems, conflicts, disputes, and failures”.

If you regard Christopher Dorner’s behaviour as his response to what he views as a hopeless situation, then it becomes clear that anyone can become violent under the right conditions.  It has been said that violence is a potential within all human beings as none of us can stand “the perpetually numbing experience” of our own powerlessness.  Imagine being a member of the LAPD and experiencing what Christopher Dorner alleges he experienced.  In his “Last Resort” he is telling us that he felt powerless to ensure the satisfaction of some universal human needs including: identity; recognition; fair play; security; attachment; participation; independence; and, understanding.  If it was you who suffered the injustice, disrespect, and corruption that he believes he suffered – what would you do?  Would you succumb without doing or saying anything?  From this perspective Christopher Dorner’s violent behaviour can be seen as an attempt to regain his efficacy; to have his needs met.  We all have our limits.  To truly understand Christopher Dorner’s violent actions we must consider the interaction between him, the LAPD’s systems, policies and procedures, the problems he had, and the LAPD’s response to them.

Are you watching Mr. Paulson?  Mr. Toews?  Mr. Harper?

Dr. Mike Webster, R. Psych.

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4 Comments
  1. I am saddened and shocked that this man felt he had to react this way. What surprises me even more is the fact that this has not happened in the RCMP. I hope that the powers that be see this for what it is. It is systemic moral corruption that comes from the top.

    Time to take notice and make changes, so that this never happens in Canada.

    Rolly Beaulieu

  2. Rob permalink

    Very true Rolly. The only thing that this government is focused on right now, other than giving more power to the Commissioner, is negating the future lawsuits that will inevitably be filled against the RCMP and trying to minimize the dollar figures written on the cheques.

  3. Jamieson Hanlon permalink

    The DORNER story is one that fascinates me. Sadly, I have little sympathy for his current lot. Like Rolly says, it is sad that he felt this was how he needed to retake some form of power or self-respect from the LAPD. But, as tragic as this is, both sides need to wear blame on this. The armchair and pro psychiatry folk I have seen comment on this jump right into the DMS-IV (a diagnostic model that I will state I despise – no, not everything that happens to us is the fault of our parents or happened when we were kids). Whatever the reason he went the way he did, the LAPD can now stand behind their decision ‘proudly.’

    The Force, too, would do the same thing to any one of us who ‘snapped’ – hell, they’d likely hold a news conference to tout a win that he had ousted a “rotten apple.” Why? because it would be a win for the image and it would take some of the spotlight off of them. I could think of tons of things that DORNER could have done differently. More effectively. He chose a direction that the Force would love to see many of us take because it would play into their hands.

    One of the things that that helped me over the years was a line from Sun Tzu: If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. As much as I might have ever wished to contribute to that floating process – and regardless what lies were spread about me – that is not who I am. And trust me, I went pretty far down the rabbit hole in terms of losing who I was and what I had. I would rather metaphorically help in the termination process than sully my hands, which is why forums like this are so cathartic.

    Sadly, I think what DORNER lacked was an ally. Or allies. People like those here that understand and encourage us and keep us grounded in the fact that it IS them NOT us. It is unfortunate, and there is no way for us to know at this point if he reached out. So, there is a lesson that we can perhaps learn here: stay connected and keep looking to help those that are behind knuckled under. DORNER lost any sympathy I could have when he shifted the focus from those who caused his fall to all in uniform and anyone who may get in his way. That’s a level of paranoia that I hope none of us ever aspire to.

    For Mike’s point about it happening here and for the Comm and the Min to pay attention, well, I’m sure that the masters are watching. As always, I am willing to put good money that they will learn nothing from this – because as they will see it, it is ‘not their problem.’ As we know from personal experience, they do not even do much about the problems THEY have. Nor do they realize how close this is to many of these problems.

    Animi ac roboris, my friends. Think I will go say a prayer for DORNER and his victims…

  4. Calvin Lawrence permalink

    There is no justification for what he has done. None!. However when and if Racist Behaviour is encouraged, tolerated, and covered up, bad things happen.
    I can tell you all about racist behaviour in the RCMP! What I can’t tell you is, what will happen because of the behaviour.

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