Assessing Christopher Dorner
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.