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Christopher Dorner and Rhetorical Empowerment

February 27, 2013

Gun violence erupts again as a shooter accused of killing innocent people fled and was killed days later in a police shootout. The shooter, Christopher Dorner, who was fired from the LAPD in 2008, has been called a common murderer, an extreme sociopath, or (in certain circles) a cult hero for declaring a guerilla war against the LAPD. But there’s something missing from these representations of a local police officer gone killer.

Dorner posted a manifesto that articulates his life as a man who rose in the LAPD ranks, highly qualified and skilled in his profession. In the document he threatens the LAPD, comments on pop culture, cites poetry, thanks mentors, and above all, seems what some have called, “undeniably human.” The document doesn’t look overly planned or extensively edited and doctored. It’s plain, but passionate. The manifesto doesn’t set out a particular ideology, yet it’s clearly imbued with his values and a particular understanding of the LAPD. In the end, it seems honest and paints a picture of a man who believed the system couldn’t change with rhetoric alone.

I understand Dorner’s frustration, I’ve felt the struggle to be heard and recognized as valuable. But is it moral to identify with a murderer?

I recently commented on a Facebook post a friend made that claimed even the mention of Dorner’s name would valorize and celebrate him. This ‘Voldemort syndrome’ is a little ridiculous for me, but it says something about the climate of this country and the celebrity of extreme behavior. I responded to the post by saying that understanding someone’s story is a greater challenge than ignoring it. But is that true for this case?

Can we justify identifying with a criminal who has traded in his ethos for violence?

The manifesto was intended to be read by you and I when this story blew up, meaning Dorner took the time to plan his performance. He is an actor on a stage, building an identity that thousands will read, identify with, and come to know through his manifesto. The attention Dorner is receiving won’t go away if we ignore him or refuse to speak his name. People are going to stare, attention will be paid, identification will occur, the manifesto will be read. There’s no stopping the media machine. So the question becomes, what kind of attention should we give people like Dorner?

My answer is similar to my reply on Facebook; knowing the story of those with power is important. Understanding how someone becomes a cruel death-dealer to change a system they feel otherwise powerless in is important. How else can we air the inequities? How else can we discuss the possible options? Dorner feels as if the leadership of the LAPD is immune to rhetorical persuasion or collaboration, and the only other option he saw was forced change, forced attention.

We accept, in our society, that only certain organizations have the right to kill. The law, imbued with the trust of its citizens, works to dole out lethal engagement only when absolutely necessary, done strictly by the book.  But Dorner thinks the book has been written without his consent, isolated in the hands of the powerful, unjust and uncaring in its punishment. Dorner believes his only option to change the system is the power of the gun. Not only the physical power of the bullet, but also the rhetorical attention our society pays to the extreme.

A lack of rhetorical options, or a perceived lack, breeds force. So we should be asking, how can we advertise our rhetorical openness? How can we show men like Dorner that there’s always another way? It’s a question worth asking, but the media has been remiss in this respect. I’m hinting at the larger discourse around mental illness and psychological treatment in the US that is seemingly absent in most coverage of these shootout stories.

Maybe no level of openness, no psychological treatment, no possible route of action could have been taken against Dorner, and the point is a fair one. Some people are convinced that their rhetoric is powerless, convinced that they need force to make others consider their position. Some people are convinced that no one understands, that no one listens, that no one cares.

But I don’t want to play doctor or the hero/villain media game. I choose to see the human frustration beneath the monstrous action. I know people will argue over his beliefs, and hate his intentions, and decry his horrid actions. But if we forget that he murdered to increase his rhetorical power, when he felt he had none, we’ll never understand why this dangerous move to force. In the end, Dorner should be punished for questioning incorrectly, and taking human life in the process, but not for questioning at all.  That’s what got us here in the first place.

If you want to know more:

  • Here’s an interesting article by Anna Quindlen which responds to another violent tragedy with both horror and understanding.
  • To learn more about empowerment, and the process of giving a voice and personal agency to individuals, check out Chapter 5 of Linda Flower’s book Community Literacy and the Rhetoric of Public Engagement.
  • Another interesting source on empowerment is Paolo Freire’s conception of social transformation through conscientizado, which he explores in Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
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