Saturday, 16 February 2013

Death as Entertainment: A Discussion on the Hunt For Christopher Dorner

Warning: Boring post.

Now that the last embers have stopped glowing, and the last wisp of smoke has dissipated in the winter air, it’s perhaps time to take a look at the phenomenon of the Hunt for Christopher Dorner from the viewpoint of psychology.

In the course of this article I shall make the following assumptions, for convenience only, and not because I necessarily believe in their factuality:

First, that Mr Dorner is dead, and that – any claims to the contrary – the corpse found in the charred cabin was his. In fact, for the purposes of this article, Mr Dorner’s continued existence or otherwise is irrelevant.

Second, that the people who were alleged to have been killed by Mr Dorner were actually killed by Mr Dorner. Since this article is, basically, about the public psychological reaction to Mr Dorner’s alleged murder spree, and not about the murders per se, the question of his actual guilt is, again, irrelevant.

I would also like to disclose a couple of facts:

First, that I only heard of Mr Dorner at a very late stage of proceedings, and then it was the word “drone” which caught my attention (more on that in a moment) and

Second, that I am not particularly interested in the doings of an unhinged American ex-policeman going on a small-scale rampage in the US. I am, however, very interested in peoples’ psychological reactions, especially as moulded and manipulated by the media. After all, it is media moulding that “manufactures consent” for illegal imperialistic wars against inoffensive nations.

Third, that I will not, in the course of this article, rehash the events of either Mr Dorner's rampage or the hunt for him. I shall merely study the implications.


There is a book I read once upon a time, by the name of The Running Man, and written by Stephen King under the name of Richard Bachmann. Now, I’ve not exactly hidden my opinion about Mr King’s writing, and this book isn’t anything to make me change that opinion. But the basic idea was superb.

In a none too distant dystopic US, a game show involves sending fugitives out into the world with a few hours’ head start, and then sends out SWAT-style “hunters” to track him down and eliminate him. For every hour the fugitive can survive, he earns a bonus; if he kills a policeman, he earns another bonus; and if he can survive for thirty days, the jackpot of a billion dollars is his.

Thirty days doesn’t sound so tough, does it? Well, the record is eight.

The book’s premise is relatively simple. Televised game shows are the modern gladiatorial contest, with people hooked on to manhunts as entertainment so as to get their mind off their daily miseries. The book’s protagonist is also given a video recorder and a set of “tapes” (the novel was written in the early 1980s) to make a daily record to send to the show’s organisers. If the record wasn’t sent, the fugitive would lose the right to the money but be hunted indefinitely.

Of course, the whole thing was a set-up. The location from which the tapes were sent was revealed to the hunters, so they knew just where to go. The common people, on the other hand, stood to make a fortune as a reward if they turned in information on the fugitive, but if they harboured him or helped him in any way, they stood to be added to the target list. Obviously, the dice were loaded against the fugitive, and the show’s producers made every effort to make him look like an evil monster in order to turn society against him.

In the course of being on the run, King’s Running Man – who began as a man who had to take part in the show to recover his finances, get his sick daughter treated and stop his wife from having to prostitute herself – discovered that the agency which produced the show, and the government of which it was a part, kept the population starved and unhealthy in order to maintain control. When he mentioned this on his tapes, his voice was dubbed over and replaced by obscenities before broadcast. The chase required a hateful antagonist, not a simpatico hero.

This isn’t a review of the book, but as I came across Mr Dorner’s story, my mind immediately went back to it. An object of hate, on the run, with the hunt for him playing itself out on television, with all modern technological aids available involved? What more could a network want?

Well, it had a lot to work with – death, for instance: the deaths of Mr Dorner’s alleged victims, followed by his own, all as part of entertainment on a grand scale. The killing of an innocent young couple and an equally innocent policeman, who happened to be conveniently as black as Dorner himself, this freeing the networks of the taint of racism; it was a gift. And, just as the fugitive Running Man became a kind of underground hero to a lot of people, a surprising number became enamoured of Chris Dorner as a hero and resistance figure.

There was Dorner’s “manifesto”; a long, repetitive plaint about his treatment at the hands of the racist and corrupt Los Angeles Police Department which apparently exists online in several versions, one of which I read – without any great pleasure, may I add. Some of these versions apparently included (if the descriptions I have read of them online are anything to go by) fairly bizarre endorsements of various politicians and celebrities, including Hillary Clinton and George H W Bush, which – if true – makes his idolisation by “radicals” fairly surreal. But according to a lot of people, again, these versions of the “manifesto” were manipulated by persons unknown to make Dorner look silly. If so, we have another direct tie-in to the book.

Now, I have no opinion on the factuality of Dorner’s complaint against the LAPD. I take it for granted that the LAPD, like every other police force I know of, anywhere on the planet, is corrupt and incompetent – and it certainly proved its incompetence when it shot up various innocent citizens, thereby giving Dorner a credibility he may not have expected. But, as far as Dorner’s own complaints against the LAPD go – about the process which began with him lodging a protest against a fellow officer and ended with getting him sacked – I have no opinion. And it does not matter.

Self-defence measure

It does not matter because, in this case, Dorner himself obviously believed what he was saying, or acted exactly as he would have if he had himself believed what he was saying.  The fact that the LAPD belatedly declared that they would “revisit” the question of his sacking is neither here nor there – even if Dorner was fairly sacked, it didn’t change his motivation, or his actions.

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but Americans have in recent days been exercised over the question of drones being used in the Homeland and against Americans. As far as I’m concerned my position is clear – if Americans don’t like drones used against them, they should have protested when said drones were being used against non-Americans, and I’m not going to shed a single tear over them getting a taste of their own medicine. But, of course, if you are going to use drones, it becomes much easier if you can sort of ease into it by chasing...a notorious killer of innocent people, a big black hate object?

I think it does.

The entire Dorner saga, in any case, was a direct lift from popular entertainment. Not just entertainment from the public point of view, but clearly from Dorner’s as well – because there can be absolutely no doubt that he got the idea for his revenge against the police from the movie Rambo. A sane person, of course, wouldn’t take an action movie as a template for real life; but then a sane society is not hooked up to death and manhunts as entertainment.

I’m far from pointing to the US as unique in this respect, though the saturation of America with electronic entertainment makes it the leader. Media these days have long abandoned the slightest attempt at analysis or objectivity.  Since “grabbing eyeballs” is all that matters, there’s absolutely no doubt that there will be more of these televised “manhunts” as the days go on. I read somewhere that there could well be producers angling for the right to telecast executions. I would not be surprised.

Incidentally, The Running Man was made into an awful film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which had absolutely nothing to do with the book except that it shared the names of one and a half characters. There was one interesting thing about the film though – the protagonist was a policeman who had been unfairly sacked (and imprisoned) for protesting police brutality – just as Dorner claimed to have been.

Another thing about Dorner’s rampage was that it was obviously a suicide campaign; Dorner’s original “manifesto” made that clear enough. But of course he had to die, and in a spectacular fashion; everything demanded it. The media had to have a glorious last stand and a suitably dramatic death, for ratings. The police – for revenge and to shut Dorner up before he could talk of corruption in the department. The authorities, because nobody can be seen to take up arms against the power structure and survive, for obvious reasons; and Dorner himself, because going out in a blaze of glory (and it happened in a literal blaze) was the only ending that made any sense to his situation.

They all got what they wanted.

At this point, again, the facts of the case don’t matter – the perceptions do. Obviously, Dorner’s personal saga came to a swift end, and his threats against his alleged tormentors remained entirely unfulfilled. The story of Dorner has ended. But there are other Dorners, and the media is still there, waiting.

The story of death as entertainment is only just beginning.


  1. Terrible things happen. When they happen in America to American people, we linger on every detail, to the point where it is violence porn. Those (white) (mostly) kids at Sandy Hook, CT, got shot up and we got days and days of it, unnecessary days. (Disturbingly there were discussions about whether this was the worst shooting, thereby tempting someone to create a worse shooting.) During this time, I believe there were several drone strikes that killed non-American children in Afghanistan/Pakistan and not a bit of attention was paid. I guess the -stan kids weren't cute enough. On to Dorner.

    The time that was spent viewing the burning cabin was NOT spent discussing the issues of the upcoming SOTU address or Obama's position on drone attacks. Or anything beyond what Michelle Obama might wear.

    The whole Dorner affair - the coverage of it - was carefully choreographed pornography to distract us from the carnage taking place now far away, and the carnage that might take place, soon, not so far away.

    There'll be more.


  3. You connected the dots on this one brilliantly, Bill. I'd the same thoughts, myself, as the whole story was unfolding.

    Panem et circenses, indeed.

    Good bad or indifferent - King's book is proving to be prescient....

  4. First of all, I am glad I'm not the only one who does not think much of the odious writing of Stephen King. I am consistently stunned by how many otherwise intelligent readers believe he is a writer. (STILL better than the shockingly bad John Grisham, however...)

    I am also happy that you were able to enunciate that, for the purposes of your analysis, it doesn't matter whether this guy's complaints had merit. It is exactly the treatment of worthless nuts that determines how seriously a society values the rights of its citizens.

    All that being said, I wish that one of these manifestos - just one! - could be written just a little more coherently. So you have committed a crime, captured the country's attention for a day or two - take advantage of that by getting a coherent rant out to the masses!

    Ah well.


Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.