I try not to pry overmuch in the affairs of my Lego town, but the citizens insisted that they send off Donald Trump in an appropriate manner. They invited me as photographer.
It was important to me as a kid that evil people be smart. My father’s education and erudition made his awfulness seem more…purposeful, perhaps, more like a brilliant idea gone horribly wrong than an accident of testosterone. It’s somehow worse to be beaten by a thug than by a genius.
You take the comforts where you can.
Which is why Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac was so important to me when I read it in the late 1980s: I needed to know that some of the people who hurt us are just too brilliant to stop, and there was nothing we could do.
I thought about that yesterday when I read the Zodiac killer’s 340-character message from more than fifty years ago, cracked by some brilliant sleuths. As expected, it’s a window into the mind of a troubled genius:
I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME
THAT WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW
WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME
I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER
BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER
BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME
WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE
SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH
I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS
LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH
Or…maybe not so much.
What’s interesting about this message (other than it being almost certainly written by an acne-scarred edgelord beating off in his mother’s basement), is that it took half a century to decipher not so much because of its intricate execution or sophisticated message, but because the code was sloppy and the message a banal repetition of his letters to the press.
All this time, we’ve been applying diabolical logic to a man with the mind of a 13-year-old boy who assaulted the easiest targets he could manage and claimed credit for the ones he couldn’t.
(Which does not diminish the hard work of the codebreakers at all; the crack is an amazing achievement of patience and insight.)
Hannah Arendt wrote long ago about how disappointing the “master race” of Nazis proved to be once they finally stood in the dock for their crimes, and I found the same thing when I spoke to my father again after twenty years of silence. As I listened to his misapplied vocabulary and cliched insight, I realized that he was never smarter than any of the people he harmed…only more comfortable faking it.
For decades of my life, I’ve studied (and written about) terrible people, trying to find some malevolent intelligence: Lee Harvey Oswald. Gary Ridgeway. John Wayne Gacy. Joseph De Angelo. Dennis Rader. Ted Bundy. Charles Manson. Idi Amin. Jim Jones. The 9/11 hijackers. Osama bin Laden.
My father was nowhere near as bad as the Nazis or any of these other men, of course, but he was the earliest reason in my life to question what good people could do about bad ones. What do they have in common, aside from being males who feel entitled to harm others for their pleasure?
For a time, we applied the best intelligence we had to stopping them, and when that didn’t work, we thought it was because they were smarter than us.
But when we finally found them, they all turned out to be lucky idiots who flowed between the gaps of our assumptions. They were all mediocre people who found evil easier than even the smallest effort for good and who patched their inadequacies with shortcuts and con games and violence.
The reason we didn’t catch them right away wasn’t that it was hard to think up to their level…it’s that it was hard to think down to it, to take on the banal reasoning of desperate losers.
I’m not sure what that means for thwarting these horrible people while they’re at the height of their power, except perhaps that we should remember that every single one of them turned out to be lesser than us, not greater. Every single one.
I have no idea who the Zodiac is, though I suspect that someone like Arthur Leigh Allen is perhaps pathetic enough to be a likely culprit. What I do know is that when we discover his identity, he will be a staggering disappointment of a human being.
Such men cause great harm and havoc, but their times are always brief.
Sometimes only one term.
I’m going to Lowe’s today to buy a giant slab of marble on which I can carve an explanation of these times to the survivors wandering the smoldering hellscape. It’ll take awhile, I know, but what else am I doing?
Greetings, traveler! Tarry a moment from your scrounging for canned food and read these words of explanation for the horrors you behold!
Three generations of Americans, trained by bad movies and television to believe that heroism is the pursuit of an ideal without compromise or compassion, discovered a place where we could feel the endorphin rush of fighting evil but with none of the risk: the Internet.
Online, we chose our sides between the Enjoyers of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s good because it makes us hard) and the Resisters of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s bad because it makes us hard). We filtered our friends and our news by the dramatic passion they enflamed, and we competed to assert our commitment to the tribe with ever more exaggerated perspectives and actions. We made hasty judgments on sketchy information and then rationalized the results.
Constant and instant exposure to both the worst people we agreed with and the worst ones we didn’t distorted our perceptions of the importance, frequency, and scope of the problems we fought to solve. With no mitigating perspectives, we developed over-simplified theories of how the world works and pursued them off a cliff.
Inevitably, we dared each other to prove our commitment to our theories in the real world. Every occurrence became a symbol of why we were right, and every action became a desperate do-or-die fight for the nature of reality.
Two million years of outdated and unquestioned human evolutionary software turned us into self-righteous “heroes” fighting for the things we were most blindly wrong about.
If you’ve found this, we didn’t figure it out in time.
One minute you’re tweeting your perfectly reasonable advice about getting over race and gender in this country, and the next, you’re hiding your Porsche in the garage from a fusillade of socks soaked in warm vomit.
Man, this job would be so much better without the fans, am I right?
The good news is that you still have the house, the car, the second house in Sundance, a current passport, and enough money to go completely Charles Foster Kane on their asses. You can hole up in Xanadu and let them gossip in awed tones about the cool mysterious things you’re doing (playing video games in your underwear, writing poetry, and learning to carve scrimshaw from YouTube).
The bad news is that you’re going to have to lie low for a while. That’s not a terrible thing; some people have done their best work in exile. You’re no Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but celebrity is KIND OF a life’s work, too. This is your chance to take a breather, let the career inertia fade, and then choose any new path you want.
Nobody is asking you for another painful movie about the characters you’ve come to resent. Nobody’s asking you to say your catch phrase or write another song like the last ten.
You’re free. Put your feet up and enjoy your time in the penalty box.
Here’s the thing to remember: America is where generations of (primarily white) fuck-ups came to escape the mistakes they made in other countries. We’re all predisposed to a good comeback story because there’s a deep guilt in each of us for the one thing we wish we could do again better.
But first comes the sacrifice of the Designated Sinner.
Someone has to go in the Wicker Man every now and then to burn for our cultural sins of racism and sexism and homophobia and genocide and all the other shit, and this time — just like the guy in the movie — you kind of deserve it.
Really, it’s an honor. They don’t put Paula from Accounting in the Wicker Man. If you’re worth bringing down, you’re worth something. Hold on to that.
So here’s the plan.
- Spend the next six months letting yourself hit rock bottom. (Men, switch to wearing denim shorts and those adventure sandals that strap around your heels. Women, shave your head. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.)
- Then have a photogenic meltdown in a public place. Throw a cup of beer at a toddler during a baseball game. Threaten a flight attendant for not letting you smoke. The point is to show everyone you suck as much as they think you do.
- Next, take two years to work on whatever thing you love (your comedy, your novel, your solo album) until it is the best you can make it: emotional, soulful, and above all, penitent. If you have to, get help from someone who actually has feelings.
- Then begin the apology tour. One of the late night hosts will almost certainly let you on the show, and that’s where you can tell the world what you’ve learned…and the beautiful thing you’ve made to express how sorry you are.
What HAVE you learned? Well, it would be wonderful if you could say (plausibly) that you’ve listened to the people you’ve hurt to make amends. If you can’t do that, you’ve at least learned to shut the fuck up about things you don’t know much about, right? That’s almost as good.
Slowly, you creep your way back into the tribe by letting people feel good about forgiving you.
Luckily for you, we all have exactly six active slots available in our brains for grudges…and your egregious replacement just logged in.