63. Of Rulers

January 8, 2011

Tucson, Arizona

Randy worked at Walmart, in the sporting goods section. The store had just opened for the morning — and already, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a customer approaching. Male, white, early 20’s, wearing a black hat and a black hooded sweatshirt. He looked like he was in a hurry, as he stepped up to the counter. “Hey, uh, are you available? Are you open?”

“Yeah, what do you need?”

“I need some bullets.”

Something about the way the kid said it made the hair on Randy’s neck stand on end. He wasn’t quite sure what it was, but he had sold a ton of guns and tons of bullets to a ton of people, and none of them ever made him feel like this. This is bad.

Still, he followed his sales script. “What kind of bullets?”

“I need some nine millimeters.”

Randy unlocked the ammo case, and was relieved when he saw inside. “Sorry, we’re all out of 9mm.”

The kid immediately got frustrated. “Well, do you have ‘em in the back? Can you go look?!”

Randy knew there were plenty more boxes of 9mm in the stockroom. But he only pretended to go look for them. No way was he selling anything to this kid. He walked to the back, waited a couple seconds, then hollered from the doorway, “There’s nothing!”

The kid left, angry. There was another Walmart, in the next town.

* * *

Less than an hour later, he was opening a box in his car. One by one, he loaded the 9mm bullets into two extended magazines for his Glock 19 pistol. 33 rounds each. Then he started his car, and headed back to Tucson.

He stopped at a yellow light. Pulling in behind him in the lane, there was a state wildlife officer, in his duty vehicle. As the officer came to a stop, he could swear that the guy in the black hat in front of him saw him in his rearview mirror, and in fact was even making eye contact with him, when suddenly, the guy just hit the gas, and drove right through the red light. Bizarre.

The officer pulled him over, and asked what he was doing. “Just kinda driving around,” he replied.

The officer chastised him for not paying attention, but ultimately said he was going to let him go without a ticket. “When I said that to him,” the officer remembers, “his face got kinda screwed up and he started to cry. And that struck me as a little odd.” The officer asked if he was OK.

“Yeah, I’m OK, I’ve just had a-a-a rough time, and I really thought I was gonna get a ticket.”

“So you’re OK?” the officer repeated.

“Yeah. I’m going home.” Then he shook the officer’s hand, and drove off. The officer didn’t see any guns in the car. Just a black bag.

* * *

His parents were waiting for him at home. He wasn’t supposed to take the car without permission. In fact, his dad had even been disabling it at night, disconnecting the battery and then plugging it back in when they got up in the morning — they didn’t want him going out at after dark. He was acting too weird lately. Talking to himself. And they were still pissed about him getting thrown out of community college; the school actually said he was dangerous. Something about videos he put on the internet, rambling about mind control. (They didn’t know about the Glock — but he had bought it legally. NICS said he was okay.)

A car pulled into the driveway. They rushed outside to confront their son, who was getting out of the car with a black bag in his hands, nodding to his dad, “What’s up?”

His father started asking him about the bag, and where he’d been all morning. “I need to talk to you.”

The young man paused, then suddenly turned, and sprinted away down the street. His father tried to follow, but he couldn’t catch up. Last he saw, his son was heading north on foot, with the black bag over his shoulder.

La Toscana Village Shopping Center — Tucson, Arizona

The cab stopped in front of the Safeway store. There was a big banner in the parking lot: “CONGRESS ON YOUR CORNER.” Emails and phone calls had been going out all week about the event, an opportunity for the people of Tucson to meet the representative from their district, face-to-face.

The young man in the black hat went over and talked to one of the congresswoman’s staff members. Said he needed to talk to her. They told him he just needed to get in line, and he would have the opportunity in a minute. So he did.

He and the congresswoman had actually met once before, in 2007 — at another “Congress On Your Corner” event, very much like this one. He had attended the Q&A forum then, and even asked her a question, a bizarre sort of query that he would pose to nearly anyone who would listen (especially on the internet) over the years since: “What is government if words have no meaning?”

Her response was essentially just to politely thank him, and move on to the next question — what could you possibly reply with, after all? — and he had been incensed by the “fake” congresswoman ever since. He still had the thank-you letter her office had sent him (and everyone else who attended), secured in a safe in his bedroom. He had written two sets of words across the outside of the envelope: “MY ASSASSINATION” — and then her name. “I PLANNED AHEAD” — and then his own.

The line started to move. The congresswoman had arrived. Someone started to hand a clipboard, with a sign-in sheet, to the young man in the black hat. Instead, he put in earplugs, shoved his way to the front of the line, pulled the Glock with the giant magazine sticking out of it from his backpack, and shot the congresswoman right in the forehead. Mission accomplished.

But he still had 32 more bullets in the magazine. So he turned the gun on the stunned crowd, and just continued shooting, for no real reason at all. A judge. A pastor. A campaign worker. A nine-year-old girl. He didn’t care. He fired every shot.

One of the witnesses in the crowd had a concealed weapon on him at the time, but the whole thing was over so fast, there was no chance to use it.

When the gunman went to reload, a bystander hit him with a folding chair, while another, a Vietnam vet, put him in a choke-hold, forcing him to let go of the gun. When the veteran then picked up the Glock, its fresh magazine fell out, not yet locked into place. A woman picked that up.

The man with the Glock looked over to her, and said, “Give me the clips, I’m gonna shoot the son of a bitch.”

She refused. “Put that gun down, and step on it, and keep your foot there.” He did. (Later, he told investigators he had experienced a “combat reaction.”)

The crowd had the shooter pinned to the ground. The woman with the clips went over to see his face. “How could you do this?” she cried. “How could you hate so much?” But he said nothing. There was no expression on his face at all.

* * *

The police were there six minutes later, and they took the shooter away. He was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia. The jail had to force him to take anti-psychotic medication, but eventually, his mental state did seem to stabilize somewhat. Enough that he could stand trial.

However, when he found out that the congresswoman had ultimately survived his attack, he refused to believe it. Even after he saw her speaking on TV. “I swear to you that’s not the woman I shot. The woman I shot in the head died instantly. No one could survive that.”

Other times, he was more forthcoming about where this denial came from — and why, despite the fact that he had killed so many, it was the senator’s survival that was so tied to his own existence: “It means I failed. That I’m not an assassin. That I ruined my life for nothing.”

January 10, 2011

Hartford, Connecticut

In one of his very first acts in-office, Connecticut’s new governor ordered the flags to be flown at half-staff, in recognition of the tragedy that had just unfolded in Tucson. He, in turn, was following a directive from President Obama, who in his immediate response to the shooting said that the “Congress On Your Corner” program was “the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country.”

The newly sworn-in governor of Connecticut, Dannel P. Malloy, had been vying for the office for years, while serving as the mayor of Stamford from 1999 to 2009 — a role that had already provided him a wealth of experience. He was there in 2003, when a Stamford woman’s pet chimp escaped from her SUV and brought downtown to a standstill, while the city cheered. (And he was still in office six years later, when the animal’s life ended in a horrifying scene out on Rock Rimmon Road.)

After observing a moment of silence for Tucson, Malloy told reporters that the attack should present the country with “an opportunity to reflect on our dialogue.” For his part, like many, he had already seen the shooter’s bizarre online writings in the wake of the attack, and found that the situation “[causes] me to wonder whether we’re doing enough in our society for the mentally ill.”

“The Daily Show” — New York, New York

It was a Monday, which meant the week’s first filming of an episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The tongue-in-cheek “news” program had become a central source of information for many, many Americans — especially young adults. And ever since 9/11, a significant portion of them found themselves looking to the show’s host, for clarity in times of chaos.

It had already been a long weekend, with bitter political rivals blaming each other for what the gunman in Tucson had done. One narrative that had gained traction (despite it being completely false) was that the recently-resigned governor of Alaska — the NRA-friendly running mate of Obama’s opponent in 2008 — had influenced the gunman’s choice of target, because her PAC had published a map of the United States with crosshairs over a few dozen politically-vulnerable congressional districts. Tucson had been one of them.

The show’s rousing opening theme hit, and the camera panned to Stewart’s face, nodding thank-yous to the crowd. As their applause faded, he struggled to crack a smile, and went through the awkward motions of introducing the evening’s program, before reality came back. “We live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations, and I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine,” he said. But he also admitted that he did not know it was even possible at all to “make sense” of mass shootings:

Boy, would it be nice to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible, because then we could convince ourselves that if we just stop this, the horrors will end. You know, to have the feeling, however fleeting, that this type of event can be prevented forever. But it’s hard not to feel like you can’t [draw that line.] You cannot outsmart crazy. You don’t know what a troubled mind will get caught on. Crazy always seems to find a way. It always has.

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

The door was closed.

Someone on the Columbine forum posted that evening’s episode of The Daily Show. He watched the clip, but wasn’t at all impressed with Stewart’s words, and he was particularly irked that the overlapping of categories — mass shooting and political assassination — was what was increasing the shooter’s notoriety:

Smiggles: …Like everyone, he advises to treat the symptoms rather than determining whatever causes there may be. Overall, he was fumbling around not saying anything meaningful. The way which this particular incident is being treated is frustrating to me. [The 2009 Binghamton shooter] inflicted a similar number of casualties with more than double the deaths not too long ago, and he was virtually ignored compared to this. I hate how the lives of state-sanctioned thugs are treated as if they’re more valuable than that of anyone else.

* * *

The next day, he logged in at the Columbine forum again. He was stunned at what he saw there, but not for anything having to do with Tucson: overnight, the forum’s total “article counter” had dropped, from just over 50,000, down to 22,585. Huge chunks of conversation — amateur research that he had been browsing freely since 2006 — were suddenly gone, without warning.

He posted a new thread, and asked what was going on. Danny, the Columbine game’s designer, replied. “Unfortunately I have to pay for bandwidth and storage and had to activate pruning on posts older than 90 days.”

Danny didn’t really care about Columbine much anymore, anyway; the “conversation” he wanted to start with his game had long since run its course.

The user at 36 Yogananda was surely upset about the event — what some forum users would remember as “The Purge.” Many of his own posts were among those erased, including “Comprehensive list of mass murderers and their attributes,” the very spot that had marked his arrival after years of silent lurking. The topic was left neglected by everyone on the forum months ago, and now it was gone for good. His life’s work, rejected by his peers. Nobody cared.

Still, he decided to stay on the Columbine forum. It was better than leaving the house.

* * *

In a thread titled “body mods?” users were talking about their piercings and tattoos. He one-upped them.

Smiggles: I castrated myself when I was 15 to rebel against society.

It wasn’t true, but nobody was really sure when Smiggles was serious or not. And he was starting to develop a reputation for saying outrageous things.

In another thread, they were talking about the ATF, and its latest political scandal, “Gunwalker.” Nobody in the conversation had even mentioned rampage attacks; he just brought it up.

Smiggles: I’m still waiting for a mass shooter who eschews 9mm pistols and instead buys an AK-47 pistol, 30 30-round magazines, and 1000 hollow points…

Everyone ignored him, and went on talking politics.

January 11, 2011

KWVA Campus Radio — University of Oregon, Eugene

It was Tuesday evening. At seven o’clock, the “ON THE AIR” sign lit up, and Anarchy Radio was beamed out all over the university town of Eugene, carrying the soft, deep voice of anarchist philosopher John Zerzan. He had been a recognizable figure at the Unabomber’s trial in the 1990s — in fact, he had expressed support for the ideals in Industrial Society and its Future even before the ghost was dragged out of his cabin and identified in 1996 — but their views were not quite identical. He didn’t advocate violence against human beings, for one. “Will there be other Kaczynskis?” Zerzan asked rhetorically, in an interview with The Guardian in 2001. “I hope not. I think that activity came out of isolation and desperation, and I hope that isn’t going to be something that people feel they have to take up because they have no other way to express their opposition to the brave new world.”

The intro music faded. Zerzan liked to start his show with the latest headlines, and that meant Tucson. “People were shot outside of a Safeway, by… well, somebody who is probably pretty emotionally disturbed,” he said. “Reminds one of the fellow at Virginia Tech a few years ago.” He dismissed the political explanation, as Jon Stewart had, but he didn’t balk at offering a better one. “It really has so much more to do with this huge syndrome…the techno-culture is so bereft, it’s just a malignancy. And everything is possible now.” And the root problem was fundamental to the post-Industrial culture trying to study it. “Any opportunity to avoid the more basic reality is taken, then, to stay on this sort of wavelength of denial. You look for a way out, instead of contending with that.”

Zerzan had been at this for a long time. He was used to his ideas being dismissed; “They say: ‘Oh, you want to be a caveman,’” the New York Times once quoted him. “Well, maybe that’s somewhat true.” Meanwhile, the supposedly-inexplicable incidents of mass violence just kept coming.

As radio shows go, Anarchy Radio was small, just broadcasting on a local college station in Oregon. But for years now, the signal had been going out over the internet, too, where practically anyone could listen.

Office of Dr. Paul Fox, MD — Brookfield, Connecticut

Dr. Fox started scheduling the Patient’s visits in the evenings — the last session of the day, so that they could go out to dinner afterward. There was a pizza place just down the road, and their meals together were part of the treatment for her eating disorder, so they told each other. But they would talk over dinner, and laugh, and she had fun.

One night, he suggested they order out. The Patient went to pick up the pizza.

She had been thinking about him more than ever. How could she not? “The three little words as you describe them are bursting into myself,” he had emailed her that month. “My sense and my soul, whatever that is.”

According to her diary, they had kissed, not long after he said the words. It happened several times. They would both swear off doing it, then relapse, then swear it off again. He would tell her about the lack of intimacy he felt with his wife, and how different things were with her, his Patient.

And they were still growing closer. She knew, because he had called on her once, saying he needed her help: there was a former patient of his whom he was concerned about — the young woman was threatening to file a malpractice suit against him, or something like that — and the Patient was Facebook friends with her. Dr. Fox said he needed evidence from her profile. “The more information we get about her that shows she’s doing OK, the more protected I am,” he said in a voicemail.

The Patient did as he asked. It meant he trusted her even more. That he wouldn’t leave.

Suddenly, she realized she was going too fast for the turn, and hit the brakes. Her car went off the road, and rolled over, coming to rest in a clearing. The car was totaled, but somehow, she didn’t have a scratch.

She called Dr. Fox, and he came and picked her up. He drove them back up to his office. As soon as he opened the door, though, the Patient noticed something was different: the lights were dimmed, and there was the scent of burnt wax, wafting from candles that had been extinguished all around the room when her doctor got her call. He’d had plans.

February 18, 2011

SHOOTERS Pistol Range — New Milford, Connecticut

Nancy took her son to an indoor shooting range in New Milford, about 13 miles upstream on the Housatonic. SHOOTERS specialized in pistol rentals, and advertised itself as “a safe & fun activity for the whole family!”

There was a sign-in sheet. Nancy signed, then her son — in print that looked just like the shopping list for the guns and ammunition, in the closet back home.

They stayed at SHOOTERS for 35 minutes, according to Nancy’s sign-out time. There’s a good chance they rented a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol during their session: the P226. It was the sidearm of the US Navy Seals, and five days later, Nancy bought one. It was her latest purchase from Riverview Gun Sales, and another addition to the family gun safe, in the computer room.

March 13, 2011

Phoenix, Arizona

The Arizona Daily Star published an op-ed column, written by President Obama. “Now, like the majority of Americans, I believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” he wrote. “And the courts have settled that as the law of the land.” But since the shooting in Tucson just two months before, he continued, “We have lost perhaps another 2,000 members of our American family to gun violence. Thousands more have been wounded. We lose the same number of young people to guns every day and a half as we did at Columbine, and every four days as we did at Virginia Tech.”

Despite the fears of a “gun grab” that greeted his election, President Obama had only signed two gun laws since taking office: one to allow Amtrak passengers to carry guns in their checked baggage, and one to let visitors to national parks possess concealed weapons. The op-ed was the first hint that his administration was even considering attempting to restrict gun sales. And his stated goal was a modest one: finish the job of fixing the NICS background check system, as was supposed to have been done after Virginia Tech. “We must do better,” he said. “Most gun owners know that the word ‘commonsense’ isn’t a code word for ‘confiscation.’ And none of us should be willing to remain passive in the face of violence or resigned to watching helplessly as another rampage unfolds on television.”

April 2011

AMC Loews Danbury 16 Theater — Danbury, Connecticut

Dave worked at the movie theater, off US Route 6 near WCSU. It was a big 16-screen corporate multiplex, at one end of a huge parking lot that it shared with a couple big-box retailers. Dave tore tickets, and sometimes worked the concession stand. The upside of working at the Danbury 16 was, it featured a big video arcade in the lobby. Where else could a guy play Dance Dance Revolution on his breaks?

His schedule got changed that month. Dave didn’t usually work weekends. So when he went for his usual DDR session, he didn’t recognize the teenager in the hoodie who was already playing. “That’s DDR guy,” a passing coworker said. “He’s here every weekend.” (Such trips to the arcade were, so far, the most significant result of Nancy and Peter Lanza getting their son to obtain a driver’s license, and purchasing him a car.)

Dave waited for the song to end, so he could board the other platform — but then he watched DDR guy immediately queue up another song, and keep right on hopping to the rhythm, pouring sweat but not slowing down.

Dave nodded to his co-worker at the concession stand. “How long does he play like that?”

Hours. Sometimes he’s here all day. Nonstop.”

“That’s crazy.” When the next song was about to come up again, Dave walked over to the cabinet, and put a token on the rim of the screen — the universal arcade-gamer’s signal for “I got next.”

DDR guy paused for a breath, and saw him waiting. “Are you going to play?”

Dave said yes, and then they played a match together — jumping back and forth on their respective platforms to the same song, but not really interacting. When they were done, Dave introduced himself, and asked his dance partner’s name — but DDR guy didn’t respond. He didn’t even acknowledge the question, actually. It was really awkward.

Dave had to work the next day, too. A five hour shift. DDR guy was there when he got there, and was still playing when he left. He also appeared to be wearing the same clothes as the day before — or maybe just an identical hoodie, and pair of khakis.

May 3, 2011

36 Yogananda — Sandy Hook, Connecticut

With the AR-15 in the house, the Ruger must have seemed obsolete. Nancy put it on Gunbroker, and someone bought it for $400; she packed up the old Mini-14, and shipped it off. The buyer left her an A+ review: “Nancy was great to deal with, new seller with a great attitude. Highly recommended, will work hard to make transaction smooth. A+”

* * *

Upstairs, the door was closed.

His 19th birthday had just passed, and it had been a long time since he posted anything at GameFAQs. But he found that his old “Blarvink” login still worked.

It had also been awhile since he had played his all-time favorite PC game, too. He missed World of Warcraft, but starting yet another new character just didn’t have the same appeal anymore. There was only the void, where Azeroth used to be.

He found GameFAQs’ WoW sub-forum, and started a new topic — “”Other games like this?” — in which he tried to explain to the other users just what appealed to him about the game in the first place, and the atypical way he navigated its worlds:

Blarvink: I played it often because I greatly enjoyed the game’s atmosphere. In addition to its endearing graphics, I liked how you could go anywhere you wanted to at any level, and you could appreciate the design of the environments in the way you wanted. …A game like Minecraft might be recommended, but that feels unbearably and depressingly empty to me. The environment itself wasn’t the only aspect I enjoyed about World of Warcraft’s atmosphere: I also liked how the world was filled with outposts, towns, and cities which had many non-playable characters you could talk to. One of my characters was played for over a couple hundred hours without ever even reaching Level 10 because I just roleplayed in Stormwind City.

A few days later, Blarvink logged back in. There were a few replies to his message, but it was just people talking about how great Minecraft was, ignoring what he said about about the game’s emptiness.

He logged out.

He went to the Columbine forum, logged in, and deleted all of his posts.

* * *

The outgoing signal from the user at 36 Yogananda went silent, and stayed that way for months. But the download stream flowing in continued, busier than ever; aside from his regular DDR trips, he still spent nearly all of his time in his room, online. Absorbing, and sorting.