Fire Walk With Me
The snow is back on the ground here in NYC and the air is cold enough to keep me inside all day. In my apartment I can hardly feel my feet despite the best efforts of my small radiator. It’s hard to believe that only last week it was 75 degrees and sunny here.
I spent that day inside the Nation’s offices, under the glow of flourescent lights. When I finally stepped outside at around 9 pm, I had forgotten how warm the weather was.
I set out from Union Square for the West Village. I walked fast, passing a b-boy crew modeling freezes for revelers on the Square, past cafes rumbling with the slurred chatter of the half-drunk after-work crowd, past thousands and thousands of faces. I felt slightly ashamed for experiencing the sense of strangeness that accompanies being among so many people I will wonder about endlessly but never know. That feeling is a New York City cliche exhausted in sheafs of literature and the many — too many — films that muse about the “degrees of separation” between subway riders.
But the feeling is inescapable. Cliches are cliches because they are true, after all.
Crossing W. 4th St, I sensed an atmospheric shift; I had entered a newly nervous city. Cops milled around in every direction: detectives, beat cops, SWAT team members, literally hundreds of them pouring out of squad cars and paddy wagons. Most of them seemed forlorn. Everyone else seemed confused, whispering questions as they stood waiting to cross one of the many barriers the police had erected to seal off what I soon learned was the scene of a heinous crime.
I walked down the narrow streets of the Village. The police presence intensified there. On Sullivan St, where a crowd of residents had assembled waiting for permission to go home, the klieg lights of local news crews emitted an eerie glow, projecting the shadows of bystanders on to the walls above now-empty restaurants and bars.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly was somewhere nearby, inspecting the site where a bartender and two cops had just been executed.
About an hour earlier, a 42 year old man named David Garvin walked into De Marco’s Pizzeria with a .357 revolver, a Ruger 9 millimeter pistol, 100 rounds of ammo, and shot a bartender in the back 13 times. Two unarmed auxiliary cops pursued Garvin down the block. He turned back and killed them too.
Minutes later, Garvin was gunned down by NYPD officers arriving on the scene. He apparently planned to escape with a disguise that included a glue-on beard.
Portrait of a killer
What motivated Garvin to murder? Days later, nobody knows. Regular patrons of DeMarco’s say he had never clashed with the bartender he killed. He was a failed filmmaker with no criminal record, no record of violence. Garvin’s only recorded signs of mental instability were several passive aggressive emails he sent to married women who had rebuked his romantic advances.
In his stalkeresque missives, described in the NY Times on Saturday, Garvin reminds me of countless men who have described to me their tactless conquests, and who so often describe the women who denied their advances as a symbol of all their failures. Of course, I have only suspected one or two of them of sinister impulses.
Garvin’s brother told the NY Daily News that his brother became unhinged after the 9/11 attacks and obsessed over Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” He may have suffered from paranoia, but was never diagnosed. Garvin’s aggressive episodes prior to his crime were strange, but by no means harbingers of the exceptionally brazen and calculated crime he would commit.
Serial killers like the “BTK” killer, a Kansas Lutheran church elder and family man named Dennis Rader, rarely leave clues about their dark tendencies either. But Garvin does not fit the profile of a typical serial killer. For all his aggressive tendencies towards women, there is no evidence suggesting that Garvin was preoccupied with sexually perverse fantasies as most serial killers are.
Garvin initially reminded me of the characters in Mark Ames’ book, “Going Postal,” which discusses the workplace killings and school shootings in the context of Clinton’s “New Economy” and the mouting alienation of 1990′s America. Yet unlike Garvin, the Columbine killers and practically every so-called “disgrunted postal worker” had some grievance with their peers that sparked their murderous outbursts.
Unless more conclusive information surfaces about Garvin’s past, his motivations may forever elude understanding. In this sense — and only in this sense — Garvin is not unlike other seemingly well-adjusted people who suddenly exhibit extreme behavior, from serial killers to terrorists to political radicals. It is possible to develop a direction for understanding subjects like these, but it is not productive or even possible to gather a full understanding of them.
As a journalist who has reported on the far right for several years, I have been able to detect and document distinct patterns in the personal motivations of my subjects. Thus I have identified a subset among the right that I call CCC’s, or Conflicted Conservatives in Crisis. CCC’s are often radicalized through a personal crisis that they hold liberals responsible for causing. (Case in point: anti-abortion activist Leslee Unruh, who had an abortion in her 20′s). They are among the conservative movement’s most aggressive, eliminationist figures because their involvement in politics was spurred by such intimate experiences.
For CCC’s, backlash conservatism is cheap self-medication; it allows them to project their unresolved issues on to social groups that represent what they can not stand about themselves. But because cheap self-medication rarely works, CCC’s often display a massive gulf between their private actions and the political positions they take in public. This is why Ted Haggard, a CCC who could be seen proselytizing outside Colorado Springs gay bars during the early 1990′s, has been driven into obscurity by embarassed former colleagues.
Ted Haggard, a CCC
Even as my work led me to recognize the CCC complex as an essential thread of right-wing sociology, I could never claim a complete understanding of what makes right-wing radicals tick. To do so would be to ignore Robert Altermeyer’s landmark study “The Authoritarian Spectre,” which provided the basis for John Dean’s “Conservatives Without Conscience;” David Neiwert’s “The Rise of Pseudo-Fascism;” and Don Warren’s “The Radical Center.”
Some CCC’s are what Altman calls RWA’s, or Right-Wing Authoritarians, some (perhaps most) are Pseudo-Fascists, and some are what Warren identifies as MAR’s, or Middle American Radicals. But certainly not all CCC’s are. Since there are no easy answers, I try my best to avoid reductionism.
Reductionism is a familiar technique of right-wing literature about liberals and other assorted evil-doers. It would be easy to point a finger here at the books of Michael Savage (a classic CCC), Michael Smerconish or Michelle Malkin, but why waste time analyzing the work of figures whose negligible intellectual capacities render nuanced explanations impossible?
A better exhibit of right-wing reductionism is the work of French-Israeli documentarian Pierre Rehov. Rehov is a technically skilled filmmaker who has focused exclusively on the Palestinians. His most psychologically ambitious film, “Suicide Killers,” which I watched at the right-wing Liberty Film Festival, and which was introduced there by David Horowitz, attempts to probe the psychology of several young Hamas suicide bombers he interviewed. Rehov ultimately concludes that these suicide bombers, and through suggestion, all suicide bombers, are spurred to kill by their sexual repression and attendant resentment of sexually liberated Israelis.
Textbook right-wing reductionism
Rehov deliberately excludes any discussion of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, leading the unsophisticated viewer to believe that if only the Palestinians could just experience the bawdy good times depicted in “Girls Gone Wild,” they would be content with their lot in life. Certainly there is some validity to Rehov’s analysis of Islamic fundamentalism (his female interviewees’ stated wish to be among a male martyr’s harem in the afterlife supports his thesis) but by omitting analysis of the occupation’s effect on Palestinian society, and how the occupation has bred religious extremism, “Suicide Killers” tacitly justifies Israel’s most draconian policies towards the Palestinians.
An Eastern European physician survivor of a Nazi death camp quoted by Robert Jay Lifton in his magisterial study, “The Nazi Doctors,” neatly summarizes the problem with reductionism: “The professor would like to understand what is not understandable,” the professor told Lifton. “We ourselves who were there, and who have always asked ourselves the question and will ask it until the end of our lives, we will never understand it, because it cannot be understood.”
Simple conclusions lead to simple solutions. And simple solutions are not only dangerous, they rarely succeed. The search for answers is always the best destination.