Like characters in a Dystopian novel, the four teenagers were out for a bit of the old ultra-violence.
Only they had another name for it. Sometimes they called it the "Knockout Kings," after the series of video games. (Rated M for Maybe there is a connection between violence and violent video games.) And sometimes they called it the "knockout game." The game consists in randomly picking out a weak, frail-looking individual -- often an Asian immigrant, since they seldom fight back or call the cops -- and beating him or her senseless.
That's what happened to Hoang Nguyen on a Saturday morning in April in south St. Louis. The 72-year-old Nguyen and his wife were walking home after shopping at a local market when they took a shortcut through the alley behind their home. That's when the Nguyens became pawns in somebody's sick idea of a game. And we're not talking chess here.
Nguyen was savagely beaten, his wife assaulted. The "players" fled when a car turned down the alley. Nguyen died soon after at a nearby hospital.
At first detectives tried to make sense of the murder. Maybe it was a robbery gone bad. However, the attackers hadn't taken anything. So it must have been a revenge killing. Only the victims hadn't known the attackers; they'd never seen them before. Maybe, the cops speculated, the killers confused them with another elderly Vietnamese couple who had testified in a robbery case? Or, knowing how some city residents feel about Asian shopkeepers, might it have been a hate crime?
That was the cops' working theory until they tracked down one of the four suspects. It was easy after reviewing footage from one of the ubiquitous surveillance cameras local business owners set up in a futile attempt to reduce the number of property crimes.
Police picked up 18-year-old Elex Levell Murphy. Detectives were well acquainted with Murphy. After all, they had just released him from the city jail two days before. He'd been busted four times for riding the metro without a ticket. Trivial crimes that, as any prosecutor knows, often lead to more serious ones. The young man quickly cleared things up for detectives. No, it wasn't a burglary or a hate crime or a case of revenge. It was just a game.
EVEN IN AMERICA'S most violent city, Nguyen's murder managed to make front-page news. Elderly Vietnamese immigrants are not murdered every day. Stranger yet, here was a homicide apparently undertaken as sport. In that way, it was reminiscent of another fictional story, "The Most Dangerous Game," about a mad Russian aristocrat who stalks a big game hunter for sport. Only in this instance the victim is weak and frail and outnumbered and cannot fight back. Where's the sport in that?
News accounts suggest the knockout game is becoming increasingly popular among urban youths. There have been reports of it showing up in cities from Hoboken, New Jersey to Columbia, Missouri. In St. Louis, officials responded with the usual ineffectual language about the community being the greatest resource and neighbors needing to band together. But one retired police sergeant offered a different take. "Be armed," Don Pizzo told a reporter. "Be armed because if you're not prepared to defend yourself in one way, shape or form that you're going to end up like this, either in the hospital or like this Vietnamese guy."
We've seen pop culture-induced violence before. Back in 1972, the film version of A Clockwork Orange was pulled from circulation in Britain after several copycat rapes and homicides. But until now, murder-as-a-game has been something encountered only in the most outlandish science fiction.
The murder of Hoang Nguyen, like most knockout game attacks, was captured by a security camera. America has become both a culture that glamorizes psychopathic violence and, consequently, a surveillance society -- not to stop homicide, that is beyond our current technology, but to identify criminals afterwards. That is no deterrent to the criminals, but, on the up side, our civilization's collapse will be thoroughly documented on film.
The cops are still trying to make sense out of Hoang's murder. Editorial writers, used to blaming crime on a lack of economic opportunity, were left speechless. City officials wrung their hands over the senselessness of the murder, as if, to paraphrase Theodore Dalrymple, there is such a thing as a sensible murder.
The Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal once said that to try to explain evil is to begin to excuse it. Maybe it's best we don't even try.