Vester Lee Flanagan, who wore an Obama sticker while covering the elections in 2012, never got the memo that becoming the story serves as the journalist’s nightmare, not his dream.
Flanagan offered political, racial, and even divine motivations for shooting two former colleagues to death live on local television on Wednesday. The reasons read more like rationalizations. Crazier than crazy projects reason upon unreason. One of the healthiest developments in America’s collective mental health involves society’s increasing rejection of the stated, often hifalutin, causes for murderous acts in favor of an acceptance of the explanation articulated by a drooling, shiny-eyed nutter’s stare.
Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence digs up America’s buried delusions about the delusional. In truth, even in the 1970s just a small number of people regarded mad bombers and cop killers as righteous revolutionaries. But the default response from the ideological press, at least, relied on the professed motivations of the purveyors of violence to explain their actions rather than the simplest, most obvious answers to decipher why. The organized terrorists then and the lone-wolf loonies now share much.
Take, for instance, the New World Liberation Front, an ominous sounding group comprised, in its most prolific incarnation, of one couple. The group bombed Pacific Gas & Electric, Coors beer distributors, Air Force radar stations, the home of Dianne Feinstein, and about 100 other targets in the mid-1970s. Some San Franciscans frozen in the 1960s took the group as a Robin Hood-like outfit striking back at the rich and powerful rather than the product of severe derangement.
The latter characterization lacked nuance but accurately pegged the NWLF, which met its demise when one half of the group tried to cut the other half of the group in half at the marijuana farm they stewarded. “Standing in their yard, [Ronald] Huffman ordered [Maureen] Minton to kneel before him,” Days of Rage relays. “For some reason, he slid a draftsman’s knife into her mouth. Then, lifting a long-handled axe, he swung it viciously down onto her skull, all but splitting her head in two. Minton died instantly. Huffman then took a two-by-four and beat her body, hoping, his attorney would later claim, to knock the demons out of her corpse. Apparently unsatisfied, he then took a scalpel and cut out a section of her brain. His attorney would insist that Huffman believed Minton’s brain matter had magical powers.”
The gray matter’s magic, whether perishing upon the death of its rightful owner or never there in the first place, failed Huffman when he held it up to shield himself from police pursuers.
Throughout Burrough’s book, the reader confronts revolutionaries whose true grievances stemmed from problems inside rather than ones outside.
Black Panther Party Minister of Defense Huey Newton’s massive cocaine and anger problems, not society’s racism, compelled his violence, which in disproportionately victimizing fellow African Americans undermined his ostensible casus belli. Troubled Sam Melville, killed in the Attica prison uprising, so admired New York’s midcentury “Mad Bomber,” that he spray-painted “George Metesky Was Here” around the Big Apple. His devotion to means over ends manifested in bombing a tugboat company’s warehouse he imagined as the United Fruit Company because of an old sign, a Department of Commerce center he mistook for a Department of the Army office, and a Marine Midland bank because, well, just because. The Black Liberation Army robbed banks not to hasten the government’s overthrow, as several of its idealistic members believed, but to satiate the expensive cocaine addiction of a leader.
We no longer indulge the delusions of narcissists and nuts even if we must occasionally endure the reality they unleash. Vester Flanagan, Ronald Huffman, and Sam Melville all issued grandiose communiqués to the press dressing up injustice as the realization of justice. Those making a spectacle of crimes imagine themselves commanding a glorious purpose rather than commanded by a power (drugs, rage, mental imbalance) they fail to control.
Like so many of the faithful congregants of the Church of the Holy Idiot Box, Vester Flanagan bumrushed the pulpit from the pews. The narcissism evident in his professional pursuits of prostitute and pixelated personality displayed itself in his decision to methodically video the murder of two young people succeeding in the field in which he had repeatedly failed. Frustration about the self ultimately causes the troubled to lash out at others. The world, and the would-be world-savers, would have been better off if the violent reformers reformed themselves.
Alas, changing oneself often presents a more daunting task than changing the world.