Saturday, March 05, 2011

murder is another thing that people do

My best friend lost his mind one March inside a white, two-story apartment house in the west part of Warrensburg, Missouri. I know he lost his mind there because I was sitting with him when it happened, in his pitch-black living room cluttered with weapons and dirty laundry and empty bottles of hard alcohol made by distributors I’d never heard of. This was his life after a recent tour in Korea: an Army ROTC poster was the only thing on the wall; the coffee table was covered with a smattering of 9 mm rounds, a bowl of day-old soup, and a modified 12-gauge pump-action shotgun.

He started talking about the death he’d seen in his dreams and the death he knew was coming to us all, and he soon began referring to himself in the third person with the kind of comically theatrical baritone that would have gotten him laughed out of the room if he wasn’t being serious: “You need to get ready. The world is not meant for us. You don’t know what I’ve seen. Do you know the truth of this world? Do you know the truth?” He talked about seeing a demon with six arms flying over a killing field where millions were dying, feasting on the corpses. “I saw its face,” he said. Then his voice plunged: “Its face was mine.”

He reached for my neck and we began to wrestle. I was 20, and he was 23. We’d known each other since I was 4. I was bigger than he was, but he was stronger than me. We sat on the couch and struggled for a while. By then, I was deliriously adrenalized. My breath and my hands and my arms all shook and I wondered if I could really kill a man. I tried to imagine what death would be like, what it would be like to no longer feel anything, to no longer be anyone at all. But it all still seemed abstract and somehow impossible. All I understood was living, and so in that moment the question was how to keep living. My universe became an equation of weapons and exits and my mind a kind of abacus, quantifying the room.

Three feet behind me, an Egyptian-made AK-47 with a modified stock and a banana clip leaning up against a wooden chair; three feet behind him, an antique Nazi infantry rifle with a swastika cut into its stock on top another chair. The shotgun sat on top of the table next to both of us, where a nickel-plated .45 was also hidden in a cubby beneath. But violence is strange and unpredictable, and something prevented escalation; something stopped me from reaching for a gun, and something stopped him, and so we grappled, grappled until time seemed to lose all meaning of shortness or length, grappled until he began to cry and say my name and beg for help, at which point we stopped, reality returning long enough for me to escape before he swung back again, murder once more becoming a thing that happened to other people.

* * *

In the United States, according to FBI statistics over the last decade, an average of 15,000 people are murdered every year, mostly by young men with guns. Depending on the context, 15,000 is either astonishing or relatively negligible. If 15,000 people were rounded up into a camp somewhere in rural Nevada and shot, stabbed, strangled, burned and crushed to death, we would collectively process it as a crime against humanity and demand a reckoning of Biblical proportions. But when those 15,000 are spread throughout a population of over 300 million, as is actually the case, their deaths are as random as those in traffic collisions and just as statistically predictable. The difference is that more than twice as many people — a little over 30,000 — die in crashes every year, making car accidents the bigger public health problem. In fact, violent crime has been in a slow decline for decades, suggesting that life in the U.S., at least in this respect, is better than it’s been in a while.

But it still seems like a problem to anyone who's been to the courthouse. There, the run-of-the-mill pre-trial docket resembles a cattle call run by law enforcement. I’m especially bothered by the never-ending march of 17-to-24-year-old boy-men who slouch into the courtroom with their eyes down or with their heads cocked or with no expression at all, getting in society’s bad graces early, accused of doing things I’d never do. They seem younger than I ever was, now that I’m 25, yet also somehow older, and tattoos climb arms and necks like vines growing out of all those white-and-grey correctional jumpsuits.

I reported on crime for year and often encountered this scene. Some of the boy-men look bored with the pace of the proceedings, bored with their mothers in the gallery, bored with life, violence monotonous, school a joke, the prosecutor an asshole, the cops liars; others of the boy-men look frankly surprised to be there, mouths nervous, eyes searching the faces in the gallery, maybe looking for a little help. I’m never sure. I wouldn’t follow many of their cases, and surely some of them are innocent, but statistics tell me the vast majority of the boy-men will eventually be found guilty of something or other, the variety of their crimes practically Whitmanesque: stealing a car; beating up a girlfriend; forging checks; ditching some weed during a traffic stop; robbing a drug dealer and, occasionally, shooting one. Historic decline or no, the sheer mass of people moving through the Boone County courts in Columbia in a year is mostly stupefying and completely depressing. Worse yet is near-arbitrariness of the factors that decide who will be the murderers among them. I dare you to pick out the killers among the boy-men in the docket. I guarantee you’ll miss.

For instance, during an 11-month span starting Oct. 8, 2009, and stretching to Sept. 6, 2010, a strange and improbable thing happened in Columbia, a burg of roughly 100,000: No one was murdered. An average of three or four people are slain there every calendar year, but in a year when violent crime was statistically up, the city’s death toll was stuck on zero. Was the number an illusion? Drug deals still went wrong, maladjusted husbands still abused their wives, gangs still scrimmaged each other with enough small arms to overthrow an island government. Over the summer, Columbia weathered a tense period of multiple shots-fired calls — for which the body count was an accumulated zero.

Take a moment to comprehend how remarkable this stretch of time was. A gun with a caliber even as small as a .22 can make killing accessible to anyone capable of a moment’s worth of poor judgment. And, rest assured, it was business as usual for poor judgment in Columbia this year. Ponder this: On May 14, 2010, a 19-year-old man survived being shot twice in the torso and once in the leg during what police called a drug-related home-invasion robbery. To understand the fragility of a number like zero when comprehending homicide, imagine that, in a fraction of one key second, a tendon in the shooter’s wrist had flexed a millimeter tighter. The bullet’s trajectory could have shifted a crucial inch closer to an artery or vital organ, and it could have taken away every Christmas dinner the man would have with his family for the remaining 50 years of his normally expected lifespan. Then there was the almost freakish July 23, 2010, shooting at the Boone County Fair, just outside Columbia city limits. Police said a 14-year-old boy fired at least nine shots — “in a sweeping fashion,” according to a Columbia Daily Tribune report — at a group of teenagers with whom he was fighting. One of the bullets hit an 18-year-old in the back of the leg. The shooting happened not far from crowds attending a concert. No one was killed.

Given the number of gunshot victims that appear in emergency rooms every night across the U.S., infinitely tiny equations of trigonometric luck separate murderers from other criminals, much in the way any drunk driver sloppily turning a curve could be a killer if someone happens to be coming the other way. In each case of pointing a gun and pulling a trigger, the moral irresponsibility is the same, depending on the level of premeditation. But the disparity in the seriousness of the outcomes — the distance between a gunshot victim living and dying, measured by the minutia of geometry — is mind-blowingly vast. And it’s a chasm that only seems to get wider when considering how many of those deaths are determined by chance. Does this not bother anyone else? How do you feel that Columbia’s 11-month reprieve was probably not the product of good law enforcement or better behavior, but of bad aim?

This talk of averages and probabilities gives murders a character of being something ordinary, which happens to be what many murderers are. The average face of murder looks not like Jeffrey Dahmer’s, but like Blake Logan’s, the 18-year-old nursing home worker with a steady girlfriend, who shot a Columbia woman in the head during a drug deal gone wrong. The gun went off when the two began to struggle. Is he evil? He has a MySpace page. It’s hard to call many second-degree murders “evil” when their causes are so mundane. Most murders, like most crimes (and, indeed, most of our own failures), can be explained by the same array of human weaknesses common to everyone: jealousy, vanity, insecurity, desperation. Violence is simply human imperfection with the volume turned up. For something to be genuinely evil, at least in Western thought, it has to be unable to be explained by pathology or a motive — and that sounds inhuman, doesn’t it? How many proto-Satans did police arrest this year, versus screwup healthcare workers? What if, like slacking off on taxes, like going to work, like taking your girlfriend to the movies, murder is just another human behavior? Maybe this doesn’t terrify you. But it terrifies me, most of all because I believe it to be true.

* * *

There’s a famous short story by Tobias Wolff called “Bullet in the Brain” in which a lippy bank customer gets shot in the head for talking back during a robbery. Those spare few milliseconds before the man’s death balloon into a kind of Proustian bullet-time: All his synapses fire on overdrive as he remembers a luscious vision of a baseball game from his childhood, the bullet boring in on his brain, death calamitous and coming but beautiful, a last, glorious wisp of living before the lights flickered out.

My vision was different. As I struggled with my friend in his Warrensburg apartment, I imagined him forcing me on my knees as he positioned himself with the Kalashnikov behind me, unable to see the end coming before my existence was ended in an instant, boom-black, my death unglamorous, lonely, pointless. In those moments, I wished I had fallen in love with someone. My life felt empty and poor.

I don’t think about that night much anymore; nor do I think much about my friend, the murderer-who-wasn’t. Looking back, my worries are scattershot: the seeming meaninglessness of that night, whether my life was truly in danger, how death could come under such ambiguous and irrational circumstances. Still worse was the sad realization that the world around me would keep going about its business, oblivious, death just another moment. We prefer that our finished lives have some consequence and closure, and that their ends not be untimely product of dumb, bad luck. The problem is that this is out of our hands. But this is not entirely bad. The logic of chance also goes the other way. During the Holocaust, there are some Jews who, in the clutches of history’s most efficient killing production, had every expectation to be murdered, but survived. After the brutality of camp life, perhaps some even wished they had died — but still they hadn’t. The gods kill us for their sport, but they’ve also had a history of letting us live.

As I grow older, I find myself occasionally burdened with an inexplicable survivor’s guilt; inexplicable, because it comes for calamities I was never a part of. A couple years ago, I visited the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy. There, the graves of thousands of young American men knit the bluffs over the English Channel like sutures in the earth, aligned with an eerily mathematical precision that belies the disgusting carnage that preceded it. War is the ultimate exercise in homicidal chance, and these are the men who lost: those for whom the shell didn’t fall a few yards farther away, for whom a machine gun nest wasn’t cleared quickly enough, for whom the landing raft’s doors opened just a few too many meters from the shore. Today the cemetery is obsessively manicured, but death’s indignity survives like a weed. Some tombstones lack names, simply reading “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God,” the prettiest phrase for the ugliest end. These are not men for whom the dog tags simply slipped off.

My biggest shame at Normandy comes when I stare at the hometown and birthday of a man who grew up in my county, barely older than a kid, whose body will never leave France. Nineteen years old — I stare at the marker and think of all the things I hadn’t done when I was 19, all the things I hadn’t seen, the friends I hadn’t met, the memories I’d got to make. At 19, I had still been a virgin. Six years later, my life now has a degree of completeness that this grave’s owner may have never gotten to know, because I was lucky enough to have been born in 1985, because I didn’t die in a motorcycle accident when I was 17, because I didn’t get shot by my best friend when I was 20, because there is no draft that would have put me in harm’s way in Afghanistan or Iraq. I am a survivor; I am product of luck; I am an idiot standing at my other’s grave. Fortune’s fool, meet fortune’s darling.

Six years later, getting my start as a reporter, I now hovered over murder like the angel of death in reverse, only ever arriving to deliver bad news, trying to ferry the stories of the dead back to the living, which explains why I am sitting in a Boone County courtroom watching a jury deliver a verdict in a November 2009 murder trial.

The ceremonial courtroom is capacious, big enough to carry an echo, with huge wooden benches for the public to come see some of society’s most talented people try to apply order to the tiny moments of ambiguity and chaos that tend to define our lives. Today it is nearly empty. The case I am watching was transferred from Springfield, where it had gotten significant play in the media; out of a notion of fairness, it had been handed over to a Boone County jury, which was subjected to the following tale:

According to police and witness accounts, the defendant, Jeffrey Bolden, 42, world-class shithead, had doused himself with gasoline while attempting to set his father on fire with a Bic lighter. When the lighter failed — what luck — and police showed up, Bolden ran and was eventually caught after being bit in the leg by a police dog. Paramedics removed his pants to wash off the gasoline with a hose, and he began masturbating and taunting the female EMTs, even after he was handcuffed.

At the hospital, he encountered 62-year-old security guard Monte Ruby. The two knew each other. Ruby used to be a security officer at Bolden’s high school. Ruby was a beloved figure in Springfield’s black community; Bolden, who was also black, called him an “Uncle Tom.” Ruby’s daughter died in a suicide. According to witnesses, Bolden knew this, and he told Ruby “You’re a bitch, your daughter’s a bitch, and I’m glad she’s dead.” Witnesses said Ruby acted like a saint. They also said Bolden continued masturbating in the E.R. as doctors tried to treat his leg.

At one point, when Bolden began to struggle, Ruby tried to restrain him. When Ruby stepped away, Bolden, who was handcuffed to the hospital bed, kicked the 62-year-old security guard in the back of the head. Ruby stumbled. Security personnel rushed into the room, and with Ruby’s help, tied Bolden’s legs down. A few minutes later, as Ruby was leaving the room, he collapsed and fell into a coma. He had a hemorrhage in his brain. He died a few days later.

The defense argued that Ruby had choked and scratched Bolden and that his kick was in self-defense. A grey area. The case also became mired in medical testimony as pathologists gave rival theories on why Ruby died: one (for the defense) said Ruby had high blood pressure and suffered a stroke stemming from the stress of the situation, not from the damage of the kick, which would mean Bolden was innocent of murder; the other (for the prosecution) said Bolden’s blow caused the hemorrhage, which would mean Bolden was guilty. The prosecutor’s pathologist added that Ruby previously had surgery on his neck, meaning it was less able to cushion the blow of the kick, resulting in the brain injury. Another grey area, and again, the minutia of murder — if Ruby had never had a small neck problem, if Bolden’s blow had hit Ruby’s back and not his head, if Ruby had not turned around to walk away, the security guard would likely still be alive today.

Through all this, the Boone County courtroom was empty save for members of Bolden’s family, who sat quietly on the defendant’s side of the gallery, and members of Ruby’s family, who came dressed in black, at times wincing and covering their faces during particularly brutal moments of testimony. I cultivated a relationship with them for my reporting, but they were decent people, quiet and modest, which made me feel predatory and mercenary. When we had lunch during a break in the proceedings, I didn’t have the nerve to take out my notebook as they talked about their lives and asked me about mine. I felt out of place as reporter; I was no longer a spectator of death, but was now paddling around in its wake.

After closing arguments, the jury took hours to deliberate. The Ruby family waited patiently for their little piece of justice in the hallway outside the courtroom, speaking little, waiting for someone to give the word that would eventually come, that the jury had a verdict, as they eventually did. We filed back into the courtroom.

Here I am, waiting. We’re all waiting: Bolden’s family, Ruby’s family, me, the jury, the bailiffs, the attorneys. In the moments before the judge announces the verdict, the room seems to bulge with silence. Absolutely nothing that happens next will bring Monte Ruby back to life; then again, for me, absolutely nothing that happens next will take me back in time to a world where I die in my friend’s apartment. This room with the pale-green walls, this courtroom with the skinny and charismatic judge, this family and its heartache — this is the only world that exists and ever will exist. This is what chance has wrought, and no amount of order can change it. But we all wait anyway — everyone, that is, except a pale golden ladybug, which suddenly crawls up over the bench a foot in front of me, wandering slowly over the grains of the wood, indifferent to everything.

And just when the room seems to cocoon around it, the ladybug is gone, and I wonder how strange it is for me to be here.