On February 28, 2005, almost exactly two blocks from my apartment, two people, a man and a woman, were killed in the basement of a fine, century-old wood-frame house on the North Side of Chicago. Both had sustained .22-caliber bullet wounds to the head. The victims were the husband and the mother of a United States district court judge, who had discovered the bodies upon returning home from work.
In the weeks and months prior to that day, the judge had been featured fairly prominently in the headlines on a semi-regular basis. She was presiding over a controversial trademark infringement case involving a white supremacist organization. The judge had received a number of death threats in connection with the litigation, and the leader of the organization had been jailed for attempting to hire a hit-man to “take out” the judge.
There were other reasons to take threats from this group seriously. In July 1999, one of its members – after the leader was denied a law license by the Illinois Bar Committee for lacking the requisite moral character and fitness – went on a three-day shooting spree ranging from the northern Chicago suburbs to Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood to downstate Illinois and Indiana, killing two people and wounding nine. An adherent of “Racial Holy War” doctrine, the shooter specifically targeted Jews, African Americans, and Asians. On the Fourth of July, while fleeing police in southern Illinois, the shooter took his own life.
So it was not a great leap for people in the neighborhood to assume that crazed bigots were on the attack, murderous neo-Nazis.
The killer hadn’t left many clues behind in the judge’s house – there were reports of a cigarette butt that might yield DNA evidence, but not much else to go on.
Within a few days, signs began to appear in windows and on porches and gates and lamp-posts on the blocks surrounding the judge’s house. In red block type, all capitals, on white poster board, the signs vowed that we, the people of the neighborhood, would stand up and stand firm and stand together against hatred and bigotry. Solidarity, respect, tolerance, and love would prevail.
About two weeks later, a van was stopped by police in a Milwaukee suburb, for a simple traffic violation. After pulling over, the driver drew a gun and shot himself, fatally. A note was found in the van, describing and confessing to the murders of the judge’s husband and mother and explaining his motives for the crime.
It turned out that the killer was a litigant in an entirely different case on the judge’s docket. He had filed a suit for medical malpractice against his doctor, who, the killer claimed, had botched cancer surgery on the killer’s face, leaving it permanently disfigured. The judge had dismissed the case.
So it wasn’t the neo-Nazis after all. Just another disgruntled customer.
I know people were relieved when the mystery was resolved. I know I was. But I had a feeling then, and I do now, that people weren’t quite satisfied. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they weren’t quite reassured or soothed. The feeling of uneasiness didn’t go away.
The man who turned out to be the killer was, it came to light, pretty much what most of us would call a crazy person. Paranoid. Full of incomprehensible theories and notions that didn’t connect up. Used language that didn’t quite parse. He had no discernible political ideology or philosophical system. Other than, “I was screwed over. The people who screwed me over deserve to die.”
Over time, it appeared that his credo had gotten shortened and simplified, so that it went, “People deserve to die.”
Somehow, I think, for many people, it would have been easier to accept the crime if it had been motivated by something … anything. Something evil, yet logical. Something with internal consistency. As Walter Sobchak said, “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” Nazis seem easier for the mind to grasp than Nihilists, because at least Nazis stand for something. Something terrible, but something.
Within a month or two, the signs – the solidarity, tolerance, and love signs – began to come down. I still spot one occasionally.
Maybe some people are just very slow to change their décor. Maybe they just think the sentiment on the sign remains applicable; after all, hate groups still abound. Or maybe they realize that the sentiment goes beyond the easily categorized and classified, goes beyond the “organized” racist cults of the world, and also applies to the “merely” crazy, the free-form nuts, the people who have adopted the very American belief that people who screw them over deserve to die – and maybe people in general do, too – and that they are entitled to carry out the execution.