Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
Christopher Dorner, the fugitive ex-Los Angeles cop who had declared “war” on the LAPD, is not a sociopath, psychologists said.
Dorner’s spree of violence, which appears to have ended Tuesday with the discovery of a charred body after a shootout and fire at a Big Bear Lake cabin, may seem consistent with the definition of a sociopath — a person who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience. He was accused of killing a retired captain’s daughter and her fiance in Irvine, Calif., and shooting multiple cops in Riverside and Big Bear, killing two.
Dorner had written in his manifesto that he was motivated by a sense of right and wrong — exactly what a sociopath lacks. The ex-cop wrote that his murderous spree was a “last resort” to expose corruption and racism within the LAPD and to restore his name after that corruption led to his firing in 2009.
Thousands of online fans had come to see Dorner as their “Dark Knight” fighting evil — although many disavowed murder as a means to that end.
“While this man’s actions are unthinkable and inexcusable, he does not fit the profile of a sociopath, who lacks the capacity for empathy and has no respect for social morals and norms,” said Elizabeth Waterman, a psychologist at addiction recovery center Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach, Calif. “Dorner showed that he did care for the welfare of others, and, as a police officer, worked to protect the rights of others on a daily basis.
“In fact, his recent actions were his very misguided and desperate attempts to stand up for what is right and fight for justice,” Waterman said. “I think Mr. Dorner’s actions reflected a deep level of desperation to right a wrong and shed light on a justice system that has many, many flaws.”
Dorner’s empathetic beliefs went beyond victims of police brutality and corruption. According to his manifesto, his empathy led him to fervently defend the rights of gays and lesbians and to stand up against anti-Semitism, psychologist Izzy Kalman pointed out in Psychology Today.
Sociopathy, an antisocial personality disorder, is marked by being manipulative or exploitative of others. Those traits don’t align with Dorner’s rigid view and moral standards.
So what went wrong?
Dorner did not know how to cope in a world where right sometimes does not prevail over wrong. “He’s a child,” said Bob Tur, a private investigator who has found over 20 fugitives. “Children see things like right and wrong in black and white. But as life beats you down, you live in gray areas. You realize that fairness is an abstract thought.”
Kalman said this rigid view of a world where right is always supposed to prevail leads to a victimization mentality. Most violence — by criminals and by countries headed to war — is committed not by people who feel like bullies, but by those who feel like victims, Kalman said.
“We all become sociopathic when we feel victimized,” Kalman said. “Our conscience gets flushed down the drain. We feel like we are the good guys, the innocent victims, and they are the bad guys, the bullies — and bullies, as we have been taught, are not to be tolerated.”
So, Kalman said, “We pick up guns and tell our bullies, ‘Hasta la vista, baby!’”
Kalman’s solution is to stop “teaching children … that we are entitled to a life in which no one disrespects us … that our emotional pain is other people’s fault.”
Other experts hypothesized that Dorner may have lost his ability to live in an unjust world because of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although he was not a combat soldier, Dorner served in the Navy in the Middle East and claimed in his manifesto that he suffered traumatic head injuries during his service.
Kathy Platoni, a psychologist for the U.S. Army Reserve, said Dorner does not fit the description of a person with an antisocial personality disorder. Though there “may be a connection between diminished self-control and increased aggression in those diagnosed with PTSD, … it rarely leads to violence, especially of this magnitude,” she said.
Dorner may have suffered from manifested rage resulting from depression or “maladaptive behaviors” because he “perceives the world around [him] and everyone in it as the problem,” Dr. Platoni said. “There is certainly a paranoid flavor to his manifesto and his behavior patterns,” she added.
Others said Dorner’s violence resulted neither from his mental state nor his view of the world. And that includes Dorner himself, who wrote in his manifesto that he began suffering from “severe depression” in late 2008 as a result of being relieved of duty as an LAPD officer.
“The poor and downtrodden, who have suffered unending, unspeakable abuse, … their internal lives are saturated in rage and a sense of utter helplessness,” said Erika Sloane, a psychologist in Los Angeles. “I do not see this as a reflection of individual failings or ‘mental illness.’ I see the rage as a response to our increasingly corrupt, unjust, unresponsive culture.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that Dorner was fired in 2008. In fact, he was relieved from duty in 2008 and officially terminated in 2009.