5 p.m. August 25, 2012

Going Postal At The Empire State Building

The early news reports made Jeffrey Johnson out to be a deranged monster: After pumping five bullets into the supervisor who’d fired him from his job at the Empire State Building, Johnson supposedly went on a wild shooting rampage out on 5th Avenue, firing randomly at innocent bystanders, wounding nine before cops took him down using their anti-terrorism training.

In this early, cinematic version of events, the NYPD’s aggressive anti-terrorism training paid off—who knows how many more people Jeffrey Johnson would have shot and killed?

But as the day wore on, the early heroic version of events started to give way to something more complicated and disturbing—as so often happens with these workplace shootings. The gunman, it turned out, didn't go on a wild shooting spree; all of his bullets were fired into one target, his former boss who downsized him; it was the NYPD who hit the bystanders while trying to get the gunman, who happened to be standing right next to their faces, in what appears to have been a conscious decision to commit suicide-by-cop.

Despite all the Jack Bauer anti-terror training the two cops supposedly received, they couldn’t hit the side of a skyscraper if their lives depended on it—let alone the front of a human being practically pressing his face into the barrels of their guns. In fact the "graphic" CCTV video looks like some desperate middle-aged schlub trying to get himself killed by Mr. Magoo and Magoo's twin, who empty their handgun clips on every living creature except for the suicidal schlub with the .45 in his hand, doing a tapioca dance right in front of their faces.

It's only when they fired those last couple of bullets that the gunman suddenly stops dancing and drops like a sack of trash on the cement. Later it emerged out that the police fired 16 bullets, hitting a total of ten people: nine innocents (described as "collateral damage" by a CNN live guest), and the one perp. That's a .100 batting average: Even drones score better than that.

Once it became clear that Jeffrey Johnson wasn’t another James Holmes “Joker” type monster out to randomly massacre, pathos quickly seeped into the narrative void.

The Empire State Building shooter, it turns out, was some kind of middle-aged nerd—just over five feet tall, alone, wounded and intelligent. And unemployed at age 58. He wasn’t merely the “quiet type”—he was liked, or rather pitied, by his neighbors. After he was laid off from his job designing handbags and accessories two years ago, Johnson didn't cope well: He would dress up in a suit and tie every morning, head out of the apartment building in the Upper East Side, have breakfast at McDonald’s, and return a half hour later, go into his apartment and stay there for the rest of the day. Every day.

What is a middle-aged man in this country, nearing retirement, if he doesn’t have a job? Almost 60, with a black mark on his employment record after having been downsized, looking for work in the worst job market in decades—what did that make him? What were those long mornings and afternoons like when he returned to his apartment from McDonald's?

When I was at the Mitt Romney rally in Vegas earlier this month with James and James, I bought a bumper sticker that pretty much sums up the dominant cultural ideology in this country: “Vote Republican: we can't ALL be on welfare!” In Russia, when you fall through the cracks, when you’re hitting rock fucking bottom—it’s at this point that you attain some sort of Jesus-like status. Your normally cold-hearted, brutal, callous acquaintances suddenly go soft and want to be your personal Florence Nightingale. It's only then, at your worse moment, your surrender to complete failure, that they truly love you. They understand it; all Russians I've known have fallen through the cracks at least a few times before succumbing. But here, it doesn’t work that way...

Even as his corpse was still cooling, the New York Times description of Jeffrey Johnson dripped with smug irony:

'Jeffrey T. Johnson, 58, a slight, meticulous artist, the first one to work in the morning and the last one out, without so much as a look outside for fresh air in between...'

Johnson resented the workplace humiliation he'd endured before getting fired, when a taller, tanner, and much younger salesman from New Jersey, Steven Ercolino, was hired as Johnson's boss. And boss he did, loudly and brashly, despite being almost two decades younger. Johnson’s resentment festered—they nearly came to blows in the office. When business got tough two years ago, the then-39-year-old boss fired Johnson, sending him out into a kind of late-middle-age spiral.

Alone, the “slight, meticulous artist” joined a group of bird watchers in Central Park. The Times converted Johnson’s rather pedestrian misery into bad New Yorker fiction:

'Years passed this way at the company, Hazan Imports, which sold handbags and belts, until Mr. Johnson was laid off almost two years ago. And yet, the casual observer would not have known it, to look at him. He put on the same suit every morning: the Upper East Side’s own Willy Loman, dressing for a job he no longer had. He picked up his newspaper on the front stoop and walked two blocks to McDonald’s for breakfast.'

Johnson returned to the office a few months after getting fired—but that visit ended badly when the fired ex-worker wound up in an elevator with the tan, healthy Vice President, Steven Ercolino. Apparently the wispy Johnson delivered a kind of passive-aggressive elbow into his former boss, who responded by grabbing Johnson's throat and threatening to kill him if he ever tried something like that again.

If you understand the raw pain from accumulated nerd humiliations, and you calculate how that incident would be played over and over and over to this short, unemployed 58-year-old “Willy Loman” every morning as he puts on his suit and heads out to the McDonald’s—and there must have been so many more memories like that in the shuffle, still raw after all these years, as studies on the effects of bullying have shown—then you can start to grasp what makes a guy like Jeffrey Johnson go back to his last workplace two years after getting laid off, and kill the sources of his pain: Meaning, first, his supervisor who fired him; and then secondly, himself, Jeffrey Johnson, in a poorly-executed suicide-by-Keystone-cops.

Again, the Times:

'Mr. Johnson was fastidious at his apartment, which he shared only with cats. He ran his vacuum early in the morning. One neighbor, Gisela Casella, 71, thought the man in the suit worked at a bank. “He was the nicest guy,” she said. “I never saw him with a woman, and I would always say to myself, Boy, he deserves a nice girlfriend.” He seems to have spent more time drawing women than dating them. A series of six illustrations of an attractive woman on a motorcycle, on his Web site, describe a chance encounter in Florida in 1983, at a gas station. “Her blonde tresses fell just below the taut line of her shoulders and was being teased by a sea breeze coming off the bay,” Mr. Johnson wrote. He told her, “Nice bike,” and she replied, “in a soft, throaty voice, ‘Fast bike.’ ” He went out for his breakfast every morning in his suit, returned with his McDonald’s bag and seemed to stay up on the third floor all day.'

At this point, you just want him to get it over with, it hurts just to read it. In fact I’ve rarely come across a workplace murder where the pathos emerges so quickly, and immediately weaves its way into the narrative, laying it on thick as this one has. Times have changed—we’re starting to understand these shooters a little better now, intuitively so.

Contrast yesterday's shooter, who quickly went from monster in the morning to pathetic by late afternoon... to a very different rampage shooting a month earlier: the Batman movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. Until now, I've avoided writing about that scene because it wasn’t the sort of workplace or school rampage massacre that I'm normally called upon to discuss since my book Going Postal came out—that is, workers who rage-massacre their coworkers and students who rampage-massacre their fellow students.

But there is one element that the two rampage killings share: American Twerpdom... and the unrecognized psychosis that twerpdom can produce when all around you you're being judged by a culture that lionizes John Galt fratboys and Tucker Max pus bags.

In the movies, nerds are diamonds in the rough, sensitive and earnest and just waiting to get discovered. In reality, nerds don’t get discovered—the qualities that make them natural antiheroes on screen don't translate into the flat reality off-screen, without the edits. At some point that realization dawns on every undiscovered nerd, and it becomes part of the list of grievances, merging with all the other humiliations big and petty, repeated and tapelooped at the worst times, the alone times. Which is all a fancy way of saying—Nerds aren't the charismatic triumphant Napoleon Dynamite nerds in the movies with their quirky soundtracks; they're not being filmed. The wounds and resentments become a kind of driving purpose. That is how real misanthropy is made. Not the arty kind—the bad misanthropy, the pure kind.

The Aurora shooting kept bringing to my mind the story of how things can turn out so differently for young nerds who suffered very similar wounds early on. One nerd in particular I had in mind—an ambitious neocon blogger whose painful humiliations he once blogged about long before he built a career for himself as an unofficial spokesperson for American military adventures overseas. He could have turned out like one of the other nerds in this story—like James Holmes, the “Joker” shooter in Aurora—or later in life, like Jeffrey Johnson. Except that he got lucky...

Joshua Foust is a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. Late last year, Foust came from out of nowhere—I'd never heard of him—launching a bizarre and totally unfounded smear campaign to discredit a story I'd published about a massacre in Kazakhstan last December, in which up to 70 striking oil workers were gunned down by troops (some estimates go as high as 200 dead). For reasons that only became clear to me in the days that followed, Foust pounced on my Kazakhstan massacre story, tweeting out all sorts of half-deranged, half-snotty smears calling me a liar, a death toll fabricator, and that I'd even completely made up my facts about Chevron having a partnership deal with Kazakhstan's state oil company (oil wages were at the heart of the bloody dispute).

It wasn't the attack that shocked me—I've been dealing with this sort of thing since the mid-1990s —it was that Foust made it too easy for me to expose him as a liar. All I had to do was link to Chevron's own material boasting of its partnership with the Kazakh state oil firm that massacred its workers, Chevron never hid it. Or publish regional investigative newspaper' accounts. Or link to cellphone video clips showing Kazakh riot police shooting scores of protesters in their backs as they're fleeing...

I did all that, but like I said, the whole thing weirded me out. The raw spite fueling Foust's attack against me was something I hadn't encountered. So I decided to really research him before writing my response.

I discovered that Joshua Foust has spent his professional career working as a propagandist for the defense and military-intelligence industry, while doubling as a "journalist" who happens to "report" on issues that affect his employers like Northrop Grumman, or Pentagon outfits like the Defense Intelligence Agency.

So before responding, I wanted to know who the Hell this creepy knee-high troll snapping at my ankles was. And that meant digging down a layer below the usual corruption and conflict-of-interest, deeper down into the psychological portrait he'd failed to scrub off the internet, a record of his blogged confessions he’d left in one of those cached corners of the Web.

What I found was revealing, confirming a lot of theories I'd had about these Joshua Foust types: A sort of James “Joker” Holmes in an alternate universe, a universe where James "Joker" Holmes got to play Joker, and be a villain, in a very bland, non-cinematic way, but real and lucrative nevertheless.

Like the Aurora shooter James Holmes, Josh Foust went to a University of Colorado (Foust went to Boulder, Holmes to the one in Aurora). And like Holmes, Josh Foust fantasized about someday becoming a Super Villain, as he revealed in a blog post about how he took a personality test and was rated “evil genius”:

'I feel like I should object somehow, but in light of the fact that for years I’ve wanted to be an action movie super villain, I’m afraid I can’t. I mean, an evil genius is still a genius, right?'

But most revealing of all about what drove Foust to a life of doing propaganda work for dictators who massacre was this highly personal blog post about his painful school experience, a post he wrote on the fifth anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Here it is in full (the original version having been deleted, this comes from the Wayback Machine):

'Today, 4/20/04, is the five-year anniversary of the massacre at Columbine (as well as Hitler’s birthday). I can remember sitting in my high-school that day, watching the news from my US Government class, utterly in shock. Later, as more and more details came out about the motivations behind Harris and Klebold’s rampage, I found myself sympathizing with them. That’s right—I found sympathy with mass murderers. How can I say such a thing? My experience in Middle School was much the same as those two boys. I was picked on by all the popular kids, occaisonally [sic] beaten physically. It was a very isolating experience, and I spent about three years essentially by myself. This was during the socially-crucial early adolescent years (12, 13, 14), and I can still, today, see how that experience affects my attitudes towards certain things. In 7th grade, one rather mean boy was my partner for doubles tennis during gym, and decided to hit me in the face with the metal part of his racket. I still have the scar on the bridge of my nose. In 8th grade, during a basketball game during gym, three boys ganged up on me, hit me repeatedly, and, when I was on the floor, stomped on my shoulder. My clavicle was snapped in half, and I spent several painful weeks recovering, revelling [sic] in the sympathy my plight inspired in my peers. Though my father threatened to sue both the school and the parents of the boys, nothing happened. My dad had no intention of suing anyone over “bullying” (the same thing those two kids in Colorado complained about), and the school didn’t think it was a problem. I think the boy who broke my shoulder got suspended for one day. For assault. So, I entered high school lonely, depressed, and very aware of how other people saw me. Much of it was a lie I would tell myself, but much of it was a direct reaction to what I had experienced. My life had demonstrated that those in authority had little or no desire to stop violent bullying, and that even parents tended to downplay the severity of what happened. Looking back on pictures of me from them, I looked miserable. I looked like I hated myself. I was thinking that there was something I was doing, something about me that was causing those kids to harass me constantly. It wasn’t until years later that I finally realized that none of that was my fault. Regardless, I was driven close to suicide more than once. I also had fantasies. I had fantasies about killing each and every one of those boys who had hit me, who had slammed my face into a locker as I walked to class, who had tripped me into the water fountain, who had yanked down my gym shorts and pointed and laughed at my embarassment. [sic] I wanted to kill them, and at times I was desperate enough to where I could clearly and calmly imagine myself doing so. That’s why I’m so conflicted about Columbine. It’s a struggle between hatred and sympathy for Harris and Klebold, because of the horror of what they did, but also because I can see where they’re coming from. I’m not saying that’s a right, good, or proper attitude to have. I’m merely saying that it’s something I have, something I can’t really help. I try to stuff that sympathy back into the deepest corners of my psyche, and it’s easy when I see video of what those two wrought. But it comes bubbling back to the surface when their misery is explored. I see them, and I keep thinking I could have been that. It’s horrifying. No one should have to experience such pain.'

Today Foust is a covert defense contractor propagandist writing for the Atlantic Monthly. He promotes the interests of war profiteers and dictators who pay blood money to PR flaks to distract the West from their latest massacre scandals, and he attacks real journalists whose work threatens to hurt his sponsors' bottom line—as when Foust wrote a hit piece in the Columbia Journalism Review smearing a landmark Washington Post investigation into the vast unreported trillion-dollar world of secret defense and intelligence contractors.

The WaPo series, "Top Secret America," went on to win awards, but only in spite of Foust's propaganda hit in the CJR, a hit job he pulled off without properly disclosing he worked for one of the biggest military contractors of all, Northrop Grumman.

Foust is paid in blood money—but here's the thing. Unlike most people who cope with earning blood money by numbing themselves cold, or lying to themselves—in Foust's case, he seems to actually enjoy it. Blood money is its own reward, it's his revenge on a world that asked for it.

Like James Holmes, like so many other wounded nerds, Foust wasn't turned into a likeable, deep antihero like the nerds in the moveis. Those long stretches in childhood without friends, without respect, without anyone—they didn't positively transform him into a twerp with a heart of gold. He didn't want to be weak anymore; as he wrote, he “wanted to be an action movie super villain”— the same aspiration that James Holmes had, trolling online for someone to masturbate with, maybe to meet, as he merged in his mind with his fantasy version of himself, “The Joker”.

Forget indie art. All that matters in this country are the dominant species, the John Galts and Tucker Maxes. They have no need for twerps with deep interiors. Or twerps with artistic talents waiting to be recognized. Or twerps with hearts of gold waiting to be discovered by alienated princesses. But the dominant Galtoids always need yes-men, and pimps, and propagandists. And the best most reliable Galt-monkey is the sort of misanthrope burning with hatred of the world that mistreated them, the hatred of a wannabe supervillain.

Imagine if Foust never had the opportunity to build up his self-esteem by serving as a paid liar for war profiteers—without that, Foust would have been condemned to a life stewing in the raw resentment and anger that poured out in his Columbine blog entry. He wrote, honestly and painfully, how he sympathized with the Columbine killers, and felt he could do the same himself.

But somehow he found a practical use for that pain-fueled hate, and that desire to destroy—as the lap monkey to verité villains, defense industry profiteers with two-story mansions in Virginia and Maryland.

So there are your choices, Twerps of America: If you’re one of the lucky ones, you can serve as the bullies’ attack monkey; or if you’re unlucky enough to be a twerp like the 99% of contemporary twerps, without the opportunity to play propagandist for weapons makers and war profiteers, you’ll measure your life in humiliations, wondering if you’ll ever have the guts to hit back at the people who hurt you—a gnawing question Jeffrey Johnson finally answered for himself yesterday. It only took him two years after he was fired to fire back.