In the days after Micah Xavier Johnson’s mass shooting in Dallas, The Drudge Report took to calling him simply, and in outsized font, Micah X. Though it was the most transparent of the attempts to tie Johnson to black militancy and/or the Black Lives Matter movement, it was only the most extreme expression of a widespread phenomenon.
It was also dead wrong.
After the shooting spree that lasted for several hours, Johnson was mortally wounded by a robot wielding an explosive. His final act was to write a note in blood ― “RB”. The desire to tie him to a black nationalist movement is so strong that there’s been serious speculation that he was trying to write “RBG,” which stands for “red, black and green,” the colors of the Pan-African flag. But in looking for meaning in the message, the media has missed the meaning in the act. The very act of writing in that moment places Johnson in the tradition not of the black militant, but of the American assassin.
While he looked different, both politically and physically, from most well-known assassins, in the pantheon of American assassins, there was nothing unusual about Micah Xavier Johnson.
In his book The Anatomy of Motive, FBI profiler John Douglas dissects a variety of crimes and criminals to determine what makes them tick. He pays special attention to what he calls “assassin type” personalities. Isolated, suspicious and armed to the teeth, assassin types have been responsible for some of America’s most iconic and heinous crimes. They are our mass shooters, our anonymous poisoners and our political murderers, but in their imaginations they are acting defensively. They are the victims.
Douglas noticed that assassins were not grandiose, like the Charles Mansons of the world, but instead avoided eye contact. They were suspicious. They often had a deep sense of inadequacy. They were followers, not leaders. They were, routinely, domestic abusers to the extent they could maintain domesticity at all.
The assassin has a “highly organized system” of paranoia, Douglas wrote. It is a system with causes, effects, enemies, traitors, actions, reactions ― and artillery. Lots of artillery. A peculiar feature of the assassin is that they often want to understand and be understood, so they write.
They write journals, like Arthur Bremer. They write manifestos, like Chris Dorner. They write letters, like John Hinckley. They sometimes create detailed plans and schematics for their shootings, like Lee Harvey Oswald. And in some cases, like Charles Whitman, they combine these characteristics. Their writings ultimately reveal lives collapsing into themselves like black holes, absorbing relationships, jobs and opportunities while simultaneously growing more armed and lethal each day.
Several days before fatally shooting 14 people and injuring more than 30 others at the University of Texas at Austin, Whitman wrote of his mental state, “I talked with a Doctor for about two hours and tried to convey to him my fears that I felt come [sic] overwhelming violent impulses. After one session I never saw that Doctor again, and since then I have been fighting my mental turmoil alone, and seemingly to no avail.”
A journal was found among Johnson’s belongings, but its details have not yet been released.
Assassins often document their political views, but they are usually conspiratorial and contradictory, if not incoherent. Because they’re all over the map, that gives partisans on both sides the opportunity to pull out a single quote or two in order to shoehorn the shooter into whatever ideological box is preferable. John Hinckley, Jr., the man who shot Ronald Reagan and three others in March 1981, wrote of a deep love and appreciation for John Lennon’s music. He was devastated by the musician’s death; he called it the “death of the dream.” However, Hinckley saw no contradiction between Lennon’s dreams of love and brotherhood and his own flirtations with white nationalism and later murder.
Arthur Bremer’s politics were equally murky. He mocked his fellow Americans and their political disengagement. “A 50% voter turnout. Now THAT’S confidence in America!”, he wrote in his diary. Yet he did not himself vote. He made up for his personal avoidance of the ballot with a commitment to the bullet. In that, he was bipartisan and open-minded. He wrote of his admiration for George McGovern, while planning to assassinate him. He expressed a dislike for Richard Nixon, while preparing to shoot him also. He wrote mostly of indifference to George Wallace. Then he shot Wallace five times.
Johnson seemed to be of a similar mindset. Authorities have said that he was probably “planning something bigger” but was moved to act more quickly by the twin police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. His randomness of targets reflects an impulse that is common among assassins ― the world is the general target, while the specific victims wind up being arbitrary. As rational observers, we look at the victims’ identities and deduce from them a rational worldview that never existed.
Johnson, according to the Associated Press, “liked” assorted “black militant groups” on Facebook, including the African American Defense League and the New Black Panther Party. There is a popular photo of him in a dashiki with his fist raised. This is not the person one would expect to shoot into a crowd of Black Lives Matter protesters, endangering them and wounding a mother protecting her son ― unless that person is an assassin.
The American assassin’s scope is ever-expanding, like the event horizon of the black hole. His “likes” are as unlikely to be targeted as his “dislikes.” The world is a target. It just needs justification and the justifications are endless. Quite often, assassins have been booted from the military (as Johnson was) or the police force, yet they remain drawn to it. They love the power of those institutions but the responsibilities intimidate and enrage them.
Chris Dorner declared war on the Los Angeles Police Department in the winter of 2013. In his manifesto, Dorner is the victim of a vast, intersecting conspiracy that begins in his childhood and culminates with a frame-up job by crooked, craven LAPD cops. Yet even in his bitterest passages, one cannot help but notice Dorner’s love for all things military. His prose is an alphabet soup of military and police abbreviations and jargon. He was unjustly terminated in a BOR panel. His anticipated victims are “high value targets.” He knows the LAPD’s TTP’s (techniques, tactics and procedures) because, like John Rambo, they trained him. Yet Dorner’s victims were mostly civilians, not his hated enemies.
Whitman, before his rampage, felt himself the victim of a similar betrayal. He was enrolled at the University of Texas and enlisted in the Marines on a special scholarship designed to increase the number of scientists in the military. He was to become an engineer and an officer to help the U.S. recover from the humiliation of the Soviet Union’s victories in the space race. However, Whitman’s habits of gambling, drinking, fighting and brandishing firearms made him a bad student and a worse soldier, so he lost his scholarship and left the military. He remained bitter and hostile toward the Marines until his death, but, like Dorner, spoke of his “mission” in military terms.
Johnson expressed a similar sense of betrayal to his parents after having left the Army. It was not what he had “expected,” according to relatives. His mother said that “the ideal that he thought of our government, what he thought the military represented, it just didn’t live up to his expectations.”
He had been accused of sexually harassing a fellow soldier, of stalking her and stealing her underwear. He lost his case but ― even to his attorney’s surprise ― somehow won an honorable discharge. His sense of loss and disappointment were profound, but did not mean a wholesale rejection of all things military. He worked out at a gym with local policemen. With his perceived failures his isolation grew. But did he know something was wrong?
Charles Whitman and Chris Dorner, despite all of their rage against the machines, knew something was wrong with them personally. Both men requested that their brains be studied after their deaths. Dorner thought his problem might be severe depression. Whitman did not know, but it turned out that he had a lesion on his amygdala that some associate with violence.
John Hinckley Jr. certainly knew something was wrong. He marveled at how easily he could acquire handguns. He spent most of his adult life shuttling between the homes of relatives, schools, psychiatrists and gun stores. He once had a cache of weapons seized at an airport in Tennessee. He was detained briefly, hopped on a plane back to Texas, visited his favorite pawn shop and rearmed. No questions asked.
Hinckley wrote in his diary “Guns are neat things aren’t they? They can kill extraordinary people with very little effort. But don’t tell the NRA.”
His attempted assassination did lead to reforms, though ― but not of gun laws. Hinckley pled not guilty by reason of insanity and won, infuriating many in Congress who then fast-tracked insanity plea reforms. The next Hinckley would have a tougher time proving that he was insane, but no problem arming himself and doing something nuts like Johnson.
Johnson bought an AK-47 from someone he met on Facebook. The guy “checked him out,” meaning that he looked at his Facebook profile and thought he seemed like a good guy. So, he sold him the gun.
Johnson’s dashiki and “likes” worry many in a way that his cache of weapons does not. His outfits ― and his skin color ― made him an “other” in a way that his isolation, contradictions and penchant for violence did not. America tolerates the assassin and assassinations, but Black Lives Matter… they’re dangerous.