We knew better. That's why so many of us cringed when Scott Pelley, on CBS, so blithely conveyed his news department's certainty that law enforcement agencies were correct in asserting that Christopher Dorner had burned to death in that cabin.
Haven't we watched, on Pelley's own network, countless forensic dramas where culprits slipped away free at the last minute and lab geniuses figured it all out later? We know you need DNA to be conclusive. And a dental match of a body burned to a crisp to the dental records of a suspect (or “perp,” or as “Criminal Minds” so darkly puts it, “unsub,” mashing up the phrase “unknown subject”).
Well, we think we know that anyway.
In reality, we know precious little indeed, despite the exhaustive grounding in forensic procedure we're given on prime time every night.
What we are sure of is that it made the Dorner manhunt one of the most compelling and horrifying open-ended stories to pass through TV news in a very long time. The horrors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School were all over by the time they were reported, as was the life of the shooter, Adam Lanza. They have already affected American life and will, no doubt, continue to do so. There have been gun laws (New York State's for instance), and there will be more.
The terrors of Sandy the superstorm took days and left consequences people will deal with for years.
But the Dorner manhunt was the very stuff of movies and TV, taking place in the heart of the American popular imagination and played out on TV for the world to see: a man suspected of four murders and four woundings was free in Southern California, one of the most populous areas of the country, with a plan to exact vengeance on all law enforcement agencies.
His name was Christopher Jordan Dorner, and he'd been fired from the long-controversial Los Angeles Police Department in 2009.
The consequences were terrifying while he was on the loose – shootings, deaths. A state of acute hypervigilance throughout the Southern California law enforcement community resulted in a very real event in Torrance, Calif., that crystallized the differences between the real world and its representation in TV and movies.
Police opened fire on what they thought was the purple Nissan Titan truck that Dorner was driving. That's the truck they'd been told to look for. Unfortunately, the truck they showered with a hail of bullets was actually a blue Toyota Tacoma containing a woman and her mother delivering the Los Angeles Times.
No one died, thank God.
You can imagine all sorts of TV shows and movies – especially – that would make very dark Keystone Cops comedy out of it. Unfortunately, in the real world there were two profoundly terrified women cowering together in that truck hoping the siege would end. It is a blessing that only one was seriously injured (with, at last report, a good prognosis).
That gruesome case of mistaken identity conveyed better than almost anything else the state of mind that took over at least some members of law enforcement.
In its new era, led by well-traveled TV executive Jeff Zucker, CNN seized the Dorner manhunt for coverage as wall-to-wall as it could possibly get away with. When the final shootout took place Tuesday, some of the news footage was more extraordinary than what most TV and film directors could invent for their fictions.
Everyone covered it, obviously. It was a TV story, full of helicopter-eye views, the way they've long been accused of doing in Southern California (and which, of course, has become a staple in TV programs and movies everywhere).
Perhaps the most amazing thing about it all was the “manifesto” left by Dorner to explain why “a man you knew who always wore a smile wherever he was seen” had “taken dramatic” action in the preceding days.
“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “this is a necessary evil that I do not enjoy but must partake and complete for substantial change to occur within the LAPD and reclaim my name. The department has not changed since the Rampart and Rodney King days. It has gotten worse.”
How one “reclaims” one's “tarnished” name by vengeful killings of thoroughly innocent people (cops' relatives!) is, needless to say, not covered in Dorner's massive explanatory document.
It's an incredible rant. He pleads for journalists to investigate what happened – how it all started, he says, with a whistle-blowing incident in 2007, in which he reported a fellow officer for using excessive force while “cuffing a suspect.” The officer in question (whose name was redacted but, we're told, is now a sergeant) “kicked the suspect twice in the chest and once in the face.” Later, he labels the kicking officer “Caucasian” and the victim “mentally ill.”
After investigation of his report, “nothing was done,” but Dorner's role in the department was on its way to dismissal in 2009.
While Rush Limbaugh, on Thursday, rightly decried anyone trying to make Dorner into any kind of hero, I honestly don't think it's possible for any fair journalist anywhere to read Dorner's astonishing manifesto and not wish that members of the profession would take up his plea for investigating a law enforcement unit that has, since the 1950s, been accused of excessive force, racism and worse.
At the same time, Dorner is so lacking any sense of empathy for community horror that, in the same document, he crows that other officers are “high-value targets” for his shootings. “No one grows up and wants to be a cop killer,” he says. “It was against everything I ever was.”
And then he threatens “you have misjudged a sleeping giant.” In a moment of truly chilling self-delusion, he threatens his “targets” this way: “I know your route to and from home and your division. I know your significant others' routine, your children's best friends and recess. … I assure you the casualty rate will be high. … Unfortunately, orphanages will be making a comeback in the 21st century.”
And then, in this final missive to the world, he wants to send messages of his own from his literally crazed and homicidal fury – that he agrees with Mia Farrow about gun control, that he loves “Mrs. Obama's new bangs,” that he likes Hillary Clinton, Gov. Chris Christie, Chris Matthews, Brian Williams, Wolf Blitzer, Meredith Vieira, Tavis Smiley, Piers Morgan and Anderson Cooper, as well as Jennifer Beals, Serena Williams, Kate Winslet, Gabrielle Union and Natalie Portman (among other famous beauties). He thinks “Dave Brubeck's 'Take Five' is the greatest piece of music ever, period” and that “Jeffrey Toobin and David Gergen” are “political geniuses and modern scholars.” He wants Charlie Sheen to know that he's “effin awesome.”
In response, Charlie thanked him for his words on TMZ and said before the final immolation, “Let's figure out together how to end this thing.”
What makes him sad aren't his innocent victims but that “I won't be around to view and enjoy 'The Hangover III.' What an awesome trilogy. … 'World War Z' looks good and 'The Walking Dead' season three (second half) looked intriguing. Damn, gonna miss Shark Week.”
A consummate 21st century self-portrait from a deranged killer – a man who began with what sounds, for all the world, like some legitimate beefs, seems to have perished in a blazing resort cabin after becoming a public terror and finally left our earth truly regretting that he was, after all, going to miss the Discovery Channel's “Shark Week.”