The Shot (Un)Heard Around The World

Posted on 28 August, 2012


Mark Ames (of the great, daily reading required eXiled Online) recently wrote an interesting article about the shooting by and of Jeffrey Johnson at the Empire State Building last Friday which touched on the struggle of the American “twerp,” and the options in life they have after a lifetime of bullying.  He brings together the thread of events that led up to that final encounter with police as the media describes him, a down-and-out loser exhibiting bizarre behavior before enacting a final vengeance against a sociopathic jock who ruined his life.  It’s a reading of the events that’s been injected with an incredible amount of post-Columbine cliched sentiment for the bullied killer.  I respect Ames, and consider that interpretation valuable even as it’s misguided, but it’s a kind of modern standard evaluation, one of only a few conclusions you’re allowed to draw from this kind of situation.  Because hey, if life isn’t an After-School Special, what’s the point?

Jeffrey Johnson and Steven Ercolino

Bullying or Blood Feud? Jeffrey Johnson (l) and Steven Ercolino (r).

Instead, and much more boringly, this is a simple revenge plot that went exactly as the killer wanted.  There is very little to learn here about human nature that we didn’t already know.  We have no evidence that he was bullied by anyone but perhaps the target of assassination.  He lived alone, which tells us little more than he was a loner.  As far as we know at this point, he was an otherwise reasonably successful designer of women’s fashion (though his line was not selling as well as he thought it should) who lost his long-time job due to downsizing, and apparently (and rightly) enjoyed the company of cats more than people.

This isn’t a victim of bullying finally seeking revenge in a world that has cruelly mistreated him.  This is a man who felt that his precious life had been ruined by some asshole that meant less in his eyes than a house pet.  Johnson made his contempt clear in an elevator confrontation, the sorry conclusion of which simply added to the sense of frustration and impotence that must have coursed through his brain.  And as far as I can tell from this side of the world, very few tears are being shed in Steve Ercolino’s honor, which doesn’t add to the sense that Johnson was wrong in his measure of this guy, whatever you think of his actions.  Insulted, slighted, perhaps even had his life ruined by Ercolino, but not bullied.

The elevator confrontation probably gives us as much insight as we now need to understand the way this all must have gone down in poor Jeff Johnson’s inner psyche.  It raised the bar on apparently occasional verbal altercations when Johnson was forced to return to his old place of employment to deal with COBRA paperwork, and he found his slight, middle-aged body couldn’t cash the check his mouth had been writing lo those many months.  The words probably bubbled up out of his gut in pure impotent rage when he promised to kill Ercolino after being humiliated in that elevator; after finally mustering up the will to get physical with the object of his hatred.

This was no longer just a rivalry over a lost job.  This was about saving face against a man who overpowered him both physically and hierarchically.  The verbal confrontations didn’t bring any justice, and fisticuffs were clearly out of the question, but he clearly had the self confidence and passion to raise the bar each time he felt he was made a fool of before.  After making a promise like that to a man with whom you have a deep and unabiding rivalry, after clearly pinning your self-respect to winning the rivalry, how do you not carry through and still look at yourself in the mirror every morning as you struggle to retain dignity in your suit and tie, without becoming a pathetic Willie Loman, as the New York Times tries to paint him, “dressing for a job that he no longer had”?  Johnson had sealed his own fate with that promise, and unluckily for Ercolino, it was a promise that Johnson’s pride and rage allowed him to carry through to its violent conclusion.

However, if Johnson is simply the victim of bullying, that tells a story that a certain selection of the human race wants to hear.  For some victims of bullying, it’s a fantasy that people like Joshua Foust (who Ames profiles and compares to Johnson in his piece) have which comes to life for them.  They can feel the thrill of bloody revenge without bloodying themselves, vicariously experiencing that long-desired revenge against the people they feel slighted them over the years.

But even most “twerps” get over it after a few years, whether they become super-star billionaires, the (99% fictional) sexy geek, or simply live the kind of boring lives spotted with the occasional joy, frustration, and dread that most of us experience.  The memory of the abuse lasts forever, but like most people, they have a support network of friends and family who have accumulated over the years, even if by sheer inertia, and they are able to get past it.  To some anti-bullying activists, if a shooting was caused by bullying, it makes the plight of the abused more clear, and the danger of bullying even clearer than that.  But is it really that important to try to shoe-horn every revenge shooting incident into a story about the consequences of bullying?  Bullying is abuse, and a lifetime of it could certainly inspire some victims to violence, but not every weedy loner is a victim of bullying.

Of course, it’s not just anti-bullying advocates that try to use these stories to their own ends.  Every kind of police-state advocate, gun rights advocate, or gun control advocate will claim to have something to say or fear about this incident.  It’s as misguided as most public debate usually is in this country.  Sometimes a feud is just a feud, and many have been settled this way since the dawn of society.  It’s as primal and pedestrian as it gets, and teaches us little more than life is short, and a man’s pride is as powerful a motivation today as it ever has been.  Or are we to believe times have really changed that much?

Burr-Hamilton Duel

“Why did I shoot the Vice President? Defamation of character. Because in 1804, and the previous 10,000 years, that’s a totally legitimate and understandable reason for murder.”

Posted in: Suicide, Unemployment