Americans in general like to pull for the underdog. And we're proud of it. The tendency seems to be woven into our cultural tapestry. Maybe the original thread came from understrength, poorly organized, rag-tag colonists taking on the British powerhouse. And winning.
There is a dark side to this characteristic, though. Like some young women who are drawn to "bad boys," sometimes we are inclined to honor and put upon a virtual pedestal some of the dregs of our society. It seems only to require that they take on the power structure, no matter the reasons, and do it in a colorful or exciting manner.
Jesse James learned his murderous trade along the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War, when he and his older brother, Frank, operated as guerillas, targeting Union forces and civilian Republicans who favored the North. After the war, they graduated to wholesale, and widespread, robbery of stagecoaches, banks, and trains. Jesse developed the habit of writing letters to newspapers, outlining his political beliefs and sometimes declaring his innocence of some of the crimes with which he and the gang were credited. This publicity played into the tendency of some to portray Jesse as a sort of Robin Hood, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. In fact, Jesse and his gang robbed whoever had cash, and there's no indication they ever shared the loot with anyone other than their own gang members.
Jesse was eulogized in a song I learned as a youngster. It told in mournful terms and sad melody of the outlaw's demise, how "Robert Ford, that dirty little coward laid poor Jesse in his grave." There's no record of any songs memorializing Jesse's victims.
Much later, in the 1930s, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker became prominent murderous criminals and won popular acclaim. Perhaps best known of all the thugs who took part in a wave of Depression-era lawlessness, the two cut a wide swath through the Southwest, robbing and killing. They both had grown up in a hideous Dallas slum, so the odds were heavily against their ever reaching the goals most youngsters daydream about. When you consider that Bonnie Parker yearned to be a poet, or an actress, or a singer, and that circumstances of her early life made that virtually impossible, you have to feel sympathetic. But you also need to consider that thousands of youngsters falling short of such goals still manage to live within the law.
And now we come to Christopher Dorner. Naval Reserve officer, former Los Angeles Police Department police officer, murderer, domestic terrorist, now deceased. There is room for sympathy for Dorner, as there is for anyone who's convinced they've been wronged by society or the particular organization they served. Whose life goes off the rails so dramatically and so irrevocably. Thus, true to our tradition, some now hold this underdog up as a tragic figure who was done wrong and who should be memorialized in song and otherwise. And so there enters into our national list of dirges "The Ballad of Christopher Dorner." There's also a video game using his saga and proclaiming him a "True American."
It may well be that the LAPD wronged Dorner. Or not. He was, we are told, accorded all the legal avenues to protest his treatment. He followed those avenues, yet failed to receive the restitution he sought. I can understand that. I spent some years as head of a section that looked into claims of soldiers who were certain they'd been wronged by the Army. Sometimes they clearly had been. Some we ruled against. Many of the latter were, naturally, incensed and insisted they still needed an answer, refusing to recognize that they'd received one and that the answer was "no."
I can understand Dorner's anger. It seems likely he had severe mental problems, and I can certainly sympathize if that was the case. I cannot, though, honor someone who kills totally innocent people, and promises to kill more, as a way of showing the world how vexed he is.
It's a free country. If you want to revere the memory of Christopher Dorner, be my guest. I'll reserve my respect for his victims, and for the millions who suffer bad treatment and still manage to endure and struggle on, without making the rest of us pay for their pain.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."