The unbearable whiteness of being

This year's hate killers are weak, lonely Caucasian men who murder those who have what they don't: A sense of belonging.

Published July 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I haven't heard of anyone who spoke to Benjamin Smith during his three-day killing spree that ended in his suicide. As far as I know, he didn't pick up the phone late at night between killings and say goodbye to Mom or Dad. He didn't call his ex-girlfriend and say, "It's all your fault" or "I'm sorry" or something cryptic, a line from a song, perhaps, that we could've milked for meaning later.

For three days, Smith cruised in his car alone, a young white man in a light blue Taurus, two handguns at his side. After that first time, he didn't even get out of the car to shoot. He aimed out the window. He shot without saying a word. He sped away. He appeared an hour later, a day later, in another neighborhood, another city, finding new targets. No notes were left on the bodies, no racist pamphlets mailed to the police, no slogans shouted before pulling the trigger. He was a man with nothing left to say. A young white man. He killed all weekend, out there alone in his blue Taurus, and shot himself that Sunday night.

How many news reports have I read where "Man kills girlfriend and children, then self"? Hundreds, I suppose. I've always wondered if they turn the gun on themselves at the end to escape judgment. Or were they suicidal all along and just couldn't bear to leave her and the kids behind? Couldn't bear it because they knew that their families would survive fine without them; indeed, they would be happy to see them go.

Who did Benjamin Smith decide to take with him? Not his family, not his girlfriend -- she left him over a year ago. A black man walking with his children. A Korean man coming out of church with a group of fellow worshippers. He shot at Orthodox Jews returning from temple and a group of Asian students talking outside their college dormitory. Like the high school killers in Littleton, Colo., Smith went after anyone who believed -- in God, in family, in the rightness of their own existence. And anyone who belonged.

When I interviewed white-power skinheads a few years back, they were almost all the children of middle class, suburban families, like Benjamin Smith, like the Littleton boys, like the white supremacists in Sacramento, Calif. accused of murdering a gay couple. To the skinheads I met, being white meant being rootless, causeless, no flag to wave, no people to feel loyal to, no one feeling loyalty to them. "If the race war happened now, whites would lose," they complained. "Blacks are so close together. They'd be real easy to set off and they'd all stick together but whites wouldn't."

They were educated kids, articulate. For all their talk of racial pride, they didn't seem to like white people much. White meant weak. Greedy. Complacent. Most of all, lonely. They complained bitterly about how materialistic and bloodless white families had become.

Here's how one skinhead described his parents' middle-class life and their expectations for him: "It was go to high school, be on the football team, do all the things kids are supposed to do, then go to college, be a doctor, have a couple of kids when you're 30." His voice was filled with disgust.

He wanted to be working class. He wanted to be living in another era -- the 1930s or '40s, he thought, "when America was proud." At 16, he defied his parents and his class and dropped out of school to get married. He had three kids, worked a couple of jobs and he was happy. "I slept in the bed I made. I took care of business," is how he described it, proudly. Then his wife left him, and took the kids.

Every time I hear about another murderous young white man -- Benjamin Smith or the Bible study killer or the Sacramento white supremacists or the Colorado boys who spent their Saturday nights closed inside the garage making bombs -- I think of Kundera's phrase, "the unbearable lightness of being."

Who do they matter to? What value do they have, these awkward, bookish, lonely, none-too-pretty white boys? Where do they fit in? I doubt anyone feels more white today than these nerdy boys. It's obviously not a good feeling; they seem afraid of being afraid, of being perceived as weak or nerdy or alone. And that is how they are seen now; they can no more help it than an Asian kid can help being seen as smart.

Beware the lonely white boy. Beware the nerdy ones, the ones without girls and stuck with each other on weekend nights, in the garage, breaking glass, trying to make a party, a tribe out of two. They live in their heads because it's so unpleasant out here, and in there, they imagine themselves as warriors, wreckers of vengeance. Stephen King's "Carrie" is now a boy, a white boy. He is in a rage because he's a bookish, awkward boy and he has been made vulnerable.

When he was 20, Smith joined The World Church of the Creator. He couldn't have made a worse move -- a church without a God, a church that worshipped nothing but its own self, white men believing in ... white men. And so, Smith went out and he killed people who went to real churches, real temples, people who believed in something bigger than themselves, people living as if they mattered.

This weekend I went looking through some of the white racist sites on the Internet. One of them was nightmarish. "Is anyone out there?" read the most recent message. "I keep coming here and it looks the same. I posted a message awhile ago but no one's answered." All alone in cyberspace, like Bowie's astronaut, cut off from Ground Control, whirling endlessly. No one to hear you call, no voices coming through. This is the white man's nightmare, a nightmare he can't stop tweaking and calling up, shivering in dread all the while.

Last I heard, the skinhead I interviewed, the one who wanted only to raise his own family, had been arrested for murder. And Benjamin Nathaniel Smith died a white man's death: alone in a car, driving fast, he put a bullet in his head. It was the night of July 4th and his ex-girlfriend told the New York Daily News, "This is his Independence Day from the government, from everything."

) Pacific News Service

By Kathy Dobie

Pacific News Service associate editor Kathy Dobie is a New York journalist whose work has appeared in Vogue, Village Voice, Vibe and Salon.

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