What neighbors really don't know

August 26, 1999|By Hanna Rosin and David Plotz

YOUR next-door neighbor just shot up a school/office/day-care center. Any comment?" "I thought he was pretty nice . . . But then again, I knew that his beliefs were way out of line. They were good neighbors, but, well, I got blue eyes, so I guess that helps." -- Meda VanDyke on her neighbor, neo-Nazi murderer Buford Furrow

"He used to say, `They're watching me through your satellite dish.' I'd tell him, `No, no, Rusty, no, they aren't watching you.' I tried to convince him, but it made no difference. . . . He was just a regular guy when he didn't have this problem. Everybody said, `He's harmless.' " -- Ken Moore, on his neighbor, U.S. Capitol murderer Russell Weston.

"We figured they would have questioned him and let him go and eventually we forgot about it." -- Eric Anderson, neighbor of Atlanta mass murderer Mark Barton, on the murder of Barton's first wife and mother-in-law several years earlier.

Pretty nice? Harmless? Forgot about it? Why, oh why, do the neighbors feel this compulsion to brush aside the dark side of the killer next door? If you just found out that nice man you saw trimming his lawn yesterday just mowed down some people, your first reaction would not be to relive the sweet memory of a friendly hello.

Yet in that post-massacre ritual of knocking on doors, reporters never seem to get the gory quote. Instead, the next-door neighbors go on the record with comments that are naive, foolish and odd.

It may be the neighbors are simply following the script. Thanks to television news culture, the neighbors have undoubtedly memorized what neighbors are supposed to say (nice guy, kept to himself) and dredge that from the subconscious.

For example, a neighbor of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, told reporters: "He was shy, a little withdrawn. But not real bizarre," and that "he never bothered anyone."

`A nice guy'

Columbine High School killer Eric Harris was "a nice guy. Shy person, didn't say much" and "a very nice, polite, clean-cut kid," according to a neighbor.

Neighbors of white supremacist Furrow, who's accused of going on a recent shooting rampage at a Jewish community center in Los Angeles called him a very pleasant individual. Barton's neighbors saw him as "a typical American family man," "a nice guy" who "kept to himself."

The most generous explanation for such verbal bouquets for those accused of such dastardly deeds is that the neighbors are demonstrating a warmhearted American optimism. They want to believe the best about the members of their imagined community.

Barton's neighbors knew he was suspected of savagely murdering his first wife, but they blocked that out. Mr. Furrow's neighbors knew that he was a neo-Nazi, a member of the Aryan Nations, and a wife-beater, but they still considered him a "nice guy."

Of course, no one wants to be blamed for not reporting an apparently disturbed person capable of mass murder. So even when killers are as peculiar as Furrow, Dahmer, or Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, the neighbors make a Herculean effort to present their homicidal acquaintance as banal.

Then they won't to seem like idiots for not noticing his villainy. This reached new and astonishing heights with Dahmer. Vernell and Pamela Bass lived next door to Dahmer.

As one newspaper reported, "Both Vernell and Pamela visited Dahmer's apartment often. He always kept the bedroom [and closets] locked. He had a video camera attached to the ceiling, which recorded every move. Otherwise there was nothing strange, they said."

There wasn't? They also noticed the stench of rotting meat from his apartment and they "heard sounds of sawing from his apartment day and night."

Yet even after admitting all this, Dahmer's neighbors insisted there was nothing odd about him, that he joined in neighborhood barbecues, that he was "like the average Joe."

Their trite comments say a lot more about the state of modern American neighborliness than they do about the neighbors themselves.

Reporters rely on neighbors to flesh out the characters of killers, but what, really, do neighbors know? Ask yourself: What could you say about your closest neighbor?

Some may blame neighborly ignorance on soulless, anomic suburbs, and indeed Barton, Klebold and Harris were ciphers to the folks across the lawn. But Dahmer was a mystery to the folks in his downtown apartment building, and Kaczynski was an enigma to his neighbors in the country.

No, the ignorance stems more from the very nature of neighborliness. Neighbors attribute decency to the killer next door because the standard of behavior required for being a good neighbor is so extremely low.

Neighborly gestures

Barton managed to wave hello from his car. Dahmer went a few times to apartment cookouts. Mr. Furrow once helped someone park a car.

Almost anyone, even the most sociopathic of sociopaths, can get through the occasional interaction like that without seeming malevolent. Of course, not everyone fails to understand the killers in their midst.

While the neighbors of Harris and Klebold smiled on them as clean-cut polite kids, and assumed they were shattering glass for "some kind of art project," not bombs. However, their schoolmates knew they were into Nazism, idolized Hitler and played with guns.

They were rightly scared of Klebold and Harris: "They're really, really creepy." Why did the classmates see what the neighbors didn't? Because you can fake your way through a neighborly hello, but you can't fake your way through life.

Hanna Rosin and David Plotz are columnists for Slate magazine, in which this first appeared.

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