What’s Wrong With the Neighbors?

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 mass-murder ritual known as knocking on doors, the reporters never seem to get the gory quote. Instead, the next-door neighbors go on the record with comments that are naïve, 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 once they hear the knock.

Jeffrey Dahmer’s neighbors, for example, told reporters: “He was shy, a little withdrawn. But not real bizarre,” and that, “he never bothered anyone.” (Anyone? What about all those people he killed?) According to his neighbors, Columbine killer Eric Harris was “a nice guy. Shy person, didn’t say much” and “a very nice, polite, clean-cut kid.” Furrow’s neighbors 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 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. 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.” The neighbors of Jonesboro’s killer Andrew Golden wrote off the threats he made to other kids, the shots he fired at their houses, and the punches he threw at girls as just youthful high-spirits: After all, “He was a quick-to-wave, friendly boy.”

The neighbors’ comments may also represent a kind of cover-your-ass legal defensiveness. No one wants to be blamed for not reporting a mass murderer. So even when killers are as peculiar as Furrow, Dahmer, or Ted Kaczynski, the neighbors make a Herculean effort to present their homicidal acquaintance as banal. Then they won’t seem like idiots for not noticing his villainy.

This reached new and astonishing heights with Dahmer. Vernell and Pamela Bass lived in next door to Dahmer. As one paper 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.” Downstairs neighbor Aaron Whiteheard said, “One night, I heard what sounded like a kid … He was crying like his mother had just walloped him. I heard a big falling sound … like he was being hurt.” 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.”

The Unabomber’s neighbors said Kaczynski was hardly odd enough to worry them: “We’ve got other ones around here that act a lot farther out than he ever was.”

But don’t blame the neighbors too much. 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. Barton managed to wave hello from his car. Dahmer went a few times to apartment cookouts. 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. Those who genuinely knew America’s mass murderers have supplied the insight the neighbors missed. Even as the adults in the neighborhood were remembering Golden as “a beautiful young kid,” the children who played with him were describing his viciousness and rage. 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,” 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.