The most accomplished serial killer in civilian US history confessed to 71 murders. Gary Ridgway, known by his nom de couteau the Green River Killer, may have slain upwards of ninety women between 1982 and his capture in 2001. Worldwide, the top spot belongs to La Bestia, the Colombian Pishtaco infamous for raping, torturing, murdering, and butchering street urchins, not necessarily in that order. Luis Garavito’s confessions topped out at 147 kids in a five-year span in the 1990s, but it’s likely he simply lost count in the midst of his frequent outings. Hoosegow-sketched maps to his mass graves (plural) led investigators to unearth the remains of over 400 victims ranging between the ages of 8 and 16, all boys. Pedro Lopez, also working in Colombia and neighboring nations boasted a better memory than Garavito. He recalled the rape and murder of over 300 girls between the ages of 8 and 12. Convicted on 110 counts, Lopez was released from custody in 1998. When last the world stood in repair, his whereabouts were unknown.
Yet for all their ferocity, for all their sleepless nights bent to their grisly craft, for all the evil and corruption infecting their souls, no serial killer in history could hope to stain their fingers as indelibly crimson as even a middling sovereign phoning it in on a lazy Sunday. Take seriously for a moment Truman’s “the buck stops here” maxim. If true, every battlefield casualty avoidable through diplomacy, every state-sponsored execution, every corpse left festering in the wake of well-intentioned legislation riddled with unintended consequences, every grave occupied thanks to the negligence, incompetence, obtuseness, or intractability of the ruling apparatus litters the dais upon which languishes the sanguinary head of state. Even if there’s but a crumb of truth in the slogan, the capacity of ruling cabals to indulge violence domestically and abroad reduces the most industrious efforts of private madmen to barely-distinguishable rounding errors. Men may kill in drips, drabs, ones and twos. Dozens if well-prepared and lucky. Organizations kill institutionally, great machines of death grinding hapless flesh in numbers too large to process individually. The victims of large-scale violence cease to be people, and are instead rates, counts, comparative statistics, database summaries. They are robbed of their humanity as well as their life. Dying at the hands of a serial killer is tragic. Dying at the hands of the state is ignoble.
Anika: “My legs are sore.” From a kid who had managed a forced march from the bayou to the Cascades without so much as a peep, the complaint carried weight. “I’m glad that’s over with.”
The town was how I remembered. The main drag, such as it were, sat a few blocks up from the river, and a typical twelve year old wouldn’t have too much trouble hucking a baseball over the tallest building. The shadow of the mountains protected the buildings from the worst of the nuclear rain that had pummeled the key military sites in the Puget Sound. On arrival, my wandering thoughts brought me to the Naval air station on Whidbey Island. The east side of the sound had felt the atomic hammer, so I was confident that my old submarine base in Bangor and the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard had been leveled. Despite having worked and lived in these places, I found sympathy difficult to muster. Whidbey Island was another matter. It’s a long drive from Kitsap County to get to the islands, so I reserved outings for particularly clement days. My memories were naturally skewed towards remembering the place as being especially beautiful. Of course, on its best days, any destination in Dabob Bay was just as striking, but I also had to slog through cold mud in the bitter February rains before dawn so that I could stare at a handful of immobile gauges for four hours at a stretch. Occupation lends a more balanced view, you might say. All else equal, anyway.
Brigit: “Look at this place. This is unreal.”
Clay: “It’s a city in a bottle.”
Under ideal conditions, exterior latex paint has a shelf life of about five years in an unopened one-gallon can. I haven’t the foggiest idea what that shelf life might be in industrial-sized vats, but I can’t imagine that it’s much longer. Even assuming useful paint made it through, keeping derelict buildings looking new would have been a senselessly wasteful Potemkin vanity project even in the world that was. To see gleaming Dairy Queen facades amid the dust of a dead planet seemed something out of a fractured nursery rhyme. I expected a bent crone to emerge, offering us a poison Oreo Blizzard, nasal wart and all.
Anika: “Why is everything so colorful and clean?”
Me: “You don’t think…” I faltered, brow inching toward a full-blown furrow.
Clay: “I do think.” He turned towards Anika. “It has to be Yakima. No one else would be this crazy.”
Anika: “I don’t get it.”
Me: “Remember what I told you about the Folk Theorem?”
Anika: “I remember you said ‘any equilibrium is possible,’ but I’m still not sure what that means.”
Me: “In an infinitely-repeated game, yes. It’s sort of a fancy way of saying that the rules that come out of group decision making are kind of unpredictable. At least if all you look at is just the rules.” We had found a railyard of sorts behind a dazzlingly-lacquered Napa Auto Parts store and were on the lookout for a place to squat a spell. “There’s a long-standing puzzle in political science.” I peeked inside the windows of what appeared to have once been a beer distributor. “Or, at least there was before everything fell apart.” The bay doors on the other side of the building were missing. It looked drafty. We pressed on. “How is it that we see such regime stability? Theoretically, constant coups and revolutions should be just as likely in the developed west as they are in the third world.”
Brigit: “Aren’t we supposed to say ‘less-developed’ or ‘developing’ nations or something like that?”
Me: “Maybe. I stopped keeping track of the faculty-approved terminology some time ago.”
Anika: “So why then?”
Me: “Why did I stop keeping track? Because professors who weren’t incinerated, gutted by bandits, or starved from their own agricultural incompetence ended up pursuing less rarefied endeavors. There are no more universities.”
Anika: “No, I mean what’s the answer to that political science question?”
Me: “Oh. Right. I’m not really sure there’s a good answer. Having a nice, peaceful, stable society makes everyone better off. But that’s as true in Holland as it is in Nicaragua. Maybe the difference is that residents of frequently-revolting countries don’t expect stability, so they don’t bother quashing uprisings.”
Clay: “And vice versa for the Commonwealth?”
Me: “Sure. It’s one explanation, anyway.”
Brigit: “Hardly.” She snorted delicately. “You still run up pretty quickly against the question of where those expectations came from in the first place.” She motioned us towards a derelict Radio Shack on the next block. “And before you start on that egregore crap, remember that you still haven’t convinced me that you aren’t begging the question with that too.”
Me: “Well, that’s why it’s such a classic question.” I wrinkled my nose. “That was a Radio Shack. Are you sure? Those places always smelled funny to me.” Her stride informed me she didn’t much consider my olfactory objections to be an obstacle. “There really isn’t a satisfactory final answer.”
Clay: “Just like prohibition?”
Anika: “What,” Anika’s question was sheepish, following the incredulous outbursts of Brigit and me. “is prohibition?”
Clay: “It used to be against the law to do stuff like drink alcohol or solicit a prostitute. They’d send you to jail for it.”
Anika: “Really? Why?”
Clay “Well, those things are either bad for you or bad for society, and it’s pretty easy to just pass a law against something and hope that it sticks.”
Me: “How is prohibition like political stability? Please elaborate.”
Clay: “Sure. You wouldn’t say alcohol prohibition worked, would you?”
Me: “Depends on what you mean by ‘worked.’ Eliot Ness gave us The Untouchables, which was pretty good by Kevin Costner standards.”
Brigit: “Bah. You judge a Connery movie by Connery standards. You know better than that.”
Me: “Point taken. But yes, by any reasonable metric, alcohol prohibition was a dreadful failure.”
Clay: “How come? Why was alcohol so hard to ban, but lawn darts disappeared from suburban back yards permanently and nearly instantly?”
Anika: “Lawn darts?”
Clay: “Oversized steel darts. You’d try to hit a target on your back lawn. Kids ended up throwing them at each other. Not exactly the finest invention in the history of family-friendly summer sports.”
Me: “Are you putting me on? The answer is obvious. There are readily-available, cheap substitutes for lawn darts. You can play cornhole, bocce ball, croquet,” I dipped into my shallow pool of middlebrow outdoors summer fun and came back with thin soup in my ladle, “uh, slip-n-slide. There’s no such alternative for alcohol. At least not when every variety of it is banned. The near-total absinthe ban stood because gin produces close enough results that only the most dedicated absinthe dilettante would complain.”
Anika: “What’s an absinthe dilettante?”
Brigit: “An atmospheric horror novelist.” Credit where it’s due: her deadpan delivery rivaled Bebe Neuwirth at her Cheers-era driest. “Look, there are two restaurants on either side. We’ve got a Sahara Pizza and this one is called Mavericks. We can get pizza while the boys head east.”
Anika: “I’ve never eaten pizza.”
Clay: “That is tragic, Annie. It’s still early in the day, but if I were a betting man, I’d say that’s probably the most tragic thing I’ll hear from sunup to sundown.” Walking through a town without having to constantly dodge garbage or rubble was surreal, as if we’d stumbled into an old studio production. I half expected a young Tomas Wilson to round the corner with Billy Zane to harass Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson.
Anika: “Can we really get pizza?” The question was skeptical rather than hopeful. I briefly entertained daydreams of just how difficult it would be to make a pizza from scratch.
Me: “Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
Clay: “There you go.”
Clay: “That’s your politics point and my prohibition point right there with the pizza.”
Me: “I don’t follow.”
Clay: “You’re right. What matters is expectations. If the four of us had come through this town in 2007, Annie’s question would have been pleading rather than incredulous. Americans of the 20th century expected power to pass peacefully from one president to the next. No one seriously expected to give up beer, the very elixir of civilization, simply because irate prohibitionists and their congressional lickspittles said so.”
Me: “So the trick is to manage expectations if you want to prohibit something?”
Clay: “No one, not even people who could technically afford it, really expected to own a howitzer. You’re onto something with the substitutes, but Brigit’s closer to the truth with the characteristics of underlying demand. In terms of economics, legal restrictions assume a fixed demand schedule and impose quotas or levy punitive taxes to modify behavior. If you really want to get rid of something, you can’t take that demand schedule for granted. You have to get people to stop wanting to get high, or laid, or whatever. You have to make it so no deranged spree killer wants to get his story on the national news. Remove the appeal.”
Brigit: “It worked for littering.”
Me: “And smoking.”
Clay: “Publicly-uttered racial slurs.”
Me: “Interesting. I’m not sure it’s something you can force though.”
Clay: “Depends on how hard you push.”
Brigit: “And where.”
Me: “I’m still not sure where expectations come from in the first place.”
Clay: “Does it really matter?”
Me: “If you’re planning on pushing against a wall, you should probably want to know what’s behind it.”
Clay: “That’s the trick, isn’t it?”
The Radio Shack didn’t smell as pungent as I expected. Bare shelves stood atop a mostly clean concrete slab. Anika broke into the back room and began rummaging through the artifacts of a world she couldn’t possibly comprehend.