he skilled loner has an advantage over his fellows: Time to think.
Amid chatter-friendly gadgets and a zoo of facilitated connections, the loner scorns social interaction, or interprets it differently.
The benign loner is vaguely amused by external goings-on, or bemused. The militant loner grows prematurely senile and envious; he schemes in gloom; he concocts synapses around aspects of the terrible he learns to befriend.
By all accounts Cho Seung-Hui, who hid behind sunglasses, was a militant loner. I, who wore sunglasses day and night in high school, belong to the benign variety. We intersect casually, members of two wings of a damaged armada. The benign wing broods and writes. The militant one, coerced by inner despotism, threatens and possibly kills — others and themselves.
The dissimilarities in loner membership don’t affect a Ptolemaic centrality. Loners believe, consciously or not, that the sun rotates around their hippocampus, or would if it could, or should if it were not forcibly inclined differently.
Loners are by definition “troubled,” the imprecise word for the inner-directed life. They burrow. They represent themselves in ways frequently considered aberrant or alarming — painting, in fact, has always flirted with psychosis, colors a vivid smattering of entrails; literature, prone to revision, is less dramatic, the tearing less evident.
Cho’s writings apparently rattled those around him. So has mine at times. But depressed and angry sentences no more readily transfer to action than suicide-contemplators follow through with their bluster. Killers of self and of others usually fly under radar for inordinately long stretches. Speaking up beforehand contaminates the enchantment of culmination.
But telling the difference between benign and militant loners is problematic because their behavior is eerily similar.
Computer-game obsessed teenagers, for example, are not time bombs. Most aren’t even loners. They are adjuncts to a fast-developing array of asocial choices. They seek sanctuary in sophisticated fantasy dimension whose encomiums and disappointments are more predictable than those emanating from a real world populated by irrational adults and rife with double standards.
Silence in a loud age is its own militancy, a frontal objection to a status quo so varied and agitated it cannot be tamed or controlled.
The computer geek, faced with this reality, retreats further until faced with confrontation. The militant loner, affronted by similar encroachment, chooses a more obvious option (to him): controlling the incursion by lashing out.
So a further difference between the benign and militant loner is the willingness to act.
In my benign subdivision, rage is transferred through words into watertight compartments where menace is systematically defanged and redirected into an essay, a memoir, an apparently candid entertainment. These are party masks to disguise skittish emotions a polygraph might interpret as evasive and a psychologist as macabre. Social training allows benign loners to behave as circus seals with adjustable dials. Their bite is manageable. Their snarl can look like a smile.
The militant loner — particularly the young one — has no such dials, or privately spurns the ones he knows. He can graduate into paranoia, the foyer of madness. Authority is seen as paltry and personally offensive. The carefree and the self-indulgent encircle him menacingly. They’re teasing him. The only question is who strikes first. Such imagined chess lives for its own sinister quietude. It must.
Both benign and militant loner refute the social melting pot. Isolation resents confluence, the idea that colors, creeds and thought processes should flow seamlessly into a one-sized social maw. For the benign loner, accepting the paradigm sunders identity; it is to be resisted. For the militant one, it represents an incursion by vulgar forces of superior size inflicting an unwanted conformity.
Ironically, province of the loner is also romantic. For the benign loner, romance is an abstract ideal, a perfected suspension of yearning that is unconnected to a mate or the sustaining of a relationship. For the militant one, loathing is the perfection of isolated sentimentality. The loner empathizes with his own remoteness. He’s even moved to tears by it. Angry estrangement is a vacant excitement few can recognize from afar.
In 1968, in an age of hallucinogens and electric guitars, Neil Young wrote a song called “The Loner.” “He’s a perfect stranger, like a cross of himself and a fox,” Young began. And later: “He’s the unforeseen danger, the keeper of the key to the locks. Know when you see him, nothing can free him.”
Hindsight suggests Virginia Tech should have acted on Cho’s slouch: screeds, complaints, mental health concerns, gun purchases. But benign or militant, a loner is still the cross of himself and a fox. Once in evidence, his bare wounded teeth are seen for the first and last time — videotaped exploits in a closed environment. Flushed from solitude, there is no way back.