This is guest post by Dean Balsamo.
Media masters, public servants, teachers and other official shapers of public attitudes tell us it’s taboo. Officially it doesn’t exist. Never applied. No matter. It acts like the persistence of memory with a serial life force. Biological? Genetic? A survival strategy we can’t shake? Profiling is big again. Out of its cage, box, the Deep-wherever we store it when not in use.
Everyone does it. Men with strong sartorial interests are active practitioners. Captoe. Check. Top button-buttoned, bottom unbuttoned. Check. Natural shoulders. Check. Non-matching pocket square – tie mix. Check. The subjects of the sartorial once-over are prosperous, dandies, poseurs, douche bags, fashionistas, sophisticated, genius. Always judging. Always comparing the world of appearances to a canonical baseline of acceptable combinations and uses. When violated it’s as if a crime has been committed.
Taking this sense of the criminal a step further, channeling McLuhan in the process – what can our sartorial insight yield when profiling actual criminal events? For example crimes involving the Lone Nut, an iconic staple of American culture. He’s Modern and Post-Modern, Psychopathic. Good media fodder. A perfect subject for our times. Straddling now some five decades, purists look at dividing the phenomenon into two camps. The Classic and Contemporary with Classic covering the deaths of JFK, RFK, MLK and Contemporary encompassing the activity of Lone Nuts ever since.
A purist’s reasoning for the division sees the Contemporary manifestation as debased in its intentions. “Any dumb ass on oxycodone can wear a technical vest. But what’s their cause? What do they want? Are they anti globalists? Marxists? Right Wingers? Nationalists? Where are the big ideas behind their violence? How does a Virginia Tech compare with the murders of national figures in the past?” They have a point, only the rustic-looking, cabin dweller called Unabomber – technically more of a “terrorist” than Lone Nut – has a philosophical underpinning to his methods.
That said in exploring the world of appearances and criminality of this type what kinds of markers in appearance can help us form a picture of said nut and in the process generate an insight or two about these characters? Looking at the Lone Nut of today we see permutations on work wear, military kit, and athletic looks with some Goth elements. There’s the ubiquitous T-Shirt with or without logos, band names or slogans imprinted. The baseball cap, Levis, heritage and generic outwear in the Cathcart, John Woolwrich and Dickies vein, shirt-jackets, plaid, sweatpants and their mainline variations on basics – think Russell from Wal Mart, K Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Target and a dozen more retailers with similar demographics. But does the resulting data paint a picture of a Lone Nut mowing down nobodies in work places and campus’s or point a finger at a sizable portion of today’s American male population?
Oswald in a shirt at the news conference.
Hmm. Okay. Well then. What about the Classic Lone Nut? What does someone who single handily makes a national government do 180 degree turns, traumatizes an anti-war movement, and throws the actions of a non-violent organization out of focus dress like? He’s got impressive economies of scale, using the sparest of means and super powers like magic bullets, sniper expertise, and daring (crazy) point blank assaults to making a killing. He’s got a name rolling off the tongue, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan B. Sirhan, James Earl Ray. The magnitude of the events screams professional killers, Good Fellows and agents. But their appearances don’t quite measure up to those standards do they? We’re still looking at style threads embodied by T-shirts, Levis, short-sleeved shirts, Chinos and skinny ties. There’s Oswald led through a crowd of reporters wearing this kind of garb. Ditto dazed and confused Sirhan B. Sirhan. And Mr. Ray? Murder Inc or rural gas station owner? “Pro” or ‘patsy” as Oswald described himself. Mr Sad Sack pinned with the crime.
Oswald in a skinny tie.
The uptick in stylistic leanings occurs in the guise of significant others making brief but puzzling appearances in the classic assassination dramas. With JFK you get the Three Tramps picked behind the infamous Grassy Knoll moments after the shots were fired. Caught. Released. No statements, no nothing. Researchers say Tramps are connected to the hit. Googling the usual candidate reveals entities with spook connections and pictures of them in suits and ties. As Tramps they’re not to shabby either with ensembles echoing casual work wear and a tweed thing. Today we might see it as Tramp Wear – the new working man’s brand.
The night of RFK’s murder the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles has a young lady in a polka dot dress with a young man in a cardigan and chinos yelling something like, “We got him!,” right after the senator goes down, as they run towards a hotel exit never to be seen (or after some initial media reports – talked about) again.
Of course Suits are everywhere but to paraphrase a well known Sufi saying, the Suits are in the middle of everything but not part of it – so the official accounts tell us. We see men from all the alphabet agencies, Congressmen sitting on commissions with the pro-scribed DC look to their suited attire, a nattily-dressed New Orleans business man, and even Mafia Dons and their colleagues – a little Dean Martin, a little Palm Spring eventually thrown into the mix. Cannons followed check. They preside over assassination related events with the kind of impressive command you’d expect from those clothed this way. Not a patsy or pussy among them. Even Jack Ruby is dressed in a suit and hat when he executes Oswald in the Dallas police station. Both victim and shooter are then hustled out by Suits.
The RFK event also has a Suit intimately involved in the guise of the bodyguard ushering the senator through the hotel’s kitchen. While much of the forensic evidence is destroyed, lost, or mishandled by the LAPD who oversee the investigation into the chaos, some things are clear. Maybe the most telling concerns the entry points of the fatal shots. Under his right arm and behind, not in the front of his body-where no bullet entry wounds are found even though Sirhan B. Sirhan the accused killer stands some three feet away. Subsequent study centers on the Suit behind RFK who admits using his firearm but recites the mantra of “not me.”
As for the patsy-looking Ray, even the King family doesn’t believe he’s the killer while others murmur something about a uniformed member of a Memphis police force.
Three Classical Lone Nut events, thee open wounds that’ll never heal-spawning endless conjecture and endless story telling. And the same can be said for any of the sartorial profiling we might put to use. Normal expectations from attire don’t seem to compute with the kinds of certainty we usually attribute to our observations. If fundamental rules of attire are simply applied we’re still left wondering about our conclusions. When it comes to experiences with lone nuts, seeing isn’t necessarily believing. Profiling and interpreting the supposed actions and roles of those involved from Lone Nut to supporting players isn’t mathematics, it’s more akin to art. Sketches and paintings, not equations and algorithms, are used to get a handle on the players. Seen in this light, profiling is, like any useful tool only as productive as the level of information and insight it’s used with.
- Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.