Swords: The murder weapon of nerds.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Jan. 3 2011 7:04 AM

Nerd Violence

Never give a sword to a man who can't dance.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.
Click image to expand.

It would have been newsworthy if Michael Brea, a young actor from the television series Ugly Betty, had killed his mother with a gun. But when he slashed her to death last November in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a 3-foot-long Masonic blade, his crime made the front page: A sword nut gone berserk.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Brea's choice of weapon may not have been his greatest derangement—"I didn't kill her, I killed the demon inside her," he insisted afterward—but it was certainly odd. In the United States, at least, murderers tend to shoot people: Two-thirds of the nation's homicides—about 10,000 per year—are committed with firearms. Drug dealers use handguns to protect their turf; athletes keep them in their pants. Among cops, shooting is contagious. When teenagers snap, they bring guns to school.

Knives are less common, but more intimate—the tool of muggers, rapists, prisoners, and old-fashioned street toughs. The hijackers on 9/11 may have used box-cutters, which would have been easy to hide in their carry-on bags. But a 3-foot blade? It's the plaything of a deviant mind. A man with a sword has no interest in concealment and no hope of escape. He might try to hide his weapon—by hanging it from his neck, let's say, under an overcoat—but that's playing against type: A sword isn't sneaked to the scene of the crime; it's lifted from the mantel at the moment of need. Because, really, there's nothing more grandiose and theatrical than the vorpal blade. It's the weapon of dueling gentlemen and swashbuckling adventurers, of knights in armor and the horse lords of Rohan.

Advertisement

That is to say, the sword is the weapon of nerds. It's also the weapon of schizophrenics. And, most of all, it's the weapon of schizophrenic nerds.

Consider how Michael Brea described his mother's slaying in November: "I felt like Neo from The Matrix." Then he added, "It's a powerful sword"—as if his murder weapon had been forged by goblins. It's said there are crimes of passion and crimes of logic. Brea's was one of science fiction and fantasy.

Same goes for the Florida man with shoulder-length hair who killed his girlfriend's stepfather with a samurai sword in 2008—and then told the police that he was a Wiccan high priest. Or the supermarket bagger in Irvine, Calif., who killed two people with a katana in 2003 and was obsessed with Highlander, a film and television series about immortal, time-traveling swordsmen. Or the South African boy who sliced up his schoolmates with three swords  while wearing a monster mask (and suffering anxiety about an upcoming exam).

That's not to say demented nerds are responsible for every act of sword-based violence. Just before Christmas, a guy in Terre Haute, Ind., used a samurai sword to chop off another man's fingers in a street fight. Earlier in the year, someone in Cheyenne, Wyo., robbed a convenience store with a 3-foot katana. And in February, a Kentucky psychiatrist stabbed one of his patients with a sword at his office building. It may be that none of these men believed he was a Jedi knight or a level-20 paladin, but the mere fact of their armament suggests membership in a geeky and aggressive subculture. Men who collect swords are the same ones who become obsessed with kendo and historical re-enactments—if they're not too busy playing D&D or SoulCalibur. Which is to say: It may not make you a lunatic to have an ornamental blade hanging on your living-room wall. But it's a pretty good sign that you're a dork.

The archetypical sword murderer, for his part, is a 20- to 40-year-old white male who still lives with his parents. He's often a paranoid schizophrenic, and he often expresses himself by killing his mother or father.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.