PITTSBURGH—On Saturday, hours after Richard Poplawski is alleged to have gunned down three police officers called to evict him from his mother's house, experts on extremism began trying to unravel his mind. Getting into his head was surprisingly easy, thanks to the Web. Understanding what they found there was not.
These experts found a MySpace account in which 22-year-old Poplawski wrote of his experiments in self-mutilation. They then matched common screen names from that account with another, then on to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi chat site that has become the Grand Central Station of the white supremacist movement, where conspiracy theorists and Jew-baiters change trains in their journey down the road to Valhalla.
In workmanlike prose, Poplawski explored the idea that the economy faced imminent collapse. His words: "I also don't think there is too much debate about the eventuality of a collapse of economic and social order in this country. All signs seem to point to a once great nation in the midst its last gasp, suffocating under the weight [of] fiscal irresponsibility. Poisoned by design by the moral decadence that is a direct byproduct of item 1."
Fairly dry words—not too different from what we've been reading in newspaper columns for a few months now. But here's "item 1": "The federal government, mainstream media, and banking system in these United States are strongly under the influence of—if not completely controlled by—Zionist interest."
In another post, he offered a vivid narrative of chasing down a pair of "groids" who had swiped his mother's car. Elsewhere he wrote with schoolboy torment about losing his girlfriend, who he is sure took up with some black guy just to spite him. By the end of his run, he had changed his online name from "RichP" to "Braced for Fate." These revelations traced what seemed a rather common trajectory for many an extremist: inner turmoil here, a conspiracy theory there, and, voila!, out comes Timothy McVeigh.
Yet one of the finds by Jake Bialer, a political-science student at Reed College, remains intriguingly unfathomed. Checking a site called Stumbleupon, Bialer was able to find Poplawski's last few links from MySpace. They were, in turn, a page on "how to reprogram your subconscious," a Meyer-Briggs personality test, and a psychotherapy chart.
For someone presumably certain about Jewish conspiracies and his own racial adequacy, Poplawski seemed possessed of the notion that something curious was going on inside his noggin. It was almost as if he were looking for the Great Reset Button.
There is much already known about Richard Poplawski, but still more to be understood. He kept up a friendship with Aaron Vire, a black man, yet despised race-mixing. Some described him as almost maddeningly polite. He loved dogs, say his friends, yet during the year he spent in Florida, a neighbor who entrusted her dog to his care ended up calling the police. She suspected some sort of foul play when it vanished.
Twenty-five years ago, when Pittsburgh's economy was going to rust and flinders, desperate men who had played by the rules and lost everything to a market too complex to be understood climbed this city's bridges and jumped. A generation later, with the economy vaporizing amid revelations of incompetence, greed, and corruption on Wall Street and elsewhere, we see the corollary. One generation turned its violence inward. We have to wonder if the next is turning its outward.
One of the places to which Poplawski turned, according to his best friend, Edward Perkovic, was Alex Jones. In the realm of conspiracy, Jones defies the traditional left-right paradigm. When I described his site as "far right" in an article recently, I was inundated with indignant e-mails. Jones might have made his chops with documentaries about the Waco siege, but he views himself as a libertarian, not a right-winger.