Death Wish

How rebels punch their own ticket.


Milton William Cooper finally got what he expected on November 6, 2001.

It was shortly past midnight on that day when a group of Apache County sheriff's deputies entered his property in Edgar, Arizona, to serve a warrant for aggravated assault. Cooper, by police accounts–which Cooper's own official Web site agrees are true–drove off to avoid them. He turned back when he encountered their vehicles, and "attempted to run over a sergeant before heading back to his residence," as a sheriff's department press release put it. Ignoring orders to halt, Cooper ran toward his house and fired a handgun at the police, seriously wounding a deputy.

The police then shot and killed him, helping to write the final scene of a paranoid drama authored by Cooper himself. Cooper was a well-known–notorious, even–figure in American fringe culture. He first rose to such demi-prominence in UFO circles in 1988, claiming to have oodles of secret information gleaned from his days with U.S. Naval Intelligence. (His detractors point out that this experience seemed to be nothing more than working as an aide in an audio-visual department.)

I met Cooper once, at a 1992 convention in Atlanta dedicated to conspiratorial thinking. Even among a gaggle of flamboyant obsessives convinced that secret societies such as the Illuminati and Skull & Bones ran the world (or at least fascinated by such notions), Cooper stood out. Here was a man who swore that the Zapruder film clearly showed one of Kennedy's guards turning around and shooting the doomed president with a deadly shellfish toxin, the true cause of JFK's death. He also made an admirably precise, if almost certainly falsified, prediction that by 1998 we'd all be languishing in concentration camps run by the masters of the New World Order (who were in fact outer-space aliens).

Cooper was a kook's kook, in the worst sense. His tirades and accusations against other UFO researchers made him anathema even among that band of outsiders. Anyone who didn't believe everything Cooper said was branded as a CIA agent and/or dupe of the vast alien conspiracy. He was known for plagiarizing the "research" of other UFOlogists and claiming that he first saw all this stuff in Naval Intelligence documents in the early '70s–including things the UFOlogists made up as jokes. Although his reputation was built on his 1991 book, Behold A Pale Horse (which strangely became a favorite of Louis Farrakhan), he later backed off on its central claim of alien influence on global politics.

Over time, he began talking less like a UFOlogist and more like a militia type, convinced that the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms weren't really legitimate U.S. government agencies. He hitched his paranoia to a more traditional, though no less consuming, belief in human-centered conspiracies bent on creating a One World Government of secularist tyranny. With characteristically baroque complexity, Cooper's conspiracy–which he called "Majestytwelve"–covered everything from the Star Wars films to the first World Trade Center bombings.

Cooper's fate is sad, despite–or perhaps because of–his own role in it. He believed he was up against demons and that they were out to get him. Then he made it so. According to the Arizona Republic, when Cooper faced charges related to income taxes in 1998, he told a friend that he was "not going to submit to arrest." The friend added, "He's not going to retreat…I think he is expecting to be murdered by the FBI." In the end, a different law enforcement agency pulled the trigger, but close enough.

Some people set themselves in such uncompromising opposition to the world and its authorities that martyrdom is the only possible–indeed, the only acceptable–outcome to them. Through powerful acts of imagination, they transform their enemies into co-conspirators, the necessary heavies in a gruesome show directed by the martyr.

It's not right to say that such people get what they deserve. But it might not be wrong to say that figures as diverse as Cooper, recently killed marijuana advocates Tom Crosslin and Rollie Rohm, and orgone theorist and Food and Drug Administration scofflaw Wilhelm Reich, who died in federal custody in 1957, got exactly what they wanted on some level.

All avidly embraced a worldview in which they were brave and lone fighters against conspiracies and tyrannies too large and byzantine to fully comprehend, much less defeat. (Reich, for instance, believed the whole world suffered from an "emotional plague" he alone could diagnose, and that part of the sickness involved unyielding hostility toward the diagnostician.) The only logical ending for the rebel in such a script is death at the hands of the authorities, or in prison. Those mourning Cooper can console themselves with this: At least, he went out the way he wanted.