When news broke of an active shooting at the Capital Gazette, my local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, I tweeted editor Rick Hutzell to ask if he was safe, and how I could help. When police announced the arrest of 38-year-old Jarrod Ramos as the suspect in the mass shooting, I, like many others, delved into his Twitter accounts.
I was shocked when I realized that Ramos – whom a grand jury just indicted on 23 charges, including five counts of first-degree murder – had contacted me two years ago. He taunted me in response to the Capital’s March 2015 report about how I had helped law enforcement thwart a mass shooting threat made on Twitter against grade school kids and Jews in Kalispell, Montana, by a man named David J. Lenio.
What I learned about Ramos, as I followed his Twitter trail, reveals as strange a worldview as one could imagine informing a mass-murder scenario. There are at least two main influences evident in Ramos' tweets. One is a worldview taken from the theocratic wing of the alt-right, and the other comes from a violent anime subculture centered around a popular manga, anime and film series titled “Berserk.” Taken together, they provide a Rosetta Stone that allows us to translate the significance of two religious visions, in relation to each other, as they existed in Ramos' mind.
I believe these mutually informing visions allowed Ramos to cast himself as a vigilante hand of God. His theocratic worldview, combined with his immersion in the world of "Berserk," helps to solve the mystery of his cryptic, final tweet and illuminate his possible motive for mass murder.
For all of Ramos’ vividly imagined righteousness, this story begins with a woman-hating, angry man. That there is a misogynist root to Ramos’ rage-filled rampage is no surprise. Numerous male mass murderers have backgrounds of stalking and harassing women, especially online. Ramos’ beef with the Capital goes back to his ill-conceived defamation suit against the paper, its publisher and a columnist for reporting on his guilty plea for the online harassment of a woman he had known slightly in high school. In court documents he objected to the Capital’s report that, after he had not heard from the woman in months, he told her, “Fuck you, leave me alone.” Ramos told the judge that he felt it unfair that the reporter had not allowed him to offer an explanation. He complained to the judge, “That carries a clear implication that something is wrong inside my head, that I’m insane.”
Whether Ramos is sane is a matter for the court to determine. But there is an explanation for these hostile words – which he cribbed from the protagonist in "Berserk" – and it has to do with Ramos’ worldview, which needs to be more clearly understood.
The alt-right half of the Rosetta Stone
I believe Ramos contacted me initially because the Capital had reported on my connection to David Lenio, a white nationalist who had tweeted threats of a possible mass shooting, and also because I was researching and writing about ties between a local politician named Michael Peroutka and a right-wing group called the League of the South.
The League is a theocratic, secessionist organization whose leader, Michael Hill, had called for the formation of death squads targeting journalists, elected officials and other members of “the elite.” In his essay “A Bazooka in Every Pot,” Hill described such an assassination campaign as part of “fourth-generation warfare,” a style of decentralized conflict that blurs the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians.
Hill wrote: “To oversimplify, the primary targets will not be enemy soldiers; instead, they will be political leaders, members of the hostile media, cultural icons, bureaucrats, and other of the managerial elite without whom the engines of tyranny don’t run.”
As for Peroutka, he is a neo-Confederate theocrat who thinks that the wrong side won the Civil War and that our real national anthem is “Dixie.” He is also a former board member of the League, which had endorsed his successful 2014 campaign for a seat on Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Council, running as a Republican. This is the same League that helped organize the infamous torch-lit Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.
Over a period of nearly seven years, Peroutka is one of only two politicians whom Ramos tweeted about – the other being Donald Trump, who has repeatedly vilified journalists.
Jarrod Ramos is not affiliated with any political party, and there is no evidence that he was politically motivated or that he acted on anyone’s orders. On the other hand, as Salon’s Paul Rosenberg has reported, he was influenced by the rhetoric and ideology of the racist alt-right. And like Hill, Ramos showed bold belligerence toward managerial elites whom he viewed as enemies.
For example, Ramos wrote in his @EricHartleyFrnd Twitter bio (which he named in apparent mockery of a former Capital columnist whom Ramos had sued unsuccessfully for defamation), “Dear reader: I created this page to defend myself. Now I’m suing the shit out of half of AA County and making corpses of corrupt careers and corporate entities.”
Justice and public safety require that we consider the context, including multiple influences and possible triggers, when a suspect faces mass murder charges. Therefore, it is fair and necessary to ask whether President Trump’s demagoguery against journalists could trigger some lone nut to murder them. As researcher Chip Berlet has written, sociologists call such a violent response to coded rhetoric “scripted violence” – and “heroes know which villains to kill.” Followers thus don’t require specific orders, but gather a sense of validation and righteousness in carrying out a violent campaign of societal purification against people designated as corrupting influences.
This suspect had a simmering feud for seven years with the Capital, its former publisher and Eric Hartley, the former columnist whom he had sued unsuccessfully. Ramos created a website on which he posted documents and communications about his case, describing himself as an agent of “the Inquisition” and “a crusader” who answered to a “Higher Authority” than civil government and who meted out literal “carnage” to his foes.
Ramos wrote of his perceived enemies: "The authority that permits their power also stands poised to punish its abuse. Even kings must answer to God, and a modern day Inquisition is at hand. The potential judgement is no less severe; the carnage differs only in literal terms. As this search for Truth commences, a crusader they could not kill approaches."
His crusade targeted court officials as well as journalists, whom he considered dishonest. For example, Ramos tweeted a quote from German poet Paul Gerhardt: “When a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” Ramos concluded, “Time to slay some murderous shitbag esquires." In another tweet criticizing “inequity in the MD justice system,” he said: "Here's to Higher Authority hearing and #hurting."
To Ramos, defamation is a violation of common law but, more important, a violation of God’s law that is worthy of hellfire.
For example, he once tweeted: “Catholicism still says liars go to hell.”
He also tweeted, without attribution or citation, a quote from a 16th-century church court case: “Again, my unruly tongue, if it were not punished, it would not only set more of you on fire, but it would bolden others to do the like.” This quote is from a confession to defamation in Mitford v. Shaw, an ecclesiastical court case from 1569-70. Church courts in England had jurisdiction over cases of defamation when the plaintiff’s claim was not for money damages but for the correction of a sin. (Common law courts oversaw claims for money damages.) Church courts sentenced violators to do public penance, on pain of excommunication.
In the Mitford case, when the church court found Charles Shaw guilty of slander, he did penance by standing up in church, wearing linen apparel, and reading his confessional statement, which equates slander to murder, worthy of divine retribution.
Shaw stated, “I acknowledge thus to slander my Christian brother is an heinous offence, first towards God, who hath straightly forbidden it in his holy laws, accounting it to be a kind of murdering of my neighbor, and threatening to punish it with hellfire and the loss of the kingdom of heaven.”
Modern-day theocrats, such as Peroutka, would like to see ecclesiastical courts replace the American judicial system. At a 2016 Summer of Justice rally in Wichita, Kansas, which took place the same week as the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Peroutka called on his fellow Christian nationalists to “take dominion over these positions of civil authority” in order to “interpose” against laws that don’t square with their notion of God’s law.
Peroutka claimed that the only valid laws are ones which adhere to this fundamentalist vision of the Constitution and the Bible. “What if the Congress did pass a law allowing abortion? And then what if a sitting president signed it and a sitting court validated it?” he asked. “Would it be the law? No, of course not.” Then he slung on his guitar and filmed the crowd for a video for his new song, “Courts cannot make law.”
Near the end of the Summer of Justice, the anti-abortion group Operation Save America staged a kangaroo “ecclesiastical court” which declared that Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, marriage equality and the removal of government-sponsored prayer in schools were contrary to God’s law. Eight “judges” took turns reading “charges” against the Supreme Court and then declared their decisions “null and void.”
The judges included the Rev. Matt Trewhella, leader of the Milwaukee-based Missionaries to the Preborn, who had signed a statement in 1993 declaring that the murder of abortion providers was “justifiable homicide.” Convicted murderers Paul Hill and Michael Griffin later unsuccessfully used “justifiable homicide” defenses in their trials for killing abortion providers.
Ramos’ tweets make clear that in his theological view, journalists who had allegedly framed him and court officers who had supposedly lied about him were as guilty as murderers and would ultimately answer to God. He saw himself as an agent of divine retribution. He was not subtle about how he would punish the sin of defamation.
He tweeted: “Awaiting reprisal, death will be their acquisition.” This is a misquoted lyric from a thrash metal song by Slayer, “Raining Blood.” The actual line is: “Awaiting reprisal, death will be their acquittance.” The song ends with a vision of victims’ blood deluging a revenge-driven killer: “Raining blood from a lacerated sky, bleeding its horror, creating my structure. Now I shall reign in blood!”
“Ramos came to see himself as some kind of vigilante for righteousness, casting himself for example as a 'crusader' and gunning down innocent people in a newsroom," Political Research Associates analyst Frederick Clarkson told Salon. This vision was "not unlike the militaristic, millennial vision of Michael Hill,” he continued. “Last year [Hill] rallied what he calls the Southern Defense Force, which he envisions as not just a modern Confederate army but the ‘Army of the True Living God.’”
So it makes sense that Ramos, who has metaphorically casts himself as a Christian holy warrior, would identify with Peroutka, a dyed-in-the-wool theocrat who has argued that civil servants must disobey any laws believed to be contrary to God’s law. Ramos tweeted three times in defense of Peroutka, once to crow to Rema Rahman, a journalist at the Capital, about Peroutka’s 2014 election to the Anne Arundel County Council. He tweeted: “Peroutka won and you lost @remawriter. Get over it. You’re already going to Hell, so why not concern yourself with more relevant matters?”
He tweeted again to tell Rahman to “shut the fuck up” after she wrote a piece reporting that illegal robocalls might have helped put Peroutka’s campaign over the top. He said: “It's not your place, so shut the fuck up @capgaznews. Peroutka's columns don't get the pickled shit sued out of him.”
He also tweeted: “Why are they so obsessed about Peroutka @capgaznews?” He added the hashtag #CapDeathWatch.
Ramos, who nursed grievances against perceived injustices, and who had sued a newspaper for defamation, also identified with Donald Trump. In response to an opinion column in the Capital that questioned Trump’s qualifications for the presidency, he tweeted a warning: “Referring to @realDonaldTrump as ‘unqualified’ @capgaznews could end badly (again).” His tweet linked to a Wall Street Journal article about Trump's lawsuit against Univision, claiming breach of contract and defamation.
The next day, Ramos tweeted: “Fuck you, leave me alone,” and linked to a Maryland appellate court document upholding the dismissal of his defamation case against the Capital. It is reasonable to assume that this angry comment was directed at the journalists and newspaper who had bested him in court, and perhaps also at attorneys and judges.
The embittered suspect with a vendetta against a local newspaper the justice system had been simmering since 2011. What triggered him in 2018? I don’t know. But shortly before the massacre, two things happened that could have been factors. Three days before the shooting, Donald Trump had pointed out members of the news media at a big outdoor rally in South Carolina, demonizing them as “enemies of the people.” This is a phrase that demagogues throughout history, from the French Revolution to Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, have understood and used as an incitement to violence. A day later, Peroutka was defeated in his 2018 re-election bid, losing to a female candidate in the Republican primary.
The "Berserk" half of the Rosetta Stone
The other, seemingly unrelated element of Ramos' worldview is drawn from the world of anime, the source of his final, cryptic tweet, approximately three minutes before the shooting began. It was a peculiar expression he had used before: “Fuck you, leave me alone.” This world of manga and anime informed the suspect’s hero-versus-villain worldview and also the way he expressed it through language and religious symbolic imagery. While his tweets referenced mainstream sci-fi touchstones, such as "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," his primary influence was the universe of "Berserk," a blood-and-guts manga, anime and movie series that has also inspired several video games.
Ramos tweeted numerous references to "Berserk" characters, paraphrased quotes from them, and used symbolism drawn from the series. He described himself as playing a role in the world of "Berserk" and hinted that an understanding of its fictional world was key to understanding his “psyche.” Indeed, in a letter he wrote stating his intention of “killing every person present” in the Capital newsroom, he quoted from "Berserk." As mentioned above, he did so again in his final tweet before the shooting began.
Ramos tweeted to ask whether Eric Hartley, the former Capital columnist, was “Ordained to Be Murdered by the God Hand?” In "Berserk," the God Hand is a group of the five most powerful demons. The photo on Ramos' Twitter avatar was the face of Hartley, with a Berserk symbol pasted over it – a brand that marks victims for demonic sacrifice.
He tweeted, “Judge Nick doesn’t believe in the God Hand. I play a well-established part of that system by tweeting of it.” It appears that Ramos identified with the world of "Berserk" and saw himself as playing a part in it.
Ramos also marked former Capital Gazette publisher Thomas Marquardt -- whom he nicknamed "Evil Tom" -- with the demonic brand, in the banner image for the Twitter account @EricHartleyFrnd. To Ramos, the brand signified that it was "Open Season" to hunt and kill. He tweeted, "Another stooge @capgaznews says Evil Tom is going on his own terms? That mark on his head is called Brand of Sacrifice; or now, Open Season." He also tweeted a YouTube link to the song “Murder” from the "Berserk" soundtrack.
He repeatedly referenced a vampire character from "Berserk," Nosferatu Zodd, and tweeted an image of Zodd. He tweeted: "If you think this man [wants to be] your friend, know this: when his ambition crumbles, death will come for you — a death you cannot escape." This is a paraphrased quote from Zodd, who said, “If you consider this man your true friend, and regard him as a brother, then know this. When this man's ambition crumbles, it is your destiny to face your death. A death you can never escape!”
Ramos also identified with "Berserk" characters on several other occasions. He tweeted, “I told you once. I will have my own kingdom. Nothing has changed.” This is a close paraphrase of a quote from the character Griffith, who said, “I told you once, I will get my own kingdom. Nothing has changed.”
He tweeted, “I'm Femto. I can also do whatever I want. I will have my own kingdom. I will choose the place you die," adding a link to a trailer for "Berserk." Griffith dies and is reborn as Femto, a member of the God Hand, who is undeterred by moral inhibitions. Femto becomes the spearhead of the God Hand’s schemes.
Ramos tweeted the anime cover art from "Berserk – The Golden Age Arc Movie Collection" on DVD, which features the protagonist Guts. He twice quoted Guts, a swordsman motivated by revenge whose left forearm is replaced by a prosthetic which can be fitted with a cannon. Guts kills many enemies, including his primary antagonist, Bishop Mozgus, who is a demon spawn with angelic wings. Before delivering the coup de grâce, Guts tells Mozgus, “If you meet your God, say this for me … Leave me the hell alone!”
The latter is one of the most popular quotes among "Berserk" fans. However, some translate the quote, or paraphrase it differently. For example: “If you meet your God, tell him to leave me the fuck alone!”
Or, as Ramos tweeted, some three minutes before the shooting: “Fuck you, leave me alone.” He then added another of his Twitter handles, @JudgeMoylanFrnd, which features the face of Charles Moylan, the judge who had dismissed his defamation case, marked with the brand of sacrifice.
Guts’ message for Mozgus to take to his god is a familiar trope in action movies, the sort of comment that a protagonist makes before dispatching a villain, such as “I’ll see you in Hell,” “See you on the other side,” or “Hasta la vista, baby.” However, this “Leave me alone” message is not meant for the people whom the protagonist is about to kill; it is for them to carry to their god.
In light of Ramos’ having previously tweeted this same language in anger at both the Capital and Maryland court officials, and that this closely tracks what Guts tells his primary antagonist before delivering the killing blow, Ramos was making clear his intent to kill. In the context of scripted violence, as when a politician uses his office to demonize journalists, individuals who view themselves as holy warriors or heroes motivated by a sense of grievance know which villains to kill.
Ramos, who represented himself in his defamation case against the Capital, insisted that he was sane and that he had not been merely fantasizing online about being a predator. He wrote on his website, "I’ve been learning law for a different kind of game. It’s no publicity stunt, nor clinical insanity, nor predatory Internet fantasy, but very dangerous indeed."
In the same document, he wrote, "Much like a life, what is the price of a name? Are these even two different questions?" Like the 16th-century English penitent who confessed to defamation in Mitford v. Shaw, calling it a kind of murder, Ramos equates the loss of his good name with the loss of a life. This is akin to the reasoning of those who kill abortion providers: If, according to their understanding of God’s law, abortion is murder, then those who provide abortions are subject to death. Likewise, if a theocrat believes defamation to be a kind of murder, then what is the penalty?
After years of build-up, Ramos became a self-righteous, avenging character he had invented for himself, and announced his intent to kill, writing to the newspaper’s former attorney and to Maryland court officials that he was on his way to the Capital newsroom “with the objective of killing every person present.” They received the letters after the massacre. In a letter to Judge Moylan, he wrote, “Welcome, Mr. Moylan, to your unexpected legacy: YOU should have died.” He signed off, “Friends forever, Jarrod W. Ramos.”
Here again, Ramos is quoting from Berserk.
Guts’ adoptive father Gambino blames him for the death of his wife. So he tries to kill Guts, while telling him, “You should have died.” In self-defense, Guts kills Gambino. But he feels guilty and conflicted about this deed. A recurring nightmare of an army of skeletons haunts him, their eyeless orbs glaring as they chant over and over, “You should have died.”
This message is not for the people whom the protagonist has killed, nor for the people he would have liked to kill. It is for Guts himself – a killer who felt justified but also conflicted and guilty even as he killed.
Ramos seems to be suggesting that, like the "Berserk" protagonist he referenced in his final tweet, he felt conflicted about killing. It appears that just prior to the mass murder, Ramos signaled his realization that, like Guts, he would feel guilty about it. This suggests that he knew right from wrong, and therefore supports the argument that, as Ramos himself has insisted, he was sane. While his final tweet indicates a rationale that he must defend himself from perceived oppression and injustice (“Leave me alone”), his letter to the judge indicates that he anticipates feeling haunted by the consciousness of guilt (“You should have died”).
As our family members, friends and colleagues die in one mass shooting after another, we urge ourselves to understand what we could do differently as a society. Why did this suspect do what he did? Each time, we come away with at least as many questions as answers. I don’t claim to know the right questions, let alone the answers. We all have a lot of work to do. But I have learned a few things from my research into Jarrod Ramos’ world. One of them recalls Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Ramos showed himself to the world before he acted. He collected a grab bag of grievances out of which he tried to forge a rationale, arguably a theology, that would give his revenge tale a transcendent meaning: It would be the story of his life. He revealed himself often; society chose not to see or was unable to, or at any rate did not take him seriously. He recognized this fact. After the mass murders, his letters reminded us all, “I told you so.”
Ramos' worldview is clearly derived from multiple, esoteric sources – sources he may not have accessed all by himself. This does not mean that he did not act alone; it does mean that he did not come to such sources as 16th-century ecclesiastical court records by himself. Someone pointed him in this direction. Ramos is probably not the only one who has been directed to such material in search of the will of God in the 21st Century and one’s role in God’s plan.
Ramos called himself “an arrogant auto-didact,” with reference to how he learned how to represent himself (however unsuccessfully) in court. There is a rich history on the far right of individuals -- including self-proclaimed “sovereign citizens” and theocrats advocating Higher Law -- who defend themselves by cobbling together supposed legal precedents, divine authority and ill-conceived justifications for illegal and sometimes violent acts.
There are also Christian nationalist think tanks, such as Michael Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution, that peddle books and courses to self-taught advocates on how to “defend against those in opposition to God’s Word.” However out of the mainstream they may be, such people should be properly understood and taken seriously. They say what they mean; they mean what they say. When someone speaks out about meting out carnage in service to Higher Authority, let’s all pay attention.
Ignoring an injustice collector who views himself as the hand of God doesn’t work. Ignoring the women he harasses doesn’t work. Coddling him in the courts despite his overt law-breaking doesn’t work. Ignoring the multiple cultural influences that shape and validate his viewpoint doesn’t work.
When it comes to Jarrod Ramos in particular, however bizarre and convoluted his "Berserk"-influenced, alt-right worldview may seem, pay attention. There is much more we need to know about the profoundly anti-democratic origins of this man's violent history.