Last Wednesday, as I was sitting in my house waiting for the great Spring blizzard that never came, I began to notice reports about a gunman who had barricaded himself inside the Panera Bread on Route 27, right across the street from Princeton University. Here it goes again, I thought to myself, dreading not only the body count, but the inevitable NRA talking points about how New Jersey’s strict gun control laws had failed to prevent the latest massacre. As the siege wore on, however, it became clear that the would be shooter was alone, that he had allowed all of the Panera Bread’s employees and customers to escape through the back door. There would be no massacre. All the police had to do was wait until he got sick of it, came outside, and surrendered. Since Princeton University was on Spring Break and the Governor had just declared a “state of emergency” ordering all non-essential vehicles off the roads during the snowstorm, I was confident that they would take him alive.
I was wrong. They shot him dead. Apparently he went for his gun.
When the gunman was revealed to be a 56-year-old man from Newton Pennsylvania named Scott Mielentz, all I could think was “there but for the grace of a few mental defects go I.” A search on Google quickly revealed that he had been marginally employed in the IT industry for the past 20 years, but not in the glamorous Stanford to Silicon Valley way. This was a man who made $60,000 a year installing anti-virus software and fixing administrative assistant’s printer. Sometime around 2012 or 2013, he seemed to lose the will to hold down a steady job. Looking at his nondescript, doughy, white Pennsylvania German American face, it’s not difficult to see why. Mielentz was not the kind of person you’d give a second look if you passed him by on the street. He could have been a fireman or a cop, a high school janitor, or just the ineffectual middle-aged teenager who still lived with his parents. He was not the kind of man any woman could fall in love with, but maybe one or two would settle for him if, and only if, he were gainfully employed.
In short, Scott Mielentz was what feminists and people on the left refer to as a “mediocre white man,” someone who had all the “privilege” to make it under capitalism, but for some reason, just couldn’t.
It is unclear whether or not he was mentally ill. In 2014, he applied for and was awarded disability benefits, which the government quickly revoked after they found out he had made $17,900 in consultant fees while he collected his government checks. That led his being a defendant in a federal lawsuit and a carelessly filed bankruptcy, which discharged over $100,000 dollars in credit card debt, but not, of course, the money he still owed the IRS, or the Security Administration. The government actually went easy on him, arranged a settlement whereby he could pay back the money in installments of $100 a month (white privilege at work), but of course by this time, $100 a month might as well have been $100,000 a month. If he originally faked being mentally disabled to collect disability payments, he now seemed to convince himself to become mentally disabled. His wife reports that by this time he lost the ability to accomplish even basic tasks like preparing his meals.
His life, in other words, was effectively over. Capitalism no longer had any need for Scott Mielentz. He wasn’t going to get another corporate job, write the great American novel, fall in love, or lead the proletarian revolution against the Darwinian world that he chewed him up and spit him out. There was really no reason for him to spend the next 20 or so years scrambling to survive, so he chose what was, quite honestly, probably the best of all possible options. He checked out early.
But why suicide by cop? A carelessly reported detail clears it up. Mielentz, the local newspapers, reported, was suffering from “post traumatic stress” during his time as an Army Ranger in Laos in the late 1970s. Of course thinking about it for more than 5 seconds reveals that there’s no way he could have served in the military in any capacity in the 1970s — he would have been 16 years old in 1979 — let alone a member of an elite special forces team. But that’s how he had come to see himself. That’s the fiction he invented to make what was left of his life bearable, to justify in his own mind the disability benefits he had scammed off the taxpayers and the massive credit card debt he had racked up over the years. Thus, in his imagination, he was no longer just a mediocre white man who had lost the will to live. He was a Vietnam Vet still suffering the effects of our ill-guided occupation of Southeast Asia. The only thing left to do was dress up in fatigues, grab his AR-15 (if in fact that’s what he had), and live out the story that has been playing in the headlines over and over and over again over the past decade.
That’s the thing with “my generation,” very late Boomers and very early Gen Xers. We’re a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing. Scott Mielentz couldn’t pull of the Boomer cliche of “disturbed Nam vet.” He couldn’t pull off the millennial cliche of “incel video game nerd so sick of not getting laid that he finally becomes a mass murderer” so he went for a lukewarm combination of both. Thank God the only person he killed was himself.
That’s important. Scott Mielentz did have one redeeming quality. He let the employees at the Panera Bread go. These days that’s saying a lot.