Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows

Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows January 10, 2021

Steven Brandenburg had a bad month of December:

Brandenburg is in the process of divorcing his wife of eight years. The couple has two small children.

According to an affidavit his wife filed on Dec. 30, the same day Brandenburg was arrested …, he stopped off at her house on Dec. 6 and dropped off a water purifier and two 30-day supplies of food, telling her that the world was “crashing down” and she was in denial. He said the government was planning cyberattacks and was going to shut down the power grid.

She added that he was storing food in bulk along with guns in rental units and she no longer felt safe around him. A court commissioner on Monday found that Brandenburg’s children were in imminent danger and temporarily prohibited them from staying with him.

Online court records indicate Brandenburg’s divorce attorney withdrew from the case on Dec. 28.

This is how this story ends. This is where everything in this story leads, inevitably, with the cruel certainty of a Greek tragedy. A few details remain to be worked out, such as Brandenburg’s trial and the length of his eventual sentence, but these are mere details. He has lost his job, his reputation, his marriage, his children, his savings, his integrity, and his freedom.

Steven Brandenburg has lost everything. And he lost it all because of lies.

You may have forgotten about Steven Brandenburg due to all the tumultuous events in the 10 days since his arrest. He was the Wisconsin pharmacist who vandalized the vaccine supply at a Grafton medical center, taking 57 vials of the vaccine out of refrigeration overnight on Christmas Eve and then again on Christmas Day in an attempt to render them useless.

“He’d formed this belief they were unsafe,” Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol said during a virtual hearing. He added that Brandenburg was upset because he was in the midst of divorcing his wife, and an Aurora employee said Brandenburg had taken a gun to work twice.

A detective wrote in a probable cause statement that Brandenburg, 46, is an admitted conspiracy theorist and that he told investigators he intentionally tried to ruin the vaccine because it could hurt people by changing their DNA.

(The vaccine cannot change DNA. As you probably know even if you did not study to become a pharmacist, and as you certainly would know if — like Steven Brandenburg — you did, that’s not how vaccines work or how DNA works, or how any of this works.)

Brandenburg is now at rock bottom and we can guess he is not a happy man. But he wasn’t a happy man before he lost everything either, which is why he chose to try to believe the outrageous lies he eventually acted upon. That’s why those lies seemed exciting and preferable to what he otherwise knew to be the truth.

Preferring such lies seems strange, given that they involve a massive evil conspiracy that includes nearly everyone at every level of government and in every institution. It’s an awful thing to imagine that the entire world is out to get you and that the situation is so dire that you’ve got to arm yourself and begin stockpiling food so you can flee to the woods as your only slim hope for survival. But it’s an even more awful thing to reach the point where you consider your whole life — your job, your family, your home, your church, your passions — as so entirely meaningless and unrewarding that you’d be better off as someone on the run from such a massive, evil conspiracy.

Steven Brandenburg had reached that point. That’s why he chose, instead, to start acting as though he believed a host of outrageous, impossible lies that some part of him always knew, and still knows, were nothing more than lies.

And, well, look where that got him. No job, no freedom, his wife and children are terrified of him, and even the divorce lawyer he hired doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore.

This is how this story ends. This is how this story always ends.

One week after Steven Brandenburg was arrested, thousands of other similarly unhappy Americans made the same miserable choice that he did. They chose to pretend as though outrageous lies were true even though, on some level, every one of them knew that they were nothing more than outrageous lies. And they chose to believe that for the same reason that Brandenburg did — because the nightmare fantasies and wild conspiracies imagined by those lies were somehow an improvement on their otherwise meaningless daily existence apart from them.

Some of them, like Brandenburg, will soon be facing the consequences of that choice. Others, for now, may evade such external consequences and, otherwise unable to live with the internal consequences of their choices, will double-down on the fantasies and the choice to pretend to believe what they know to be lies. That will only delay the inevitable, because there is no other way for this story to end.

Or, more hopefully, for the story of this chapter of their lives to end. Choosing to pretend to believe what you know to be lies will always lead you to the same rock bottom on which Steven Brandenburg now sits, but that doesn’t have to be the final word in your story. The choice to believe lies can only end one way, but it is not the only choice available. Other choices exist, even now, even for Brandenburg and for the folly-drunk insurrectionists who participated in and incited the deadly botched coup-attempt on January 6.


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