A Question of Murder

Chris Honeycutt, who interviewed me for the NYADP Journal, noted I wrote about Into the Abyss, about homicide and the death penalty, notes:

That’s the end I started from on the anti-death penalty work. I was more interested in crime and killers than just about anything else. Particularly their psychology: everybody covets. Everybody gets angry. Everybody has moments of blind rage. But some people are missing that fundamental “wall” in their mind that says “Don’t physically hurt someone.”

It’s lead me to other questions: if a man can hit someone out of rage, not in a sporting way or in a fight but just out of nowhere slug someone, is that on the continuum?

What about Matthew Perry, who apparently killed three people because he wanted a car? We’ve all wanted things; what drives someone to kill to take it?

On the other hand, Charles Manson at his trial brought up that in reality he was no worse than the generals leading the war in Vietnam. He never raised a gun, just gave an order. Is the government that different when it says “Wow, I really want that oil…”?

I don’t have any answers to any of it and I’ve studied it quite a bit.

So I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

I hadn’t considered it until now, but, early on, most of the people I had heard of who were murdered, I had NO idea who the murderers were. Some you may have heard of: Emmett Till, the four girls in a Birmingham church, the three civil rights workers in Mississippi.

But others perhaps not: William Moore of Binghamton, NY, the namesake of the Congress of Racial Equality chapter in my hometown – William L. Moore chapter of CORE, to which my father belonged. And stuck in my mind, Viola Liuzzo, described as a “Detroit housewife”. I remember being specifically surprised by her death in 1965. I didn’t know the code in the segregated South would allow them to murder a white woman.

As for the murderers I did know about, I followed them with zeal. When excerpts of the Warren Commission Report, about the JFK assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald, came out in the local newspaper, I clipped the articles out and put them in a binder, which I may still have in the attic.

Generally, though, I was more interested in the mass murders. Charles Whitman, as I noted, really terrified me. I was also bewildered by Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Stranger, and by Richard Speck, killer of eight student nurses in Chicago. (Sidebar: the Simon & Garfunkel song, “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News” incorrectly notes nine dead student nurses; in fact, the ninth nurse hid under a bed and survived.)

After that, only certain cases really caught my attention: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Timothy McVeigh, for three. I even watched the TV movie about Bundy, starring Mark Harmon. There just became too many of the mass murderers; the guy who killed his family while dressed as Santa Claus in the past year or two – couldn’t name him. The difference is that, in the early days, I could assume that these people were just pathological or crazy; now, they seem too frequent to write off so cavalierly.

So, in answer to your question, yes, I think anger and rage are on the continuum of violence. And it seems that there just is more rage out there, not just on the road and on the job, but at things such as kids’ sporting events. It’s tied to an odd sense of “fairness”; it’s not “fair” that my kid isn’t playing? It seems that immediate gratification of computers and the like may have made us way too impatient when they take more than a few seconds, yet information a decade or two earlier would have taken several minutes or perhaps several hours to find.

Who would kill for a car or a pair of sneakers or because someone dropped a pass in a cricket match? Is it an odd sense of entitlement? Perhaps. There have always been pathological folks; In Cold Blood was written a half century ago.

I do think war plays into it. We in the US have been fighting the “war on terror” for over a decade, with no end in sight. We have video games, which are as theoretically violent as the drones our government uses for real; I wonder if the lines get blurred for some. Of course, we have often seen the increased violence of those in the war zone – from William Calley at My Lai, VietNam to a soldier in Afghanistan ON HIS FOURTH TOUR OF DUTY killing civilian women and children in their sleep. The violence comes home; see the number of suicides, homicides and addictions in our returning vets. The ones giving the orders have a huge responsibility. That’s why I find chicken hawks, those who would offer up American soldiers for our next folly, when they’ve never served themselves, to be generally contemptible.

But “the state” also promulgates violence on the homefront with overreaction to protest that, we are constantly told, is what the folks abroad, ironically, are fighting to let us do. Of course, there has long been state-sponsored terror of people, even their own nationals. Yet it’s always easier, it seems, to somehow make people “the other” by ethnicity or religion; you can’t underestimate the impact of the tribe.

So my short answer: I don’t really have any answers either.

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One thought on “A Question of Murder

  1. Just to complicate matters, it turns out that our genetic cousins, the chimpanzees, also kill, and not just for food or defense. They also engage in tribal warfare, to steal food and mates, kill child-chimps, “oddballs,” and can engage in torturous brutality.

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