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Posts Tagged ‘murder’

(content note: murder, gets a bit grisly in places, no pictures or anything, it’s basically fine)

A lot of contemporary pop culture is about terrible people doing appalling things.

This is not new or surprising. I mean, real life is so lovely and free of conflict these days, it’s only natural we’d seek out stories of sadism and cruelty as a way to escape the comfortable banality of our everyday lives.

Ahahaha. Oh, what frivolity. Such larks.

Anyway, we’re obviously used to seeing villains and antagonists committing vile acts of evil and terror – killing people, subjugating and enslaving whole populations, and the rest – before being soundly and rightly defeated by the brave heroes. But since they’re not generally the obviously relatable characters we’re meant to empathise with, getting into those bad guys’ heads can be fascinating.

But while it’s written under the guise of “exploring a dangerous and twisted yet still distinctly human and underappreciated mindset”, I’ve noticed distressingly often these kinds of narratives reading like some sort of lefty/liberal revenge fantasy, in a way that’d be creepy and sinister and utterly objectionable if the political allegiances were switched.

And I sometimes wonder how much these “explorations” are genuinely about finding the humanity in someone different from you – finding something human to connect with in a character whose motives and values in general appal and disgust you – and how much they’re about indulging the part of you that kinda does just want to murder people.

You’re not a monster, though, so they’d have to be people whose values seriously disagree with yours – maybe over a political issue like gay rights, or something else far more important than the ethics of killing other people.

The obvious example from TV is Dexter. He killed a lot of people, which we’re not supposed to be okay with. But he also had a career and a family and we liked him. And a crucial part of that dichotomy was the moral code he lived and killed by. The show was pretty inconsistent in dealing with what really drove him and why he felt compelled to limit his killing to those who “deserved” it, to the extent that he did. But importantly, the code was something we could relate to. The people he killed were often themselves murderers, or violent thugs, or rapists, and often tended to be casually homophobic and misogynistic and racist.

In other words, they’re people you don’t mind seeing die horribly. You wouldn’t want to actually kill them yourself, in the real world, obviously – but when you’re watching Dexter, you can kinda get behind him.

And this seems to matter. Dexter’s not a relatable anti-hero because of the contrast between his uncontrollable sociopathic violence and all the other delightful, human, recognisable, charming aspects of his character. We don’t see the good in him and wish he could somehow conquer this one horrifying flaw. Instead, the thing that should be his least likable, most alienating aspect is the primary draw. The fact that he’s a serial killer is shaped such that it’s a positive factor in itself.

In Christopher Brookmyre’s book Snowball In Hell, the viewpoint narrator throughout much of the text is a charming and witty serial killer, who targets a right-wing newspaper columnist and goes to great lengths enacting an elaborately ironic revenge fantasy. (Think Saw, but without the grisly “appreciate your life more” parables.) The book expresses contempt and disdain for the homophobic xenophobic bigot and his inhumane views, it marshals a rational argument against them through our charismatic narrator and ridicules them for the vacuous nonsense they are, and then the main character tortures him to death.

The message, at least in part, seems to be that despising and wishing ill on an asshole with hateful politics is not only wholly reasonable and appropriate, but also not that big a step from sadistically making them suffer and ending their life.

Even the main protagonist’s reaction when she hears about this brutal killing is basically “Well, I’ll try to solve this crime and catch the bad guy, because that’s the technically correct thing to do and it’s my job, but I’m not in any way sorry that shithead’s dead.” Because, you know. Why mourn the malicious and vindictive snuffing out of a human life if they’d said some horrible things about gay people? For all that the murdered journalist was portrayed as appallingly intolerant, he was never so unable to tolerate someone else’s lifestyle or opinions that he slit their throat and let them bleed to death while they begged for mercy. The guy who does that to people is cool and suave; the bigot is just gross.

The narrator-murderer also gives us enough of a direct diatribe about his infuriation with things like manufactured pop music and reality TV, that I’m not convinced we aren’t meant to be going along with it and continuing to agree with his worldview. If it’s really just a satire on the ideas he’s espousing, it’s played very straight and a large part of the audience are going to be taking it literally, missing the satire in ways the author has no excuse not to have seen coming.

It becomes more clearly self-aware further in, I think, but this character’s fashionably cynical perspective provides around 100 of the first 150 pages, and it doesn’t feel at all as if it’s supposed to be alienating or other or different. We’re meant to connect with his contempt, it’s meant to tap in to the way other people feel.

Which could support the argument that he’s satirising the danger of that whole lefty-liberal revenge fantasy thing, except it’s still just played too straight for me to buy that explanation. He’s not writing American Psycho here. That book – if I’ve in any way understood anything (not a given) – was about the frustrations of modern corporate life, and how close to psychotic murder are a lot of the emotions it genuinely induces, in huge numbers of people. It was about the disconnectedness that its protagonist felt, and it was really saying yes, this destructive force might be in you too, or at least not so far from home, and that should worry and unnerve you because this is not a nice person.

Whereas Brookmyre’s attitude seems closer to: Hey, this guy is kinda like you, only he gets to kill those people you pretend you don’t hate. Fun!

It feels like these kinds of stories aren’t really about getting into the head of someone truly alien, whose desires and feelings and thought processes are beyond us, so that we can try to understand someone with a completely different worldview from our own. The message is that these psychotic murderers aren’t that different from you, and you should feel fine about that. Their moral code is almost always understandable to a large degree – they’re offended by the same things you are, they’re impatient with bigotry and injustice just like you – but they have this extra aspect to them that means killing people is permitted. They’re still likable and charming and you’re inside their head because of the way the story’s told, but rather than helping to normalise the other, what this does is make the angry, violent, murderous feelings buried under your supposedly benevolent worldview seem understandable and human and maybe even not so morally wrong.

Murder isn’t treated as a moral evil in the same way as, say, writing disparaging things about gay people and immigrants in a newspaper column, or objectifying women, or sometimes simply “being arrogant”. It’s not that these aren’t really bad things; the point is that they’re not as bad as murder, yet they often feel like they’re even worse, so long as it’s the right kind of murder. We’re coaxed into empathising with murderous protagonists all the time, but there are certain rules; you can’t kill any children, it’s generally safer to stay away from women, and you have to have a wry quip for every occasion. It’d be more of an actual challenge to make a relatable protagonist out of a bullying homophobic jerk than a socially liberal assassin. Persuading us to understand someone’s humanity would be trickier if you let them consistently and carelessly break that kind of viscerally understood cardinal sin.

In Brookmyre again, while we’re following the murderer-narrator and still finding him kinda dashing and charming, there always has to be some lefty-acceptable reason for the people he kills – a racist comedian, a vapid bimbo WAG. Somehow it’s never just an actual innocent who doesn’t deserve it who gets killed while we’re watching him be all suave and charming about it. If we couldn’t other and dehumanise the victim based on their politics, then their murder might start to feel like a real tragedy.

There’s an element of the same issue in the film of Kingsman. You know the scene I’m talking about (unless you don’t, in which case do catch up), and it is quite breathtaking, but the purpose in making those people Westboro Baptist proxies seems to have been to make sure we’re less distracted when they get slaughtered, letting us revel more joyously in the carnage. Which I totally do, that scene is fucking incredible and just typing a sentence about it has made me have to go and watch this amazing edit again as a substitute for revisiting the whole film – but it’d be harder to enjoy the beautifully shot ultraviolence if the people getting killed weren’t homophobic and racist bigots. Which says something uncomfortable about the value I seem to place on the lives of other humans when it turns out they’re not keen on gay people.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this. I’m not sure there’s even a coherently posed question. And I haven’t even mentioned Hannibal.

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Murder is illegal in this country.

But I couldn’t tell you where it says that in the statute-books without doing a bit of research. I can’t cite the exact law off the top of my head, or provide the precise codified wording which strictly speaking makes it illegal to murder another person.

But it’s definitely illegal. I could look all that up if I wanted to. But even if I don’t want to, I’m still justified in believing that murder is illegal. My indirect observations have led me to place a very high probability of truth on that statement, and I don’t think that’s an indicator of poor calibration.

This is relevant to yesterday’s discussion of how homeopathy doesn’t work.

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Here’s one of many, many available stories of someone the US government really, really wanted to murder. He was 17, and ended up on death row.

He was pretty clearly innocent, and it’s hard to imagine the gross extent of the incompetence and misconduct responsible for letting the case go as far as it did. Which is a great place to hang the argument against capital punishment: the system is completely unreliable, as evidenced by the fact that the government were preparing to execute a teenager, despite flimsy details like prosecutors knowingly lying about the evidence and airtight alibis being bizarrely ignored and the clear unreliability of witnesses being suppressed.

So we really can’t be sure innocent people won’t be killed unless we just stop killing everyone. The Innocence Project has counted 330 exonerations of convicted criminals in the last 25 years, through DNA testing, including some who were days away from being put to death. How many others weren’t caught in time?

All that’s still a good argument to make. But this is a reminder, to me as much as to anyone else, that I’d oppose the death penalty even if somehow those objections were utterly resolved.

The problems in any one particular case, with dishonest prosecutors and unreliable witnesses and so forth, are all basically moot. The end result was, you killed someone, or you were going to. I’m not okay with that, and it doesn’t really matter how you got there. No human system of establishing guilt will ever be reliable enough that it deserves to be granted that much trust – but even if it somehow were, let’s still not murder each other over it.

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People doing things

I don’t quite agree with Steven Weinberg‘s famous line:

With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

The implied dichotomy between “good” and “evil” people and things is one problem, but not a big one in the context of a pithy remark intended to make a broad, generally true point.

More interestingly, it’s also not the case that it’s only religion which seriously decouples people’s moral intentions from the real world, and drives “good” people to “evil” acts. Other irrational ways of thinking can be dangerous in the same way. There’s nothing qualitatively different about religion, over and above any other memeplex, which gives it this special and unique power.

But it still stands out in its ability to do this kind of damage. Religion is one of the most powerfully exacerbative examples out there.

Cases like that of a mother who beat her son to death can leave little room for doubt about that.

Whatever can drive someone to beat their own seven-year-old child to death can’t be simple. It’s not enough to blame religion; even most religious extremists don’t go that far, would stop and be tempered by their compassion and love for their offspring before allowing any other passions to overtake them to such a degree.

I can only speculate as to how Sara Ege might have gone beyond even that point. It seems a safe bet that a large part of the psychological situation comes down to fear. Fear of castigation, of punishment, by God, by society, by the rest of your family, by tribal elders or their modern equivalent.

Hate, too, and anger; a natural inclination to lash out at the world with fury and spite, perhaps because that’s how it’s always treated her. Confusion. Frustration.

These are all things anyone can experience, or even be overcome by. Being an atheist isn’t a forcefield against any of it. But there are things that alleviate it, and things that make it worse. It has to actively be made a lot worse for something like this to result. And it’s certain that religion only stirred up this complex, poisonous concoction of negativity and hurt even further.

This particular tragedy wouldn’t have been possible without a particular set of religious beliefs, and the privilege those beliefs are given in discourse, and the lack of humanity – humanism – afforded to people as a result of exalting the importance of these beliefs above everything else in life. Even above principles like “love your children” and “be kind and patient in your dealings with others” and “don’t beat your own fucking kids to death with a fucking stick, for fuck’s sake”.

There are many memes in conflict with such principles, all of which blend together into the familiar complicated mass of humanity. Religion is just one of these among many. But it by no means gets let off the hook.

(h/t The Twenty-First Floor)

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Blech

I are poorly.

I shall resume sitting quietly and eating unchallenging light meals after this brief message:

Fuck the South African police.

Read the article. The usual sputtering disbelief and impotent outrage from me shouldn’t be necessary. You can fill it in yourself.

(And no, I’m not expecting this to be the first in a 206-part series of sovereign states whose police can go fuck themselves.)

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In some ways, I’m just not like other people.

“What?” I hear you cry, your shock and alarm carrying across the interwebs and back in time to my unusually spacially and temporally receptive ears. “You, a socially awkard bloke with not many friends who spends a lot of time on the internet, are telling us that you sometimes feel that a yawning gulf separates you from your fellow men? I find such a notion to be utterly preposterous.”

First of all, learn to talk proper. Second, I have something specific in mind, so pipe down.

This is a photo that’s been doing the rounds on Facebook lately:

The two men pictured have been implicated, in some way, in the disappearance of 12-year-old Tia Sharpe. [Edit: No they haven’t; the one on the left is Ian Huntley. I’ve been writing while sleepy again.] To my understanding, nobody has yet been charged with any crime relating to this case, and the body recently found at Tia’s grandmother’s house has not yet been positively identified.

The above image is among the more subtle and tasteful of the numerous calls for these two men’s execution that have appeared on the internet recently. It looks restrained next to some of the sentiments that have been expressed:

get a 20ft rope tie it to him pour petrol over him and the rope set fire to te rope at the end and give him 1 of those hand held plastic fans make him feel how that poor girl felt b4 he killed her.

This kind of reaction strongly demonstrates two things in particular. The rush to judgment is quite alarming, given the tenuousness of any such certainty about a man’s guilt based solely on media reporting in the early days of an investigation, something which has gone badly wrong in the past; and the absolute spitting fury and hatred is as pure and untainted by understanding as it gets.

The first of these is somewhat relatable. I’m hardly free from guilt when it comes to making my mind up too quickly about something based on preliminary evidence, even when it seems like there’s good reason to have strong suspicions.

But the fury and hatred… I just don’t have that. Not even something similar to the above but with better spelling.

It’s not like I don’t get that murdering a child – if, indeed, anyone’s actually done that in this case – is about the most terrible crime there is. But because it’s so obviously an unspeakably appalling thing to happen, I’m not sure I see the point in anger.

When people feel compelled to pour out reams of creative abuse at someone who they believe has done something terrible, it can prompt the question of what they’re trying to prove, and to whom. Apparently it’s important to Lynden Hadley that everyone be clear that he’s totally not on board with this whole child murder thing. But does that really need pointing out? Why would anyone have doubted that about him in the first place?

I suspect that Lynden would share the view of another commenter on that first picture, who opined: “They are not human”. Which is simply empirically incorrect. People who commit horrible murders absolutely are human. Deplorable atrocities are well within the bounds of feasible human psychology.

Distancing yourself from evil-doers is one thing, but denying a similarity of species is a dangerous road to go down. Once you’ve decided it’s only non-humans who do terrible things, it stops being important that you treat those people with humanity and refrain from doing terrible things yourself. It nicely justifies anything you do, since obviously you are a human. Not like those monsters.

People who wish painful, agonising, brutal, violent death on someone they’ve never met and who may well be innocent of any crime are humans too.

But they do make me angry.

I’m not the only one in my online social group, such as it is, to have exhibited greater rage over these pre-emptive calls for a person’s murder, as over the murder that may have actually been committed. If I were a proper blogger, I’d have done some intelligent self-examination and be able to explain why that is. I think the level of my creative output for this last week rather well refutes that possibility, though.

But here’s a poorly thought-out guess: When a crime is committed, there’s a criminal justice process to deal with it. It’s universally accepted that killing people is not okay, so literally everyone is unified in wanting this girl’s disappearance investigated, and action taken against anyone guilty of a crime.

But the mob justice has a sheen of social acceptability. It’s not just one wacky individual calling for an exception to the “killing people is not okay” agreement, and it’s not something the police are probably going to deal with. Large numbers of people believe that treating people like this – with unnervingly sincere threats of inflicting pain, and claiming to act in defence of moral propriety – is appropriate and justified. Perhaps that’s far more offensive than simple, obviously evil, child murder.

Of course, I also get angry over incredibly petty things which have almost no real effect on anybody’s lives, which barely rise above the level of minor annoyance, and where there’s not even a worthwhile current of opinion to take a stand against. The rogue apostrophes on the “GOOD’S INWARD’S” sign on a building I walk past on my way to work make my blood boil. How much must you have misunderstood even the most simple workings of the English fucking language to cock something up that much?

That’s a ludicrous point about grammar. I didn’t get that sweary when discussing the very real chance that a 12-year-old girl was murdered. And my main complaint seems to be with the mob justice crowd’s self-righteousness, more than with the actual ending of people’s lives. Maybe it really is me that’s broken.

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Two lives were taken by the government in the southern United States last night.

One, in Georgia, received a great deal of media attention, and has invoked those opposed to capital punishment to speak out in force and in great numbers. This was in part due to the serious doubts raised about Troy Davis’s guilt.

The other, in Texas, hasn’t been talked about quite so much.

There are reasons why the former may have more effectively brought out the humanist sentiment in many people. For one, Lawrence Brewer (the man executed in Texas) was a white man involved in an appalling racial assault; Troy Davis was black. Whatever influence this may have had on their respective juries, it’s likely to have worked in Davis’s favour since then in inspiring a campaign of support, and made it easier for him to be seen as a tragic victim.

Further, Brewer’s involvement in the attack isn’t really in any serious doubt, even by his own account; Davis always protested his innocence, there was never any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and many witnesses have recanted their testimony against him. While this didn’t help Davis one iota at any point during the workings of the justice system, it’s easier and far more comfortable for protestors to rally around the guy who probably didn’t even do it.

But of the people protesting Davis’s killing, many are citing his case as an example of the system failing, and why the fallibility of human judgment means the death penalty should never be enforced. Although this one particular injustice has attracted their focus, they’re acting as campaigners against capital punishment itself, across the board. At least, I think most of them are. If there’s been a large contingent declaring:

Troy Davis’s execution is wrong! The state should only take the lives of criminals it’s really sure are guilty, and this particular case just isn’t up to scratch!

…then it’s passed me by. Most people protesting this death say they don’t want to see any government ever taking the lives of its citizens.

Which means, perhaps inconveniently for some, that a racist murderer’s life is just as important to fight for as an innocent black man’s.

On Twitter this morning, Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning said, of Lawrence Brewer, “I find it hard to oppose this particular execution”.

For the record: I don’t.

(h/t Skepchick)

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