Anatomy of a killer


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Category: Reflections Date: 26 Jan 04


In our small islands with our murder rate the highest that it's ever been, rapidly catching up with Jamaica's outrageous numbers, we too daily confront human brutality, the senseless murder of a deaf mute woman, the rape and violent murder of a 12 year old boy.

"They are monsters, not people." I said, like so many around us. My friend with whom I was pouring over the newspaper is thankfully far wiser than I will ever be.  She said: "It's easier to dismiss people isn't it? When you dehumanise them you don't have to confront the fact that any of us share some of his traits simply because human beings are essentially the same. We all want the same things. Success, health, security, love. We all feel pain. We all get lonely. If you dismiss someone as a 'monster' you don't have to recognize that behind every brutality there is a circumstance, a history, a humiliation, a lack of basic training and affirmation, one needs to have empathy towards people, to value human life. Worst of all you don't have to acknowledge that perhaps under similar circumstances that murderer could be you."


And it was a frightening thought. To think that you or I, have the capacity to be senselessly brutal. It was in this frame of mind that I read the in-depth report in the Times of January 14th on Harold Shipman, "Britain’s most prolific serial killer" who committed suicide in his cell.


It read:  "In Hyde, a former mill town to the west of Manchester, Shipman enjoyed almost celebrity status as the caring GP. Such was the esteem in which he was held that he was able to carry on his killing over 23 years.


"What they did not know was that Shipman was selecting largely middle-aged and elderly women patients, and injecting them with overdoses of diamophine, the medical form of heroin, for a reason. Nobody knows for certain how many people he murdered. He was convicted of 15 killings; an inquiry decided that he almost certainly killed 200 more. But his true tally? He alone knew."  The Times reported that Shipman was "waspish and charming". When he was arrested Shipman had sufficient stocks of diamophine with which to commit an additional 1400 murders.

The murders were baffling, as senseless as the everyday murders in our islands and Shipman was described as an "enigma in life" and "elusive in death".  The three page investigation devoted to Harold Shipman in the Times included a brilliant look at the anatomy of a killer by David Canter, Professor of Psychology at the University of Liverpool.  Professor Canter’s take is that Harold Shipman's suicide in his cell reveals the nature of his killer personality.


He writes: "Someone as self centered and totally immune to the feelings of others as Harold Shipman will have killed himself for egocentric reasons." As he languished in his cell, he would have been unable to sustain a state of denial. He had steadfastly refused to admit to his crimes and had apparently discussed even making an appeal.  "These outward displays of being a misunderstood innocent bolstered his inner denial that he had done anything wrong. As long as he could avoid engaging with explanations for his actions he could stop himself facing what he had done."

This analysis is so obvious it is stunning. When we look at the unrepentant angelic face of a smiling teenager who has raped a woman and slit her throat while her children cry in a locked room of a house, or at the impassive cool face of a man who has cold-bloodedly shot a man dead for ten dollars and a gold chain, we wonder what's going on and dismiss it as senseless and them as monsters.

Professor Canter is saying that people who kill cold bloodedly are practiced in the art of denial, are uncomfortable with self examination and utterly unable to see any flaws in themselves. This is because they have never developed empathy towards other people (perhaps because they have never received any). They have such low self esteem that they need above all to control other people in order to affirm themselves (and what greater power can one have over someone than the power of life and death?)

Professor Canter writes:  "But prison gives plenty of time for contemplation. Whatever denial he had managed to maintain in the years since his conviction could not be sustained forever.


"As he got to know the other prisoners who shared his world Shipman will have become to realize how much he had in common with them. He will have met people who were violent out of annoyance or just because they could get away with it, or even because they enjoyed inflicting pain on others. He would have shared prison with people who committed crimes out of habit, or as an easy way of solving a personal problem."  That hit hard. Harold Shipman is not unlike many of us. How many of us have lived without encountering, receiving or inflicting tyranny of the sort Professor Canter writes about? Certainly we've all met people who were "violent out of annoyance or because they could get away with it." He is not an aberration but has simply upped the grade - the human grade many of us share – several hundred times to become a killer.

Professor Canter continues on Shipman:  "For a professional to make a career out of killing his patients must mean that deep down he sees himself and those around him as mere objects that he can dispatch at will" Professor Canter is essentially saying that people who kill see themselves just as dispensable as their victims. That they have no self worth – not even a basic value for life and cannot recognize it in others.

The Professor ends his fascinating analysis of a killer "I am too much of an optimist about human nature think that a doctor can kill his patients and still have any empathy or sympathy for the harm he is doing. Such a lack of fellow-feeling will inevitably be turned on himself, as he sees the need to cancel out the void that envelops him."

This revealing article in the Times brought me back with a jolt to one of my basic beliefs. That "evil" in human nature - cruelty, tyranny, abuse of power, is rarely about the victim. It's almost always about the bad feelings we have about ourselves. Sometimes they manifest as petty, power plays in an office, in the home. They move up grades like Shipman or the people who buggered and murdered 12 year old Akiel Chambers and need to face the full force of the law. Still, inescapably they remain as human as you and I. It made me think too, just as the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, the price of humanity is reaching out to touch those who are so emptied out, they have none left.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur