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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.