Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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3027 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

Meditation on Murder

Yahia Lababidi

Nothing human is alien to me.
—Terence, Roman comic dramatist (185 BCE–159 BCE)
We must have pity for one another; but we must feel for some a pity born of tenderness and, for others, a pity born of disdain.
—Pascal, Pensees

Murder is not inconceivable. People conceive of it all the time: in the ungovernable world of dreams, in the flush of passion or fits of negative emotion (rage, jealousy, fear, hate, etc...). Children, before they are socialized regarding right or wrong, casually conceive and enact it, in play. Adults, too, may nonchalantly wish death upon others in careless figures of speech, such as: drop dead and I could kill you. Commonplace, also, for grown-ups to bay for blood, en masse, in sports arenas; chanting frenziedly kill, Kill, KILL! at a boxing or wrestling match.

In fact, not only do people conceive death, they relish other’s conceptions of it as well. The world’s longest running play—seen by over 10 million people, performed in 44 different countries and now approaching an incredible 60 continuous years—is Agatha Christie’s murder mystery: The Mousetrap. This record-breaking play is still considered one of Britain’s must-see tourist attractions, along with a tour of an actual murder mystery: the crime scenes of London’s legendary Jack the Ripper.

There are several tours of the Ripper’s hunting grounds, but the “leading” one boasts: “This is the only Jack the Ripper Walk to show you Victorian Photographs of the streets and murder sites as they were in 1888 and of the poor unfortunate victims and to give you a free summary fact sheet to help you remember each aspect of the murder mystery.”

In the U.S., where slasher films are a popular and lucrative genre, murder is an industry. Seduced by the romance of crime, no amount of (celluloid) blood seems to slake the thirst of the viewing audience. Nearly a decade and a half ago, the nation was transfixed by the celebrity murder trial of OJ Simpson. Since then, court room television continues to enthrall people with real cases in real time of those who transgress. Director Oliver Stone examined in macabre detail the media’s indiscriminant celebration of murderers in his cult classic: Natural Born Killers. The critical and popular success of film portraits of serial killers (fictional and nonfictional) such as Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, Monster, and, more recently, No Country for Old Men attests to this same fascination.

Less artful cinematic depictions like Nightmare on Elm Street, Seven, Kalifornia, Scream, The Chainsaw Massacre, and an endless, yearly stream of bloody entertainment indicate a kind of psychological roller coaster that the audience rides with bodily dread, screaming their heads off only to get on again for another gory ride. But this is entertainment, sublimated if not sublime. Do the real thing, take a life, and you still might get the ultimate punishment: the death penalty—alive and well in 35 states of the U.S.A.

Crime and Punishment

The perennial fascination with the perfect crime is perhaps that of getting away with it, unpunished. This question of (moral) punishment is one that deeply occupied Dostoevsky in his psychological thriller: Crime and Punishment. As the protagonist, Raskolnikov posits: ‘extraordinary’ man has the right...that is not an official right, but an inner right to decide in his own conscience to overstep...certain obstacles...{if} it is essential for the practical fulfillment of his idea...

His “extraordinary” man, not unlike Nietzsche’s Übermensch (or Overman), perceiving himself Beyond Good and Evil, is thus permitted everything. In the case of Dostoevsky’s novel, the ultimate transgression his protagonist attempts is murder. Yet, such individualistic morality does not withstand testing. Theory applied, Raskolnikov (the extraordinarily theoretical man) discovers he cannot afford the crime spiritually, and feverish guilt and self-torment prove to him that he is not above the Law (inner or outer). Or as the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment confesses to a prostitute in the novel, “I murdered myself.” This is merely articulate fiction. But something of these questions must be wrestled with by the actual murderer (and more so the serial killer) in deciding to “overstep,” even if they are not thus expressed.

Democracy of Murder

It is difficult to determine the profile of a murderer. Namely, anyone can and does commit murder. People do it in the name of state (“war is licensed murder,” quipped pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell), or in the name of God (without the least sense of irony or blasphemy). Jealous or spurned lovers do it, desperate parents or offspring, disgruntled employees, and even angry teens. A few days shy of the eighth anniversary of the infamous Columbine massacre (April 20, 1999)—where two, armed high-school seniors went on a rampage, killing 12 students and a teacher before turning the weapons on themselves—came the mind-numbing Virginia Tech massacre (April 16, 2007) where a deeply disturbed English major killed 32 people, wounding many more, before also committing suicide—making this the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

There is an Egyptian saying that partially accounts for the democracy of murder. “El sillah yittwall” literally means, the weapon lengthens, or has a life of its own. It is an injunction not to have weapons within arm’s reach, lest we use them. It is also a shrewd acknowledgement of the power of temptation, an all-too-human elaboration of the Christian prayer, “Lead us not into temptation.” Just as temptation makes a thief, so it makes a murderer, according to this wisdom. By the same token, common sense dictates that where there is less access to weapons there is less likelihood of crime—witness the U.S. versus Canada, for example.

Civilization is a fragile thing, carefully stitched together, yet easily undone. Humans, too. In one sense, we are a form of organized chaos, capable of unraveling for an instant or a lifetime. In a very real sense, we are easily punctured water balloons, or vulnerable bags of blood and bones. Walking down the street, we entrust our frailties to complete strangers, everyday. In his Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton states: “The simplest act of surrealism is to walk out into the street, gun in hand, and shoot at random.” Americans are Surreal that way, with drive-by shootings being their peculiar variation on this theme.

According to an FBI statistic, with five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. produces 75% of the world’s serial killers (a term that gained currency in the mid 1970’s, following the emergence of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson). If there is anything more engrossing to the masses than murderers, it is serial murderers. Murder may be committed in the heat of the moment; drunk on passion, any amateur can do it. But the repeat offender is perceived as a professional, and only an evil mastermind is considered capable of a career in murder. In short, a successful Raskolnikov, or crime without self-punishment.

Profile of a Serial Killer

To contemplate a serial killer is to be assaulted by the absurd, an existence as irrational as a natural disaster or illogical as dreams. Orson Welles said of Iago (from Shakespeare’s Othello), “Oh, he has no reason, there are those who do evil without any motive other than the exercise of mischief and the enjoyment of the power to destroy.” The power that serial killers exert then, on the public imagination, may stem from their power over another’s life or life itself. They come to represent the power of Death over Life, personified, seemingly omnipotent, pitiless human gods of destruction or angels of death. Certainly, there is a grandeur to death (as one of life’s inevitable and privileged moments) and, in turn, we extend an awe-through-association to those figures who dare administer it.

What must it be like to inhabit such an amoral universe, to persist past the first crime, past remorse, contemptuous of the laws of humanity and God; how does one become addicted to murder? These are questions that fuel the doomed glamour surrounding serial killers. Very little is actually known about what makes a serial killer. Mechanistic theories—reducing murderers to biology, heredity, or environment—fail. Not all are abused as children, or pathologically troubled young adults. More disconcertingly, some are described as gentle, mild-mannered, or even good neighbors.

Two of the most infamous American serial killers, Bundy and Manson, are almost a study in contrasts. Although both were possessed of personal magnetism, it appears to have been of a very different kind. Bundy, noted for his easy charm, disarmingly represented himself in court and managed to acquire many stays of execution, based on his seeming “ordinariness.” Manson may have been charming to his “family” or “harem,” but to the public he looked the caricature of a crazed creature, wild-eyed and demented. Moreover, the pieces of the puzzle left behind rarely fit, and murderers’ accounts of matters or motivations (when they are found legally sane) do not add up. Which comes as no surprise, given that they cannot account for themselves or their behavior.

All that can be said with certainty of these professional murderers is that the overwhelming majority are Caucasian males, between 20-40 years of age, and that they appear to be low on empathy, or fellow feeling. The rest is mystery. The more gruesome strain (those who cut up, sew, and/or eat flesh) must, of necessity, be inhumanly detached. Like the sinister inverse of surgeons, deadly rather than healing, they too cannot afford to be overwhelmed by the skin and bones that they “work” with. The devil is in the details.

With horror and morbid curiosity we read the ghoulish catalogue of their atrocities; Ed Gein (found insane in 1957): made leggings and lampshades out of human flesh, a skinned-out vest of breasts and strap-on female genitalia, a belt of female nipples, a shoebox containing nine salted vulvas, with his mother’s painted silver; Edmund Kempler (active in the Seventies): his mother’s decapitated head kept as masturbatory object and dartboard; Jeffrey Dahmer (arrested in 1991): admissions of necrophilia, staged pictures of corpses in various poses and stages of surgical dissection, painted skulls, and preserved sex organs. Recoiling and considering how they pulled it off, we cannot help but wonder at their fiendish ingenuity, or malevolent intelligence.

A Mathematical Puzzle

Few were more intelligent than Ted Kaczynski. Referred to as “the most intellectual serial killer the nation [USA] has ever produced,” Kaczynski was dubbed “the Unabomber” by the FBI because his early victims were associated with universities or airlines. Not yet sixteen when he was accepted to Harvard, Kaczynski went on to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics and joined the Berkeley Department of Mathematics as an instructor in the 1960’s.

Professors recalled Kaczynski as a brilliant graduate student able to solve complicated equations that stumped other math experts. But, by the 1970’s, he had grown increasingly disenchanted with academia and society, and fled civilization altogether to begin building a 12-foot cabin in the Montana wilderness, with no electricity or running water, in keeping with his anti-technology ideology.

There he indulged in his passion for Transcendentalist philosophy and, soon after, became a mail bomber—conducting an increasingly lethal terror campaign that began in 1978 and ended in 1995, injuring 23 people and killing three. Following the appearance of a 35,000-word essay which he wrote and had published in The Washington Post and The New York Times (titled “Industrial Society and Its Future,” which the press called “The Manifesto”), Kaczynski was arrested in his cabin.

Having eluded the FBI for 18 years and cost them 50 million dollars, he was apprehended based on a tip by his brother, who identified him through the writing style of the published piece. In 1998, he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. It is ironic that the man who so violently protested against technology should have made such violent use of it (home-made mail bombs) and, ultimately, that he should end up its hapless prisoner: in a maximum security prison, under 24-hour surveillance.

You Are What You Eat

In the last decade, another case captured the public imagination. “Seeking young, well-built men aged 18-30 to slaughter” read a message in an internet chat room devoted to cannibalism, posted by a 41-year-old computer expert, Armin Meiwes, in late 2000. “I offer myself to you and will let you dine from my live body. Not butchery, dining!” came the reply three months later, from 43-year-old Bernd-Jurgen Brandes: Meiwes’ chosen applicant out of the 204 electronic responses he received. (Fifteen simply wanted to watch; four others visited Meiwes’ home, and were permitted to back out at the last minute; while one was rejected for being “too fatty.”)

Later Brandes visited Meiwes’ home, with the express purpose of being murdered and eaten. After sex, they dined on Brandes’ penis, upon his request. Then, also upon his request, Brandes was murdered and (most of) his flesh consumed throughout the year, until Meiwes’ arrest—after it was barbequed in the garden, where the bones were also buried. For the record, Meiwes videotaped the grisly proceedings.

Meiwes is not without regrets. He regrets not getting to know his victim better before killing him, even though “eating Brandes was like taking communion,” Meiwes told the German court. Other confessions include the defendant’s “childhood obsession with the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ especially the passage where the witch ‘fattened up little Hansel’ in hopes of cooking and eating him.”

The young Meiwes imagined eating schoolmates between ages 8-12, “slim and blonde, that would have been the type,” he admitted in court. He also expressed a longing for a younger brother, and claimed he no longer felt empty having consumed Brandes. Also, there was the curious observation that his English had improved, since the deceased had a better command of the language than he did. Hamming it up for an interview, Meiwes told reporters: “Come closer, I won’t eat you.”

This is the serial killer parodying Hollywood, parodying the serial killer. Not surprisingly, Meiwes announced that he is planning to write his memoirs and one imagines the movie deal is not far behind. But, this is Meiwes in Wonderland, and his hallucinatory insights on the subject of murder are hardly reliable. No less astonishing, however, was the Judge’s verdict. Since cannibalism itself is not a crime, “killing on demand” is considered a form of “mercy killing,” as no sexual satisfaction could be proven. Here are the words of the Judge:

“Meiwes’s intentions were not evil but the fulfillment of his fantasy...the wish to make another man part of himself. Meiwes reached this bonding experience through the consumption of the flesh.”

Is such understanding simply naïve, or criminally lenient? Surely there are less bloodthirsty means to bond? Just as, surely, Meiwes must have been under the sway of sexual compulsion. Even ordinary sex, with its oral emphasis—licking, sucking, biting, tasting— is a kind of cannibalism manqué, or a form of restrained devouring; let alone cooking and eating body parts as part of an elaborate and videotaped fantasy. After all, it’s not exactly as though Meiwes ate Brandes out of necessity, or hunger. Yet, Meiwes was acquitted of murder and found guilty of manslaughter. During a 2005 retrial, however, a psychologist declared that Meiwes was capable of reoffending and still “had fantasies about devouring the flesh of young people.” The following year, a more reasonable court convicted Meiwes of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Making Sense of Senselessness

The perversions of pleasure or the spirit of nihilism, temporary insanity or erosion of will, uncontrollable urges and violent power over another, in lieu of power over oneself, these are only some the ingredients of murder. Following the abovementioned cannibal case, predictably, the internet was blamed. In the same way that music, television and films are blamed for inciting violence or rape.

Anything, it seems, but blaming riotous human impulses and the intoxication of negativity, or admitting that as humans we drag our primordial slime, along with our glory, onto every new frontier. “I don’t believe in progress,” offered French poet Rollinat, “but the stagnation of human perversity.” But to be fair, we cannot claim credit for human achievement without also assuming responsibility for human catastrophe, murder included.

Perhaps one way to make sense of senseless violence is to say there are no absolutely good or evil people, though there are certainly good and evil deeds. It may be more useful, then, to substitute the adjective “evil” with “weak.” After all, might not some individuals be, somehow, prey to murderous impulses—overcome by voices, visions, dark murmurs in their blood? Yet, even in their most reduced state, serial killers are not past seeking salvation—at the expense of being delivered of themselves—their recklessness itself a muffled cry for help.

There is the case of Jeffrey Dahmer who committed murder only hours after meeting with his parole officer; or Henry Lee Lucas who warned prison officials he would kill again if released from parole, and went on a 13-year killing spree, beginning only a few miles from prison; or John Wesley Dodd who confessed to many crimes, but was never charged or prosecuted.

All these are men who swerved off the main road of mankind, tripping into dark territory, or a region of the soul where night is continually falling. Grotesque, pathetic playthings of their fantasies, or living food for their destructive appetites, but human, nonetheless; perhaps, men past some point of no return, paradoxically killing others to be rid of themselves. “I was killing myself only but it was always the bystander who died,” volunteered serial killer Dennis Nilsen, strangely echoing Raskolnikov’s confession.

In Varieties of Religious Experience, psychologist-philosopher William James, writing of his nervous collapse, recalls the face of an epileptic patient he’d seen in an asylum suddenly arising in his mind, along with an inexplicable fear of his own existence. “This image and my fear entered into a species of combination with each other. That shape am I...potentially,” he concluded. Something of this amorphous fear must inform our deep and abiding fascination with crime. Vice and sickness, however inexplicable, are human options. Those shapes, potentially, are us.

[Editor’s Update: This essay was chosen as a finalist for the Best of the Net 2011 Anthology, by Sundress Publications.]
“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury