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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Ordinary murderers

by Philip Martin | November 20, 2022 at 2:04 a.m.

You probably believe you can pick them out.

A writer I know hired a neighborhood kid to do some yard work this summer. He didn't do a great job, but if you want a great job you don't hire some 15-year-old to cut your grass and edge your lawn in your slouching-toward-upper-middle-class suburban neighborhood. She shook her head, paid him and sent him on his way. She didn't ask him to come back in two weeks and be her regular lawn boy. She thought he was squirrelly. She had a feeling about him.

In October, the 15-year-old (allegedly) shot and killed his 16-year-old brother. Then he (allegedly) went out in the world and shot six other people, four of them to death. Then he shot (but did not) kill himself. Another autumnal evening in America.

This writer did not broadcast her suspicions about the young man immediately after she had this feeling about him. Reasonable people everywhere agree there is something squirrelly about most 15-year-olds. It is a dangerous half-grown age. She shouldn't feel bad about keeping her opinions about the then-innocent child to herself; we are not yet at the point where we lock up people for inchoate crimes.

It was only after the fact that she gave her shaken testimony. Had she encountered this 15-year-old in another time, another place, something terrible might have happened to her. The implication is that he was unstable as nitroglycerin and the slightest jolt could cause him to spontaneously detonate.

The shooter is still in the hospital. He may not survive. People who knew him say there were "no red flags," no reason to suspect he was any different than any other squirrelly 15-year-old. Maybe he had problems with impulse control. You might like to think that there has to be more to it than that, but there doesn't.

I have known some murderers. Most of them are ordinary. The most interesting thing they will ever do is kill another human being. A lot of them feel genuinely bad about having done that, but a surprising number don't. They will argue that their victim forced their hand, that they were justified. A surprising minority will, if you catch them in the right mood, tell you they are glad that they killed.

That's why the trustees who worked as servants in the Louisiana Governor's Mansion back in the '80s were all murderers. Because, the reasoning went, they were people who "had taken care of their problem."

I don't know why murders on a bus in Charlottesville, Va., bother me so much. Maybe it's because the victims seem like they were promising, so alive and alert to the world. Student-athletes, warrior princes with flashing smiles in coats and ties. Kids I'd never heard of until they died.

And their alleged killer is an enigma--an intelligent, overachieving kid from a rough background who seemed to have overcome a lot to get to a place where he was attending a prestigious university.

There are murders that occur within 10 miles of me every week. Someone will probably be murdered in my town this weekend.

This fact doesn't scare me much because I know that most murderers know their victims and most of these crimes happen in desperate places I do not frequent. Because I know that I'm living in one of the safest times and places in human history. Because I'm fortunate.

I was covering crime in Shreveport when that city averaged more than a murder a day. I was in a house with the bodies of four people who were macheted to death by thugs employed by a drug cartel. I saw a 12-year-old being led away in handcuffs moments after stabbing her older sister to death with a pair of scissors. For months I watched a mild-looking graduate student work shifts in a mall book store while the police tried to build a case against him for the murder of his girlfriend.

He did it. He was squirrelly. I had a feeling about him.

The case never got made. He graduated and moved away. He's probably teaching English at a sleepy midwestern liberal arts school now. He might be retired. He probably has grandkids who love him.

I met Henry Lee Lucas. He wasn't ordinary. He was pathetic. A fabulist and attention whore. Born into more hopeful circumstances, he could have been a game show host or state legislator.

I met a lot of odd and broken people who'd suffered so much that it made a kind of mournful sense that they'd acted as they had. We're not supposed to have any empathy for those who have done bad things, but I stand with Goethe and Shakespeare. We all can rationalize ourselves to ourselves, and there is no crime I believe myself incapable of committing. Not necessarily because I can imagine myself committing these crimes, but because I've seen how unremarkable--how much like me--the people who have committed these crimes can be.

To be human is to have the capacity for evil. We might think we are different from the Good Germans who abetted the Nazis or the test subjects who willingly "shocked" unwitting "volunteers" in Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiences, but we're probably not. (All you have to do is look at social media to see how badly some people misapprehend the world. Some of your friends and neighbors are still on the QAnon train.)

Socrates believed that no one willingly chooses to do wrong because wrongdoing invariably harms the wrongdoer, and human beings have a powerful instinct for self-benefit and preservation. Therefore all wrongdoing is ultimately the result of ignorance; wrongdoers are mistaken about the nature of their acts. This is echoed by the Christian idea that evil is suborned by the devil, that we are led into temptation, tricked into distancing ourselves from a loving God.

There but for the grace of God we go.

I believe this. We are all capable of atrocity and cruelty. Not all murders can be prevented. Maybe we can slow someone down by making it harder for them to obtain a weapon of military grade efficiency, but if someone targets you and means to take you out, they probably can do it. No background check will stop them.

You probably believe you can pick them out. You're wrong.

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