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“A most unfortunate incident.” The death of a child and the monsters among us.

It was one of those distressingly familiar moments, watching TV3 news tonight. The people who [man]slaughtered three year old Moko Rangitoheriri appeared on the screen, blank faces and hunched shoulders. Outside the court one of the defence lawyers identified that the death of the wee boy was a ‘most unfortunate incident’. I know he was trying to keep his language careful and neutral. Nevertheless I cringed to hear this lexicographical sleight-of-hand. His clients killed a little boy in an orgy of violent self-indulgence. Just because they did not intend his death has not absolved them in the eyes of the law, and of the public.

[and here I am about to call on an earlier post I wrote some time ago on a similar topic, forgive me.]

So here we have yet another Māori child killed in a case that will have the families and the public searching for meaning and explanation for the terrible crimes that have been committed.  The internet may well brim again with discussions about culture, disadvantage and dispossession. There is a growing body of academic and government research that explore linkages between the Māori experience of colonisation and child abuse rates (see an example here), some of which will be pored over again and debated.

But in some ways this kind of analysis feels incomplete… Rather than Victor Frankenstein as the creator of the monster, the creator is colonisation and its absolute plundering of Māori social structures and cohesiveness.

We crave explanation. We need motive, we need cause, we need rationale as if human monsters are the product of some fiendishly screwed up recipe that went horribly wrong. If only we could just find the gene, or the step-father or the poverty-stricken background that could enable us to see the perfect formation of the causal chain. Of course, mental illness, racism, violence culture, misogyny, alienation, social and cultural disenfranchisement, lost moral compasses, can all explain in some part why people do bad things. But at the end of the day sociological or psychiatric explanations can only take us so far. This is because at the heart of all these kinds of events something evil has happened. In New Zealand’s secular society the notion of evil is unfashionable and a sign of a bygone and more credulous age. Evil, as an explanation for bad things, is now only really permissible in movies and books. Respectable commentators and analysts rarely speak of evil. But every so often the narrative of human experience of evil breaks through the strictures with which we have attempted to eradicate it.

I remember something one of the witnesses said at Mauha Fawcett’s trial for the murder of Mellory Manning:

“I could hear the crackling of tarpaulin or plastic,” he told the jury. “It was made to be done really slowly, you know what I mean, it wasn’t rushed, or hurried.”

A splash followed and was “pretty loud”, the witness said.

“I said it ‘aint Canadian geese or ducks or anything like that,” he told the court. “I couldn’t hear anyone talking, I couldn’t see anyone.

 “I actually ducked under a canopy, some trees, to see if I could see any silhouettes moved.”

But before the man could see anyone he was stopped “dead cold” in his tracks by a feeling he described as horrible and cold.

“It was quite freaky, it was a lot of fear; I knew something was not right, I retreated rather rapidly to where [my partner] was.” 

I don’t think what that witness felt would be unusual in such circumstances, and those feelings are what has kept Stephen King in clover all these years.

I wonder if anyone connected to the the house in those days before Moko Rangitoheriri’s death, felt such a wrongness but pushed it aside. Or had the frequency of the abuse meted out and the ‘culture of violence’ made the abuse so banal that wrongness was no longer a factor? I don’t know.

At any rate, it’s tempting to think that David Haerewa  and his co-offender Tania Shaile are true monsters, or ‘mad’ or any other label that separates them out from us. In truth though, they are extraordinary only in the degree of harm they have caused. True, these perpetrators had, between them, created something evil, something greater than the sum of its parts. But in order to do so, they probably felt entitled to follow the only yardstick that mattered to them (for whatever reason): their feelings at that time. David believed he was entitled to do what he did because  as Haerewa told police, ‘he “didn’t like [Moko’s] ways” and that he was “angry at him for taking us for granted”. Nothing, no moral strictures, no societal restraints, no physical restraints seemed to have stood in the way between these perpetrators and what they felt they needed or wanted to do. Above all people, they alone were entitled to do what they saw fit to this little boy who had annoyed them.

That willingness to ignore from what is right to instead give in to our desires, (‘sin’ as some of us might see it) was not externally imposed, not purely the result of external factors such as poverty, or abuse, or loneliness. Of course our willingness to, in the words of Depeche Mode ‘give in to sin’ can be informed by all those things and other factors that make up our complicated selves. But the capacity to commit evil simply by being unrestrained in doing what we feel like is within us all.

And in this nothing really separates us from the more obvious human monsters that make the news and create such “unfortunate incidents”

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

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