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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”

Just how free is your will, truly? Criminal law & the free thinker.

A few years ago two people made comments to me independently about children; comments that broke my heart. In one, the sister of a friend of mine who had adopted a baby from a troubled background asked me if I had met ‘the criminal’s baby’ yet. I did a double-take; this was the first conversation I had ever had with this woman, but surely she must have been joking. She wasn’t. She waited for my answer. I stammered out something about what gorgeous and happy boy he was, and left; under no illusions about what she saw in that child’s past and his future. At about the same time, another friend of mine was parenting a child from  troubled background. Hmm. Such a quaint phrase ‘troubled background’..makes me think of a William Turner painting, like The 5th Plague of Egypt:

220px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_The_Fifth_Plague_of_Egypt_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

This child was a bit older, and he had been playing up at school. Really playing up, and my friend was, understandably, tearing her hair out. “My kid is totally fucked up,” she said, in a tone of utter finality. My heart bled for her; but also for her boy, happily (on that day, at least) playing on the computer in the next room. The sense I had garnered from both conversations (and the first was a short one, I’ll grant you) was that each child was followed by a terrible Doom. In the case of the second child (Māori) he was rapidly becoming, for a host of complicated reasons, the Troubled Māori Boy at his school. Now this child had a pretty good chance of beating his Doom, he had a well intentioned  & hardworking Mum, and a bunch of supports in place around him. In fact, both children did, and I can only hope that these two kids continue to outpace the expectations of others that they will fail; that the choices they will make will not fulfil the prophecies being made by others on their behalf.

A couple of weeks ago I happened to be in my first week of law teaching for the year, introducing my classes to the concept of mens rea, or ‘the guilty mind’ that prosecutors must prove exists if defendants are to be held liable  for the actus reus, or ‘guilty conduct’ that comprise serious offences in this in this country’s criminal law (many offences don’t require mens rea these days, but that’s a story for another day).

So in my classes we had to discuss some basics before we even got what it means to choose an action, and to carry it out with a specific frame of mind like intent or recklessness. At the very heart of our criminal legal system is the notion of the freely choosing individual. The person who, faced with a choice of courses of action is capable of choosing one of those courses of action. This presumption that individuals must have free will in order to be at fault is extraordinarily powerful and optimistic. Thousands of years of philosophical and religious thought have also upheld this idea, particularly in the West,  that humans can choose obedience to a deity or a principle, or a moral.  This idea is in direct tension with another powerful idea; determinism,  which understands humans to be little more than flotsam and jetsam on tides of their own fate. We are the sum of our physiology, our psychology, our physicality, our environment, and we are bound to act as we do; our whole lives have brought us to this moment; and true choice is but an illusion.

At the same time as teaching these classes, I read ab0ut the successful appeal by one of the young boys who killed Mr Arun Kumar, a loved and respected man who was stabbed to death in his Auckland dairy in June, 2014. This is one case that challenges the role we presume free will plays in our behaviour. The appellant was 13 at the time of the killing, who had suffered terrible head trauma at the age of 8; married with many of the other markers of disadvantage that other young offenders carry; lack of family support, lack of engagement with the medical establishment; abysmal schooling experiences, and so on. The following quote from the article interested me:

A medical report available to the courts outlined the effect the injury had on the teenager’s reasoning on the day of the killing: “although knowing right from wrong, [P] was significantly reduced in his capacity to choose right from wrong, due to his lasting brain injury impairments.

“He could not use his knowledge normally to control his actions on the day and in the situation in the dairy. He had less control than another person his age would have had in the same circumstances due to his brain damage.”

In other words, this offender’s capacity to exercise free will was compromised. It was not eradicated; he was found guilty of manslaughter after all; he was not acting as an automaton; he still met the mens rea for manslaughter; just not for murder, because the jury found he had formed intent for committing serious bodily harm, without intending, or knowing that death could result (s168, Crimes Act 1961). The Court of Appeal said that the sentencing judge had not taken enough account of the Defendant’s reduced mental faculty in sentencing. This case highlighted how fragile our cherished concept of free will can be.  Why make this young person criminally liable for something he most probably could not have chosen to do differently in that moment? Well, there are many reasons, and one of them is simply that our system of criminal liability simply cannot take account well of hard cases.

I asked my classes who among them felt they were indeed in control of their own destinies; and who felt at the mercy of some kind of fate over which they had no kind of control. Funnily enough, many of the same people who thought themselves in control, also saw themselves carried along on tides over which they had no control whatsoever. Somewhere between these two poles exist real people struggling with their unvarnished lives. Muddiness of real life to one side; politics, religion, and law would all look very different in this country if the notion of individual free will did not have such ascendance.

I can only trust that the two children I mentioned above are both able and enabled to make the kinds of decisions that dispel the Dooms that might otherwise sweep them up.

 

[Postscript: just saw this article about 30 seconds ago..seems, according to this experiment at least,  that a goodly degree of our quote-unquote free choices are actually retrofitted. Well, a scientific study rarely quells debate, does it.]

 

 

 

 

Elliot Rodgers, Mauha Fawcett and the truth about monsters.

The last week has been a bad one for human monstrosity, or at least obvious and individualised examples of it. The sad discovery of Blesilda Gotingco’s murder happened when we were still processing news of Elliot Rodger’s slaughter of 6 people in California. A few days later we learned of two teenaged girls in Uttar Pradesh, gang-raped and lynched because they had tried to find a safe place to relieve themselves. And yesterday the 60 year old father, a lay minister, pleaded guilty to 3 counts of incest with his adopted daughter who later killed the baby born of that incest. He is reported to have claimed he was under the influence of the Devil, when he offended against her. (http://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/246328/incest-girl’s-‘oppressive-conditions’)

The families in all these cases will be searching for meaning and explanation for the terrible crimes committed. We all are.

In regards to Rodger, the internet is now alive with discussions presuming misogyny and rape culture and everyday sexism to be primary drivers of his actions, helpfully assisted by his video placing the blame for his isolation and unhappiness on those females who refused to allow him access to their bodies. No doubt that thinking holds some water. See for example, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. One of the benefits of this thinking is the line drawn between this single sociopath and his acting out of a misogynistic fantasy, and ordinary men and everyday sexism. I get that. The human monster is not just slavering over the helpless victim in the dark and stormy night of our imagination, he is on the couch next to you sharing your popcorn.

But in some ways this kind of analysis feels incomplete..misogynist monsters are formed to a large degree by societal pressures that demean and dehumanise women and girls, enabling and facilitating misogyny, and in Rodgers, its ultimate expression. Rather than Victor Frankenstein as the creator of the monster, the creator is patriarchy and its gun culture.

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, gun culture, caste hierarchy, misogyny, alienation, social 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.” Read more: http://www.3news.co.nz/Mellory-Manning-trial-Witness-heard-blood-curdling-scream/tabid/423/articleID/331794/Default.aspx#ixzz32iKvErpT 

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.

It’s tempting to think that Fawcett and his as-yet-uncharged co-offenders, Elliott Rodger, Mrs Gotingco’s killer, and the rapist-murderers in Uttar Pradesh 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. Nothing, no moral strictures, no societal restraints, no physical restraints 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.

Now while it might not be easy to see ourselves becoming fully fledged ‘monsters’ and bringing evil into the world like Rodgers et al, we probably can imagine what we might be like if we had no limits placed upon us, no obstacles to meeting our our desires. And we all know the battles we fight on a daily basis within ourselves between what we want to do, and what we know we should do. This is a war as old as humanity. What was it that Paul said of his darkest struggles between what he knew he should do and what could not stop himself from doing?

Romans 7:14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

That willingness to turn away from what is right to instead give in to our desires, (‘sin’ as Paul saw 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 sin is within us all, and in this nothing really separates us from the more obvious human monsters that make the news. There is no devil on our shoulder. If only it could be that simple.

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