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A Theory of Murder

Murder is too easy. Where's the game? You dent a body slightly -- if it were a car, it would be easily patched up -- and it's dead. The guy is gone.

In the arena of creating effects, wowing people, getting people to say "Man, you're too much!" or "Ummm, you're a great lover" or "Did you really just make that up?!" or "Oooh! Ahhhh! Don't stop!" or "ENCORE! ENCORE!" or "And the WINNER is..." -- in that arena, creating an effect upon someone by killing him or on others by killing their intimates is akin to aceing a challenging test by looking up the answers in the back of the book.

I suppose there's a game to not getting caught, and there are other ways to decorate murder with the semblance of intricate play, but I wonder how often something like this happens (perhaps over several lifetimes, perhaps over decades):

A guy accidentally kills someone he loves -- bumps that person off a cliff or puts a small hole in the otherwise intact face or by some small, seemingly harmless action causes a heart to stop, a clot, an unintended impact. Let's say it's sudden -- the person is very much there, full of familiar mannerisms and gestures, smiling, chatting, knowing your thoughts, responding to your words and expressions, and something happens, and the body is still there, almost looking at you [forgive the pronoun -- I mean a general "you"], but has gone still, is unresponsive, no one is there, and you have no idea where your friend has gone, whether or not the friend still exists (and you begin to doubt, in the face of such apparently absolute absence, whether anyone could possibly ever have existed there). Let's say the body appears whole and unharmed or only slightly marred (as by a small bullet hole between the still open eyes).

What's happened here is that there's a huge discrepancy between the enormity of the presence becoming an absence (friend here, friend gone) and the triviality of the visible causes (some slight damage to some tiny part of the body). The discrepancy would be less if the death had been slow and agonizing or quick and dramatic and gory. But here death seems too trivial an event to be associated with so huge a spiritual result. And it's particularly hard to deal with if you think you caused it -- if you handed the person the mushroom that turned out to be fatal or accidentally fired the gun you thought hadn't been loaded or, in play, tripped your friend who fell and hit temple against sharp stone and went still.

You did such a tiny thing, caused such a huge effect.

In such a situation, one solution -- one way you might make sense of it -- is to view your action as a terrible action causing terrible damage, magnify death, no matter how quick and simple, to monstrous proportions, live a life of pennance.

But a more attractive solution (since it lessens your guilt) is to say: "After all, nothing much has been lost. We're just chemical accidents." When you kill someone, it's no big deal, nothing more than shutting down a few chemical reactions.

In other words, you reduce the enormity of the absence by deciding that there was never much of anyone there in the first place. Perhaps there SEEMED to be, but that abundance of beingness was an abundance you imagined, just as a child endows a doll with personality. You resolve never to do that again -- give being to others, give others the means to disappoint you.

And if the loss was extreme enough (and your own carelessness flagrant enough), you may find yourself obsessed with proving to yourself that death is no big deal by killing some other people (intentionally) just to prove to yourself that it's awfully easy to kill people and makes no difference to the world or to you.

And along the way, you feel justified, since your victims inevitably betray you: You create what you think must be the ultimate effect upon them, but they reward you with no response. They just vanish. That pisses you off, so you begin to do weird things, like arrange bodies in lifelike positions, have sex with them, talk to them -- all desperate attempts to persuade yourself that you've created an effect on them by having them appear to be creating effects on you in return. (Similarly a child will try to imagine the doll is talking back to her.) I suspect this is part of the stereotype of the serial killer getting off on his killings, having an orgasm. And it's part of the rage associated with such people: Why don't they REACT when I kill them?

Eventually the only interaction that's real to them [we'll leave "you" behind at last] is killing, and that interaction is always initially a release, but soon after devastatingly disappointing -- an exaggerated parody of the letdown after bad sex, in the absence of live communication.

I'm not sure it ever happens that way (well, yes, I'm pretty sure), but I do know that we sometimes feel impelled to degrade our idea of identity and of the reality of other people. Killers and torturers tend to kill -- as they kill others -- their own imaginations. They no longer want to know that behind another face can be found another being like themselves, one with hopes and dreams. Life goes flat for them.

Since that perception of others, that knowledge that one is among fellow helloers, gets killed off when one kills others, soon it validates itself: You no longer need to deny that others like yourself exist, because, devoid of the imagination that lets you grant life to others, you can no longer grant life to yourself. [Forgive me, but I find "one" intolerable after a few sentences. It's the academic's way to kill. So I've returned to "you".] When you begin to unsee the beings around you, you become less. In the absence of others, your own identity becomes unreal to you. After all, who else exists to agree that you exist? Having no playmates, no one to help (and a game is, among other things, a means to help ones teammates), you are dead.

So now it's OK to assume that others exist like yourself, because you are dead yourself, devoid of dreams (it's no longer safe to dream), a distant spectator to the actions of your own hands. So the killing of those like yourself is now of no significance.

I wonder if it might happen that way?

And I wonder how engaging in wars creates killers -- or at least people dead inside. And I wonder how drugs designed to make us not feel much (so that we don't feel bad) might accelerate such a process.

And I wonder if it's possible for those of us who'd prefer to be alive and have others be alive to create life faster than the deadly ones create death.

It must be odd to stand next to a living person and be unable to perceive the being. Here I am, miles and perhaps years from the "you" I address, and yet you are alive for me. I recall an old poem of mine about why I'd never become a serial killer: What if, without realizing it, I killed one of my readers!

Last updated: January 6, 2009