The string of homicides gaining national attention over the last few weeks have caused me to reminisce about the murderers I’ve known.  Working in an urban outpatient clinic for substance abusers caused me to meet more than a few.  A majority of the people who walked in our doors were in trouble with the law, on probation or parole, or referred to us by a court in some way.  We dealt with the gamut of bad behaviors.

My work as a pastor provided good training; I was beyond being surprised by people and the things they do.  Even churches in rural and suburban neighborhoods have a noteworthy amount of weirdness occurring behind closed doors.  But I never personally met someone who killed someone else until I counseled them.  Sometimes I’d know because it was on their record, and sometimes I’d know because it came up in conversation.

They were a varied group, with all races, genders, and intelligence quotients represented.  What was common about them was their commonness.  Despite their remarkable act, they tended to be unremarkable people.  Most murderers don’t have a homicidal twitch, a wild-eyed stare, or an empty conscience.

Dominga was a heroin addict who grew up in the Bronx, an energetic Puerto Rican woman in her mid-thirties.  She was brassy and sexy, went to NA dances for booty calls, and possessed a violent streak she didn’t hide.  In a group session, she matter-of-factly described throwing her mother down a flight of stairs, including why her mother deserved it.  Thankfully, she liked me.

One day, during a period when Dominga was selling heroin, a guy came to her place to buy a bundle.  She purposely kept her stash in a desk drawer that contained a pistol, and was in front of a mirror, so she could watch the customer behind her.  Seeing him begin to pull a gun from his pants, she turned around and shot him in the chest.  Down he went.  She called the police and turned herself in, getting the sentence reduced.

Matt had a different story.  He was a slacker who worked at a lumber yard and rented a two-room apartment in an old building.  On weekends, he’d get together with a friend or two and use what drugs they could manage to buy.  In that manner, Matt lived a peaceful life, until one January evening when he dropped LSD with a friend.  Standing outside to smoke a cigarette, they got cold and started a fire in a trash barrel, not noticing, in their drug-addled state, that the barrel was next to the house.  The house burned down and a resident inside was killed.

Matt went to prison for involuntary manslaughter, for what amounted to a tragic accident caused by stupidity and intoxication.  He was remorseful.  When he got out, he went back to the lumberyard and tried to stay clean.  He was a murderer who didn’t seem like one; he seemed like a slacker who did drugs.

Dominga and Matt were typical.  Most murders happen in the spur of the moment, or a moment of drunken folly, when a weapon is handy or logic impaired, and five seconds later the deed is done.  The people who do them will most likely never kill anyone else.

Clarence was a drug dealer recently released from prison.  He occasionally discussed the problems he confronted in the drug business, and how he resolved them, and one time, when talking about an employee he suspected of helping a rival, Clarence said, “Sometimes, you just do what you gotta do.”  He gave me a look and I suspected what he meant.  Clarence was a businessman, in the truest sense of the word.  Some murders are strictly a matter of economics, and they don’t always involve a gun.

And then there was Anthony.  Anthony first went to juvenile detention when he was fifteen, for throwing Molotov cocktails from his bedroom window onto the street below.  He got out at eighteen and stabbed a man within six months.  He didn’t have much of an explanation; the man bothered him.  He came to see me after getting paroled at the age of twenty-eight.  Essentially, he had been in confinement since the age of fifteen.

He found a job at a recycling plant, where many parolees were hired, but soon chafed at the supervisor’s caustic attitude.  He didn’t like being ordered around, especially by somebody who enjoyed it.  But Anthony had no job experience, no job skills, no job training, and no job history.  So I helped him get admitted to a welding school, and the last time I saw him, Anthony sat in my office with tears in his eyes, saying he felt a sense of hope.  The tears didn’t last long, but I took them as a sign of progress.

The next morning, on the news, I heard about an eighteen-year-old found fatally beaten in a city park.  The young man was dating a former girlfriend of Anthony’s cousin, and the cousin didn’t like him, and the former girlfriend was tired of him, so she lured him to the park at night, where Anthony and his cousin clubbed him to death with a pistol, breaking the pistol on his head in the process.  All three were arrested and convicted.  After the murdered boy’s father gave his impact statement, Anthony yelled back, “I’ll do a dance on your son’s grave!”

I never saw that side of Anthony.  He was always polite to me.  He had feelings; he was capable of social behavior.  But, once he decided to kill the boy, he put on his gangster persona, and I doubt he has taken it off.  Prison is not a place where people develop a sensitive side, for the same reason that wolves snarl.

However, despite his despicable actions, Anthony is not that different than the rest of us.  We all put on personas for accomplishing the job at hand, and the job at hand isn’t always a fair or pleasant one.  When I ran a treatment agency, I fired a number of people.  Every time, I adopted a particular approach and demeanor as seemed required by the circumstances.  You don’t fire someone, for example, while acting happy to see them.  There’s a soberness that goes with the occasion.

Although Anthony’s intent was evil, his methods were very human.  He was not possessed by demons, under the thrall of Satan, or even legally insane.  He was able to turn off his human empathy for others, to objectify them, to dehumanize them, until he could do whatever he wanted and their pain meant nothing.  It’s a strategy we all use in varying degrees .  Life requires us to ignore the suffering of others, to some extent, because there’s so much of it.  But every time we do, there’s also violence being done.

The possibility for murder resides in all of us.  It’s the same attitude responsible for crimes of all kinds, from bank robbery to bank fraud, from rape to racism, from pollution to sociopaths to the guy who shot up the Sikh temple.  We’re able to harm others whenever  we make them less important than ourselves.

Thankfully, most of us aren’t murderers, but all murderers are human.

About Bucky Dann

I teach religion, sociology, and psychology at Southwestern Community College in the Smoky Mountains. I have worked in the United Methodist ministry and in the substance abuse field. I possess a Masters of Divinity, a Masters of Philosophy, and a PhD in the sociology of knowledge.

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