Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “murder”

What is terrorism?

Fifty years ago the National Party regime in South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which basically defined terrorism as opposition to the National Party and its policies, especially the policy of apartheid.

It made me particularly aware of the way words can be misused for political propaganda, and the entire Terrorism Act was an exercise in political propaganda — by defining their opponents as “terrorists” the National Party government hoped to frighten (intimidate, terrorise) doubters into supporting them. The Terrorism Act made nothing illegal that was not already illegal under numerous other laws, though it did increase the powers of the police to suppress opposition without interference by the courts.

So I became aware that “terrorism” and “terrorist” were weasel words, that could have the meanings sucked out of them as weasels were reputed to suck eggs. And since I was already a language pedant, I became yet more pedantic about words like “terrorist”.

I looked up “terrorist” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary:

terrorist, n. One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community.

Note that governments can be terrorist (as the National Party government was back in 1967 when they passed the Terrorism Act). And note too that it is not applied to individuals. An armed robber may inspire terror in his victims by the use of violence or the threat of it — to hand over valuables or reveal the means of access to them, eg by torturing someone to reveal the PIN of a credit card. But the robber is still a robber, not a terrorist.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, USA, has opened up this particular debate again — here’s an example in the graphic on the right, which appeared on Facebook soon after the shooting.

At the time of writing, police investigating the crime said that they had not discovered the killer’s motive, and it is his motive that would determine whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Perhaps further investigation will show that it was an act of terrorism, but for the moment it is too early to say.

For it to have been an act of terrorism, one has to know which community he was trying to coerce into doing what and why.

What his victims had in common was that they were Country Music fans attending a concert. If it can be shown that his aim was to intimidate country music fans into not holding concerts (any concerts? open-air concerts? only concerts in Las Vegas or concerts anywhere?) then yes, he was a terrorist, and his shooting was an act of terrorism.

But not every mass shooting is an act of terrorism, and not every mass murderer is a terrorist. Perhaps in this case the killer was just a misanthropist, and the concert-goers were just a convenient target for his misanthropy.

Before coming to hasty judgments about such things, read this article Six things to know about mass shootings in America | News | World | M&G:

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

And check here to see if you can pass the terrorism quiz.

A terrorist always has a clear message: this is what will happen to you if you carry on doing this, or if you don’t do that. Often the message is “support us, or else (this will happen to you)”.

If the message the perpetrator is trying to send is unclear and difficult to determine, the chances are he isn’t a terrorist.

 

Anger and outrage

Yesterday morning we were driving around running errands and in between stops we heard snatches of an interview on the car radio. They were discussing some particularly horrible murders in which the victims had been beaten and mutilated, and they were described as “hate crimes”.

Perhaps this was one of the cases they were speaking about Police continue search for suspects in Vanderbijlpark rape, murder:

Gauteng police say they are searching for an unknown number of suspects involved in the rape and murder of a 20-year-old woman in Vanderbijlpark.

Her mutilated body was found at a nearby school last month.

While gay rights groups believe the woman was attacked because she was lesbian, police say the motive for the murder is not yet known.

I’m not sure how they can search for an “unknown” number of suspects — either you suspect someone or you don’t. But presumably if they track them down they will arrest the unknown number of people to charge with murder.

The radio interviewer was asking about whether the crime they were discussing was a “hate crime”, and the person being interviewed was talking about such crimes, and saying that there were many of them, and referred to several instances.

Then the interviewer asked whether we South Africans were angry enough, and whether we had enough outrage, clearly expecting the answer to be that we were not angry enough, and that we did not have enough outrage, and that we should have more.

SilouanAnd the incongruity of it struck me. Here they were discussing crimes that were clearly motivated by anger and outrage. “Hate crimes”, by definition, are characterised by hatred, anger and rage. The mutilation of the bodies, and the brutality of the beatings the victims had received clearly pointed to great anger — and here was the interviewer apparently calling for more. Hair of the dog that bit you!

People are tweeting their hatred of other people. and, as Tom Lehrer put it, “There are people who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that.”

The problem with us in South Africa is not that we don’t have enough anger and outrage, but that we have far too much.

 

Death of a serial killer

Is it a case of life imitating art, or is it an illustration of the adage “You can’t make this stuff up”?

Sacto 9-1-1: Dorothea Puente, Sacramento’s infamous landlady killer dies:

Dorothea Puente, the notorious F Street landlady convicted of killing her tenants and burying them in her backyard, died Sunday, state corrections officials said.

Puente, 82, had been seriously ill for months, and was transferred from the Central California Women’s Facility near Chowchilla to an outside hospital in September 2010.

Even in a city with no shortage of infamous and gruesome murders, the Puente case stands out.

She was a sweet-looking, grandmotherly woman who ran a boarding house out of a rented two-story Victorian at 1426 F Street.

Puente began the business in 1980, renting out the top floor of the home, but she was sent to prison for three years for drugging her elderly tenants and stealing checks from them.

I wonder if she got the idea from Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring. I saw the film many years ago, and had always thought the book was written by Agatha Christie until I looked it up.

Jon Venables: the penalty for murder

On Friday Sky News was full of a story about Jon Venables, who, as a child of 10, with a friend, Robert Thompson, murdered a younger child. The point of the story was never clear, but they had the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying that the justice system must take its course and that he would not interfere. It seemed that Jon Venables, now 27, had been releaced from prison and given another identity, and then was back in prison after committing another offence, and that some people were demanding details of his new identity and offence.

They kept showing the pictures of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, and I thought that Robert Thompson looked like a bit of a thug, the kind of kid I would have been scared of if I had been at school with him, while Jon Venables looked quite a sweet kid, miscievious perhaps, but not malicious. But appearances can be deceptive.

But this kind of story raises all sorts of issues that do not appear on the surface, and some of them are brought out in this post by Poliphilo Eroticdreambattle – Jon Venables:

The authorities may be desperate to keep Jon Venables’ identity a secret, but the man himself seems to have been trying- even more desperately- to out himself. The story that’s seeping through the official firewall reveals a haunted, young man- often the worse for booze and drugs- who has been buttonholing strangers and workmates and confiding his horrible secret to them- and then getting into fights when they reject him. We all find it difficult to live alone with our secret selves; how much more terrible when the secret self is a notorious murderer. Venables is not a psychopathic monster. A psychopathic monster doesn’t reach out for acceptance and understanding. A psychopathic monster is sufficient unto himself and lives easily in his own skin.

And later Poliphilo says, in response to a comment:

Our society has decided that there is something sacred and untouchable about victimhood – and that the vengeful bitterness of people like Denise Fergus [the murdered child’s mother] is never to be challenged.

In South Africa we had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for people who committed cruel murders for political reasons, but what do you do when people do such things just for kicks? That is the theme of Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and punishment, where the protagonist planned and carried out a murder just for kicks. And then in spite of himself he began to be plagued by feelings of guilt, and the need to confess. From Poliphilo’s account it seems that something similar has happened to Jon Venables. But what does society, and the law, do with people like this?

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