Empathy for the devil

This terrible sad story has led to the usual morbid speculation and a Facebook argument about empathy for perpetrators. I had to respond…to myself, really.

I’m very privileged to live in Australia. A country with an established judiciary, and one I feel is most often fair. I feel it is capable in punishing the most heinous of crimes – especially those against the frail, the disadvantaged, the young & those that cannot defend themselves. Well, sort of. For this post we’ll take that as a trueism of Australian life.

This fact allows me to step back and put the metaphorical pitchfork aside in the moments when our values as individuals, as a community, are most horrendously contravened by acts of violence, negligence or ineptitude. Those stories we hear, where children are denied their basic right to a carefree childhood: are mistreated, killed, sexually assaulted – all of it. The stuff of our nightmares, of Law & Order fodder (or worse – SVU).

My position as an Australian where criminals are hunted down, and the courts fair and unwavering, gives me the privilege to at least try to assess what multitudes of influence came to put that perpetrator in their position. Is it simply a person’s capacity for the awful, or a lifetime of social injustice, a lifetime of abuse – or even just a moment of either? Is it a sense of entitlement, of disconnection – aided by intoxication, or perhaps even fuelled by it (unlikely as that is). Is it hatred for their partner? Is it despair at the loss of a job? Is it exacerbated by mental illness?

The fact is brutal acts of violent crime – especially those involving children – are as bound in fiction as they are our emotions. We are happy to jump to The Victim and The Perpetrator. Beyond our cultural stories (ie Law & Order or the reality of child abuse) enforcing this narrative, our gut wants – knows, even – it to be true.

Who else but the most contemptible person would kill a child, or even think to do so?

Most people understand depression on one level or another. They get anxiety. Fear. They are a baseline from which we measure our humanity. Very few of us could imagine those very appreciable things leading us to repeatedly stab our own child (for instance). And nor could I. I don’t have a child and I can’t imagine anything driving me to do that to anyone, except perhaps myself.

I have made a lot of bad decisions. Immediate, irreversible decisions that have forever hurt my family and those closest to me. I understand that. All too well. I think we all have, on one level or another. Distill this story down to a synopsis of a sort and it will fit this. It is of course on a very different scale – and that is big difference (of course).

I peg my success in this life to people having accepted me under certain circumstances, many not pretty. And perhaps the ugliness of many of those situations is known only to me and the one or two people involved at the time – none of my friends know the true extent of those dark times.

I don’t hope to redeem those guilty of infanticide by having empathy for them, nor do I not understand those who think it isn’t reasonable to even give their point of view a second glance. But I hope to…

….no, it’s not even what I hope to achieve. The reality is it’s a selfish act in many ways. I always hope to see someone as a human, before anything else. I had my own well being relying on others’ that were kind enough to do this for me. And I know taking a purely hypothetical position on social media doesn’t really do much for anyone (except perhaps get a few people incredulously disdainful in my general direction), but it’s a privilege I can allow myself.

I’ve never been one to accept what seems the easy response. I peg my occasional sense of moral superiority on the fact that nothing is black and white, that the bandwagon is never the Good place to be. It may be wrong, and at the very least I’m sensitive to why it is wrong.

But I’m also firm in my assessment that the idea I am somehow not right is not necessarily a fair or just response either.

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