American Murder Mysteries

by Sam Baynham

I think that this essay has been written a thousand times. I don’t mean that it’s been written a thousand times in my head, or has had a thousand drafts, but merely that it has been written a thousand times by a thousand different people, so distressing and perplexing are the questions it raises.

There are a few fundamental questions every country in the world asks itself, or that the people of a country ask about their country. Some of these questions are expressions of altruism or humanism. “How much longer can we keep abusing the environment?” is one such question, a question that brings to our attention a real problem, a real need. Then there are other questions, questions that people ask of a nation that aren’t so altruistic. They’re questions like “What’s in it for me?” and “How much can I get away with?”

But then there is a third category of question. The kind of questions that come from real bemusement, a deep sense of not knowing. Perhaps the most existential and important of these questions is “What’s wrong with our country?”

I thought of calling this essay “What’s wrong with America?” but that seemed not only patronising but also downright insulting. I realise that as a Briton, I have no real right to wax judgemental, and that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to analyse, I think, and extemporise.

Anyway, what I’m writing about is murder. Horrible Murder, Grotesque Murder, Senseless Murder (not that there are any other kinds).

The kind of murder that we as Goths get blamed for all the time.

“We could blame films, or television or Coca-Cola... But they aren’t minority pastimes. Normal people consume these things. (Which means they must be okay!)

Let’s blame Goths.”

It says something about the prevalence of this form of evil that the actual events of the murders are now so familiar that one can reduce the protagonists to letters. W goes to school, gets picked on by X. W continues to be picked on by X and the school authorities do nothing about it. Then, one day, when the straw has broken the camel’s back, W walks into school with his Dad’s revolver, assault rifle, whatever, and blows X’s brains out. For good measure, he then slaughters Y, Z, A, B and C, until the police arrive. W then either kills himself or the police do it for him; or he’s arrested and sentenced to death, or life.

Then the questions come. The first question is “How did it happen?” The second is “Why did it happen?” the third, and most searching question is “What is to blame?”

And because it’s the hardest question to answer, people don’t bother to answer it. Instead, they subtly mutate it into a new form: “Who can we blame?”

Then we get all kinds of hats thrown into the ring, and every hat has a talking head psychiatrist under it, giving his opinion for ten bucks a minute. “Who do we blame?” says society, “Give us some where to direct our venom.” “Okay”, says one talking head, “how about computer games!” Great, brilliant! Let’s ban them all! But wait, that’s not enough. We’re all subconsciously aware of how ridiculous it is to blame a complex psychological breakdown on one form of media solely. So we need another way in which to share the blame. So what do we do? We could blame films, or television or Coca-Cola. We could, for that matter, blame the ready availability of guns. But they aren’t minority pastimes. Normal people consume these things. (Which means they must be okay!)

Let’s blame Goths. Or Wicca. Or The Matrix or trench coats, perhaps.

What we’re looking for is a perversion. Not a perversion in the form of a sexual predilection, although that is sometimes the conclusion that we come to, but a societal perversion, a deviation from the norm which marked the murderer out as special. It’s like Greek Anatomy. The only people in Ancient Greece who were allowed to be dissected by the great pioneering research doctor Galen were criminals who had been executed. However, for years, the anatomical information that came from this research was disregarded because it was thought that criminals had a different anatomy from normal, respectable citizens, and because you couldn’t dissect normal, respectable citizens, there was no way to prove it, or to disprove it.

Similarly, we want the murderer to be different somehow. Because if he weren’t different, then that would mean that he was in fact one of us. We would then be forced to confront the more base aspects of our nature, the aspects which make us all capable of violence, aggression stupidity, boorishness, avarice and bigotry.

This is why we changed the third question from “What is to blame?” to “Who is to blame?”, because the answer to the question of “What is to blame” is “us”.

It’s us, all the way.

We’re not looking for scapegoats because we want somebody to blame. We’re looking for scapegoats because we want somebody else to blame.

Think about it. It’s easy to find evil in what you already think is wrong. It’s harder to find evil in what you’ve been brought up to think is right. There are real evils in the world that we won’t face because they are so dear to us.

Evils like the society of hard right wing capitalism that currently is embodied in America by the republican government and in Britain by the right wing economics of our middle left government. The thing is, half the people out there reading this right now are forming answers to the accusation, becoming apologists for right wing capitalism, capitalism devoid of benefits, of safety, of compassion. What I would ask these people is “Why?”, Why are you trying to argue against it? Is it because you think it’s right to have a purely capitalist system? Or is it because the “compete at any cost” is the system you’ve been brought up with, the system you’ve always been taught is right? Let me clarify, I am not a communist. I’m not much of an anything. If asked to pin down my economic beliefs, I would say that I believe in the free market and in competition, with state safety nets to ensure that people who fall through the cracks can get up again, and with strict laws to prevent people from sacrificing ethics for the sake of profit.

But that’s not the society we live in, is it? The society we live in says “Go for broke, hang the expense, and tread on anyone who gets in your way.” And that’s what X does, which is why W kills him. But there’s more than that. Why does W kill him, instead of avoiding him, or trying to re-educate him? It’s because he’s seen that competition has made X successful, and he wants in. Isn’t murder the ultimate act of competition?

Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene pins down all human behaviour to our genome’s desire to survive. We step on other people in order to move to the next rung of the evolutionary ladder.

According to Dawkins, the fundamental desire of a person is to stand at the top of the mountain with your mate, and to look out on the corpses of the rest of humanity, safe in the knowledge that it is only your seed which will survive.

Bollocks. We’re not animals. We’re more than animals. We don’t have to be slaves to our genes, to our libidos, to our governments, or to our societies. We don’t have to be slaves to anything.

The question we need to ask ourselves as a world is: “What’s wrong with our world?” and the answer we need to give is; “Whatever we’ve done to it, in trying to be the best.”

So what I’m saying is this. What’s wrong with us, and the real reason we get melancholic people turning their rage on others is not some media scapegoat du jour. It’s society. It’s competition without morality. And, more than anything, it’s us. We must never try to avoid our blame by externalising it. If we accept our blame, we can address our problems and make the world better.

Sam B, also known as The Universal Psychopath, can be reached at universalpsykopath (at) hotmail (dot) com. He’s rapidly becoming a regular writer for the