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Executioner's Myth : The Abyss at the Center of Senseless Killings

May 04, 1997|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty is a professor of the history of American religion at the University of Chicago and senior editor of the Christian Century magazine

CHICAGO — Two small-town New Jersey youths allegedly murder two pizza delivery men they didn't even know. The victims were randomly chosen. These killings made even less sense than other recent murders of victims unknown to their attackers.

In small-city South Bend, Ind., a young black man, also unknown to his killer, was similarly a random victim, but this time in a racially motivated revenge slaying connected with a romance. Some parts of this plot were more familiar. Cruel and chilling as the event was, it made some sort of sense.

Similarly, in big-city Chicago, three youths beat up and left near death an African American boy, unknown to them, who merely happened to be riding his bicycle on what they considered to be their turf. A stunned and grieving citizenry finds such an attack revolting. But the motivation was chiefly racial, thus in a category all too familiar. Again, it made some sort of sense.

In the slayings of the pizza delivery men on April 19, authorities arrested and charged Thomas J. Koskovich and Jason Vreeland, ages 18 and 17, respectively. They allegedly lured their victims to a remote spot late at night for no other purpose than to shoot them. The headlines appropriately screamed "Senseless."

Cheered as citizens must be by any news of declining crime rates, especially murder rates, among young people, they mute their cheers when they ponder the senselessness of these attacks and killings.

In the New Jersey case, one first rounds up all the usual suspects among motivations, but none work. Dismiss race, revenge and love affairs gone wrong. Throw out domestic violence, aggravation by neighbors and traffic disputes ending in gunfire. The abused didn't act against their abusers. Drugs may have played some part, but they did not seem to be central. Ghetto deprivation or gang warfare was not a factor. The easy availability of guns is not the main point of this story: The killers stole the weapons. The slayings were not the result of bungled burglaries, attempts at theft. The killers did not care who their victims were. If all the other recent killings were assaults on the ordinary senses of ordinary people, this one claimed a separate category in the annals of senselessness, plotlessness.

Those who know Koskovich say he liked to call himself crazy and showed himself crazy to kill. The killers killed just to kill, just to see what it felt like, some said, as if they were capable of showing feelings.

Efforts to make sense of this might well lead one to the dictionary of pathologies, or to just any old dictionary, preferably one that includes foreign words imported for diagnoses. Some experts might suggest as a cause "anomie"--alienation and purposelessness experienced by a person or a class as a result of a lack of standards and values; personal disorganization resulting in unsocial behavior. If that Greek word will not suffice, others might try a more familiar Latin root, as in "nihilism"--a doctrine holding that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. But even these two choices at least imply that there have been standards and values and doctrines. The teen killers did not seem to start with any such bases.

A third dictionary choice focuses on what we see when we look for where the soul was supposed to be, in the center of these killers' and attackers' beings. Instead, we see an "abyss"--an unfathomable chasm; a yawning gulf or void. A dictionary adds that an abyss is "the abode of evil spirits; hell." In the abyss, that void instead of a center of these persons, one discerns only an atrophy of the imagination. They are all incapable of picturing themselves as the victims. Here is also a paralysis of that imagination; they are unable to conceive what life will be like for the survivors of the killed--or even for the killers' own families, who will have to reckon with the pointlessness of it all.

Americans never like to leave stories of human nature and action lost in the abyss. Foreign observers like to say that we try to put a spin or a gloss on the worst of stories. There must be a positive lesson, a hint of good outcomes beyond such abysses. So, in compensation, we do rejoice to read of declines in youth crime rates. Therapeutically to put names on the idiocies and shadows in human nature, we read novelists like Dostoevsky and Conrad and Faulkner. At our best, we engage in efforts to change the circumstances in which evil takes rise: replace slums; find jobs; break up gangs; fight drugs; carry on legislative assaults against assault weapons; try to replace media imagery that glorifies killing with something more positive; set forth adult exemplars of standards and values. Most of all, do whatever one can to reach imaginations and try to recreate an ability to be empathetic.

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