James McEnaney: We still seek refuge in the lie that killers are 'monsters'

CommonSpace columnist James McEnaney says the idea that the Orlando gunman is a ‘monster’ is an easy narrative that stops us facing up to our responsibilities

Adam Lanza. Anders Breivik. Woo Bum-Kon. Dylan Roof. Martyn Bryant. Thomas Hamilton. Eric Harris. Dylan Klebold. Seifeddine Rezgui. And now, Omar Muteen.

At around 02:00 local time on Sunday, a man armed with a handgun and a military-style assault rifle attacked a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Over the next three hours he murdered 49 people, making this the worst mass-shooting in the history of country where such acts are, literally, a daily occurrence.

The news coverage has thus far followed the now established pattern.

24-hour news in the internet age means that we are drip-fed information about the killer’s background, family, and motivations.

As the minutes tip-toe by the names and faces of victims appear on our screens, and stories of terrified final moments - in some cases relayed via relatives who received text messages in real time - begin to emerge.

Inevitable, and futile, questions are asked about American gun laws that allow citizens to legally purchase machines designed for mass slaughter.

“This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.” Fergal Keane

Politicians who have accepted thousands of dollars from the National Rifle Association tweet their “sympathy” and offer their “prayers”, but are careful not to do anything that might imperil their funding.

So far, so horrifically familiar.

But there is another element of the response that is troubling - one which resurfaces every time man’s inhumanity to man is brought into such sharp relief.

We regularly console ourselves with the belief that those who commit monstrous acts are monsters

When faced with the worst of humanity there is a tendency seek refuge in a lie. We regularly console ourselves with the belief that those who commit monstrous acts are monsters, that those guilty of evil are themselves a manifestation of it. We call them “disturbed”, “savages”, “lone wolves” and “inhuman”. We ‘other’ them in every possible way.

It’s an understandable response, a collective defence mechanism to protect us from the terrible reality: that the people who commit these acts are not monsters, and they are not “evil” - they are just like us.

Whatever else Omar Muteen was, the thing he was most of all was a human being. The difference between him and me, or him and you, is - in the grand scheme of an infinite universe - utterly infinitesimal.

Any one of us could have been one of his terrified victims, but we could also have been Omar Muteen. This might be difficult to accept, but it is the truth.

When reflecting on his experiences of the Rwandan genocide, arguably the greatest act of evil since the Holocaust, BBC journalist Fergal Keane highlighted a particularly harrowing realisation:

“The ragged peasants who died and those who  did  the  killing  belong  to  the  same  human family as  I  do.  This may be a troubling kinship but I cannot reject it.”

Keane was, and is, correct. Those who hacked their neighbours to death 22 years ago were human beings just like their victims, just like Keane, just like Muteen, just like us.

What’s more, by ‘rejecting’ that ‘kinship’, by ignoring the capacity for human beings to commit evil acts, and by telling ourselves that the people who commit them are not like the rest of us, we ultimately ensure that we keep ending up back in the same place, facing the same feelings, and asking the same questions.

Any one of us could have been one of his terrified victims, but we could also have been Omar Muteen.

We feel as though we are protecting ourselves when we instinctively hide behind this fallacy, recoiling from horrors which seem to be too much to bear. We are wrong. In reality, by telling ourselves - knowingly or not - that we are simply helpless in the face of evil we continue a cycle which has left countless thousands mourning. By trying to ignore the shared human capacity for evil, we make evil acts inevitable.

Of course this was an anti-LGBTI+ hate crime. Of course it was an act of Islamist terrorism. Of course America’s attitude to guns is an enormous part of the problem.

But let’s not delude ourselves into dismissing Omar Muteen as some sort of inhuman devil. Not again. Not this time. Not any more.

Picture courtesy of Dmitry Valberg

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