Are You Capable Of Murder?
By way of giving myself a lift from the February doldrums, I’ve been listening to Agatha Christie’s Crooked House (available, of course, through Audible.com, and conveniently paired with Endless Night). I haven’t done an Agatha Christie for years, but it always gives me a pleasant rush of nostalgia, because I read scores of these in my early adolescence. My family also used to read them aloud, and make bets on whodunit. I have many pleasant memories of these classic mysteries (which are happily so numerous that only the most dedicated fan will come to the end of them).
The protagonist of Crooked House is the son of a Scotland Yard detective, and also the fiancé of a young woman whose grandfather has recently been murdered. His object is to determine which member of the family did it, but in the process of his investigation, he begins reflecting on the nature of murder and murderers.
His father tells him that murder is “an amateur’s crime”, meaning that it is the sort of crime that is often committed, not just by the hardened criminal, but also by the seemingly ordinary person who has simply found himself in a tight spot. I thought that was interesting. Respectable people like you and me are very unlikely ever to find ourselves mixed up in weapons dealing or the drug trade or in prostitution rings. But what about murder? Almost anyone might find themselves in a situation in which they stand to benefit enormously from another’s death. Is almost anyone capable of murder (and even planned, premeditated murder), given extreme provocation?
Two different theories about this occur to me, both of which seem fairly plausible. One (put forward by one of the characters of Crooked House) suggests that murderers are morally underdeveloped people who aren’t really capable of appreciating the significance of what they do. Children sometimes wish for people in their lives to die, basically for selfish and superficial reasons. (“If mean old uncle so-and-so would die, I wouldn’t have to visit him anymore.” “If little brother would die, I could get more attention and wouldn’t have to share my toys.”) They aren’t necessarily budding psychopaths, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be quite right to say that children are insincere in these wishes. They simply don’t have a good appreciation of the significance of death. Adults, with their more developed moral sensibilities, would rightly be repulsed by the wish that someone should die merely as a convenience to them personally. And yet, it may be that there are some adults who are morally stunted, such that they fail to develop those sensibilities. They know, in principle, that it isn’t acceptable to obliterate another for personal gain, but they don’t really feel or believe this. If the advantages are great, and if the chance of detection seems slight, they may be willing to kill for personal gain.
It’s unpleasant to think that potential murderers may walk all around us in respectable guise. But the second theory is even more alarming: maybe everyone is a potential murderer, given sufficiently compelling circumstances. Everyone, after all, has something that they cherish so dearly that hardly any price would seem to great to protect it. For some it may be worldly comfort; for others it might be the safety and welfare of spouse or children; for others, reputation and prestige are of utmost importance. In the end, how many of us would value the life of a complete stranger so much that we would be willing to lose our most cherished things rather than take that life? But if we would not, doesn’t that make us all potential killers?
As a Catholic, I believe that murder is always, without exception, wrong. I’d like to think that I could never be in danger of violating the precept, but do any of us really know ourselves well enough to be sure?