We are just as fascinated with violent and untimely death as we were in 1946, when George Orwell wrote his great essay Decline of the English Murder.
The question is: has the quality of our murders improved since then?
For Orwell, the decline of the English murder lay in its loss of any “depth of feeling”. The domestic setting, once the focus of public attention, had been replaced by “the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film”. As so often, his prescience was uncanny.
Our interest in domestic killings has not revived. As Orwell rightly pointed out, such crimes are “the product of a stable society” – a society where values are shared to such an extent that marital disgrace can seem something worth killing for. Their equivalent nowadays is that tabloid staple, the Asian “honour killing”.
It is also true now, as it was in Orwell’s day, that one of the most talked-about murders of recent years has a distinctly American flavour. Meredith Kercher’s death involved an American, Amanda Knox, and its interest largely stems from the way the suspects made their personal lives public via social networking sites – a distinctly American phenomenon.
It might not seem that our noteworthy murders have become any more Hollywood – murder, after all, is rarely glamorous and almost always grim. But that wasn’t what Orwell meant. For him, the rise of “false values” was related to the decline of crimes with “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make them memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer”. In us, this tendency has reached almost epidemic proportions.
The way contemporary society treats murderers and their victims is entirely free of the attitude Orwell recalled. Instead:
1. Our murderers are almost always insane – or at least they are taken to be so. There is no identification with the criminal, and hence no pity; their crimes are inexplicable to us. This is not only true of Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West, Harold Shipman and other psychopaths, but also child killers like the killers of Jamie Bulger, and of killers of children like Ian Huntley (children, obviously, are this era’s particular fetish). I bet we’ll see the same thing happen – publically, if not legally – to Steve Wright and Gerry Weddell.
2. We obsess over murders when they appear to be representative of some wider trend. Stephen Lawrence, Philip Lawrence, Damilola Taylor, Charlene Ellis and Laetitia Shakespeare – the message emerging from these killings was that society had in some way prepared the crime.
In part, this stems from our pervasive victim culture. It is also associated with the failure of the idea that it is possible to enjoy sensation for its own sake. There is a feeling that tragedies must somehow be edifying – as if murder is in some way a reminder that the social project is only half-completed. Gerry Weddell’s case is typical of this way of looking at things. Weddell’s crime fits exactly Orwell’s idea of “the perfect murder”. Yet it is used, unedifyingly, as a stick with which to beat the government.
Our idea of murder is shaped by rationalist ideas of human potential. We see each crime within a scheme of Progress that will eventually ensure such events never come to pass. When an individual pops up to disprove that idea, we call them mad – as if labelling them in this way removes them from consideration, taking them out of the social equation.
Yeats said that the “mind that generalises rapidly, continually prevents the experience that would have made it feel and see deeply, just as a man whose character is too complete in youth seldom grows into any energy of moral beauty”. Losing our empathy for murder, we have lost something of that deep feeling past ages felt