Saturday, February 27, 2010

Against the Crocodile: Amy Bishop, Joseph Stack, and the Press

cross-posted at Dagblog

Reading some of the news coverage about the murderers Amy Bishop and Joe Stack over the last two weeks, and some of the responses to them by internet commenters, I've had the nauseating feeling that Bishop and Stack have gotten what they want. Not what they purport to want, of course, not a promotion or a revolution, but the things that their violence was actually aimed at getting them. I've had a hard time putting my objection into clear words, so I'm going to resort to a story from history:

The ancient Egyptians had a fundamental problem: they were dependent for survival upon the Nile's annual flood, which made the flooded soil extremely fertile, but on the other hand the Nile was also full of crocodiles, who tend to eat people. How did the Egyptians deal with their intensely conflicted feelings about their perilous, indispensable, monster-filled, life-sustaining river?

They worshiped the crocodile.

Crocodile-worship is an all-too-human response to uncontrollable violence. By worshiping the crocodile-god, praying to it and offering it sacrifices, the Egyptians told themselves that the uncontrollable danger was actually in control. They could reason with the crocodile; they just had to find out what the crocodile-god wanted, and give it to him. At the same time, they built the stupid predatory animals they had to live with into figures of supernatural importance. The crocodiles were something grand and holy and magical in the way that mere human beings were not. Of course, turning the crocodile into an idol doesn't get you anywhere. The crocodile isn't magical, and it will still eat you.

This kind of idolatry is a very human impulse; we instinctively apply it to all kinds of other dangers because it feels safer than accepting that those dangers are outside our control. We apply it especially to outbursts of unreasoning violence by other human beings. Victims of partner or family abuse apply this strategy to their abusers, looking for ways to keep the abuser from being angry, and giving the victimizer increased deference. It doesn't work, of course, because the abuser will always find some pretext to be angry. In This Boy's Life Tobias Wolff describes his stepfather attacking him because Wolff hasn't scraped every last gram of mustard out of a bottle. If it hadn't been the mustard it would have been something else; there are abusive and violent personalities, who, like crocodiles, cannot be kept happy.

A lot of the coverage of Bishop's and Stack's pointless, unthinking violence has been widely colored by the old crocodile-worship instincts, by the search for reasons and the impulse to offer the frightening figure respect. (Not all of the coverage, of course, but too much.) It's too scary to accept that an anti-social personality might kill other people for no good reason at all, because if that's true, then what's to keep some lunatic from randomly killing us? So we try to find some reason for the irrational bloodshed: what did she want? What set her off? How can we keep her happy so that she doesn't do it again? Some anonymous commenters on dagblog have assured me that there had to be some reason for Bishop to start shooting when she did. One actually scolded me for "judging" Bishop. There's a deep need to find some reason, any reason, because if we can figure out the reason we can keep ourselves safe.

Meanwhile, actual journalists persist in running stories about how brilliant Bishop was as a scientist. "Brilliant but troubled," sure, but that's the formula. I can't tell you how tired I am about reading how smart Amy Bishop is. Joe Stack, too, receives deference that he surely never earned in life and would have absolutely forfeited in death. One stranger from the internet came to Dagblog quoting Stack's addle-brained suicide note as if it were Locke's Third Treatise. And I'll admit, I've found myself growing thin-skinned with some of these folks, and not immediately understood quite why. What's bothering me is the implied deference to Bishop and Stack: the atavistic urge to treat the violent with precautionary respect, even when the violent people in question are now powerless to do any harm.

This is the respect that Bishop and Stack murdered to get, the disproportionate and undeserved deference that matches their own monstrously grandiose sense of their own deserts and importance. Bishop and Stack believed they were better than the rest of us, that they are important in ways that other human beings are not, and considered themselves entitled to kill anyone they liked simply in order to express their personal dissatisfaction. Bishop and Stack are crocodiles, supremely indifferent to the humanity of their victims, but (unlike the animals in the Nile) actively demanding to be treated like gods.

They should not get their wish. I believe that violent people should be treated deferentially, and their concerns given a respectful hearing, exactly as long as it takes to get the gun out of their hands and cuff them. After that, they and their opinions should be disregarded. Crocodiles should not be worshiped, and the violent should be seen as they really are.

It's important not to give Bishop or Stack any deference, precisely because their drive for respect and recognition cost better people their lives, and because their own actions have proved how utterly untenable their claims about themselves are. Bishop killed people because she wanted to be treated as the great scientist that she has never come close to being; she used a gun because she could not succeed in the lab. Stack killed someone in a pathetic attempt to cast himself as a revolutionary hero and a rational man, rather than the serial screw-up and the petty, venal cheat that he was.

Amy Bishop is not smart. Amy Bishop is an utter failure, an incompetent scientist, a person who, given six years and her own laboratory, eventually resorted to submitting her children's science-fair projects to vanity journals. Despite the newspapers' slant, every one of Bishop's victims was clearly a better scientist than she. If those three people had not been killed, they would have produced more useful science over the next five years than Bishop produced in her entire career to date. In fact, each of them was capable doing that unassisted. The Huntsville murders were not committed by a scientist. All of the science Bishop has ever done, or might ever do, could not balance the science that was lost to the world when she pulled that trigger.

Joe Stack was an addle-brained goofball, a chronic failure who once tried to declare his house a church in order to avoid paying his taxes, and who had the spectacular gall to complain about mistreatment when he was caught. The dense swamp of blame-shifting in his suicide note establishes how many things he failed at. Stack had some reason that he couldn't succeed (according to his own outsized sense of what he deserved) as a software engineer in California; it's California's fault. He had some reason that he couldn't succeed as a software engineer in Texas; it's Austin's fault. There's some reason that the IRS is responsible for Stack not turning in tax returns on his business, and for his personal home not being a Catholic basilica. It's always someone else's fault. Stack, like Bishop, was just a crocodile. He had stubby legs, and wallowed. He was dangerous to others, but only because he lacked the compassion and the conscience that restrain fully human beings.

It's bad enough that these failed, pathetic people took others' lives. It's too much to have to believe in their bullshit, too.

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