On “humanizing” a killer

As we sit locked down inside our homes, we thought 2020 couldn’t get any worse. And then Dartmouth denturist Gabriel Wortman went on an hours-long shooting rampage across Nova Scotia.

As of this writing the death toll hasn’t been finalized, but we know it is the worst act of mass murder in Canadian history since the 1985 Air India bombing.

Today’s edition of The Chronicle Herald features several angry letters in response to a news story published in the April 20 edition, about the killer’s life and background. The paper has added an Editor’s Note explaining why they published it in the first place:

Editor’s note — Some readers have expressed opposition to this story, not wishing to read about a mass murderer’s background. We respect their position. We don’t ever want to glorify, but we must contextualize to begin to find the answers we all desperately want — who, why and how.  Providing personal history is crucial to this. 

That said, we are now shifting our coverage focus to the victims and their families. Going forward, we only use the murderer’s name and photo when it serves a greater public good, and when we do, we will endeavour to explain it.

We are taking a similar approach with photos of his crime scenes. Those will only appear when they provide valuable context for our readers. 

I can understand why people are upset about this, especially at a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty. It seems unfair that someone who carried out an act of pure evil and destruction should become famous for it, while his victims – including a police officer, a teacher and two nurses – fade into obscurity.

But I think the Chronicle Herald was right to publish its story. Indeed, I think the paper had an obligation to do so.

We’d like to believe that killers spring fully formed from the pits of Hell, creatures of pure evil with whom we regular people have nothing in common. There’s no chance that we would ever do something like this, so there is nothing to be gained from studying their lives.

But I can’t help thinking of a famous quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

In my job as a lawyer, I have defended many people who have done horrible things, though nothing on the scale of Gabriel Wortman’s crimes. (Indeed, people often ask me how I can defend someone whom I know to be guilty. My response is that it’s easier than representing someone I believe to be innocent. In the latter case, a person may be unjustly convicted and jailed if I don’t do my job properly.)

Some of these people had never been in trouble before they were charged. Others have criminal records several pages long. But everyone I’ve represented had at least some redeeming qualities, or went through childhood abuse and trauma so shocking that it would drive anyone to madness.

News stories about killers’ backgrounds don’t “humanize” their subjects, because they’re already human. If anything, it makes it more disturbing to see something like Hitler playing with his dogs, or John Wayne Gacy playing a clown at parties, or Wortman giving free dentures to cancer patients. (Now, there’s a headline that aged like milk.)

There may be a fine line between explaining the actions of a mass murderer, and glorifying that killer. Rolling Stone arguably did the latter with its dreamy cover of the Boston Marathon bomber, and those ubiquitous Che Guevara shirts don’t cross that line as much as jump over it enthusiastically. But background about the life of the Nova Scotia shooter is an essential part of this horrendous story.

One thought on “On “humanizing” a killer

  1. M says:

    It’s an understandably uncomfortable thought, but the very fact that killers are human is key in figuring out why they did it. It’s often ultimately about very human factors such as feeling unwanted or rejected, or other causes that relate directly or indirectly to the fact that people have feelings and when they’re unable to cope, they may eventually lash out. Examining their background is about analyzing reasons – not making excuses for terrible acts that devastate lives. If we don’t take a close look at the all-too-human reasons behind such events, how will we learn to prevent them?
    On another note, it seems paradox that people who commit such acts often appear so very normal. Gacy is a good example. Abusers can also outwardly appear quite normal. That’s not a good feeling, but it’s important to take this into account in order to avoid missing any possible signs that may help to avert such horrendous outcomes. [related – Tom Nichols’ “Revenge of the Lost Boys” and Kindlon/Thompson’s “Raising Cain”, among others. Also Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear”.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s