In some modern societies—and certainly Britain is one of them—satire is prophecy. This makes effective satire difficult because reality so soon catches up with it. Satire is also dangerous and perhaps even irresponsible, for no idea is too absurd, it seems, for our political masters and bureaucratic elite to take seriously and put into practice—at public expense, of course, never their own.
Sometimes reality is far in advance of satire when it comes to absurdity. The results, however, are not always funny. If a satirist had come up with the idea of a violent criminal who had spent time in an asylum being admitted by a university to its doctoral program in “homicide studies,” thereafter turning into a serial killer, that satirist would have been denounced for poor taste. But this is precisely what a British university did recently. A man with a long history of criminal violence became a serial killer while working on a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Bradford, the subject of his thesis being the methods of homicide used in the city during the nineteenth century. He himself used methods more reminiscent of the fourteenth.
Stephen Griffiths is 40. He has never worked and has always lived at taxpayers’ expense. At 17, he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for cutting the throat (not fatally) of a supermarket security guard who tried to arrest him for shoplifting. In prison, doctors reported, Griffiths had a “preoccupation with murder—particularly multiple murder.” They diagnosed him as a violent psychopath; that is, he had an intractable personality development that made him likely to commit new violent offenses.
The doctors were right. Shortly after his release from prison, Griffiths committed more violent acts, including holding a knife to a woman’s throat, and wound up imprisoned once more. He was then sent from prison to Rampton, a high-security mental hospital; but again, the doctors diagnosed him as a psychopath for whom they could do nothing, and after two months they returned him to prison, from which he was soon—much too soon, as it turned out—released.
He remained violent toward women. He managed to convince a jury that he was innocent of the charge of pouring boiling water on, and badly burning, a sleeping girlfriend who had decided to leave him. Other girlfriends went to the police but were too terrified to testify in court, knowing that he would receive a short sentence at most. One girlfriend—whose legs he had cut with broken glass, whose nose he had broken, and whom he had knocked out—later told a reporter that he would attack her if she so much as looked at another man. When she left him, he hunted her down (despite court orders to stay away from her), slashed the tires of her car, and daubed the wall outside her apartment with the word “slag.” He was convicted of harassment in 2009.
Such was the man whom the University of Bradford selected to pursue a doctorate in homicide studies, a subdivision of the Department of Criminal Justice Studies, with fees and living expenses paid by the government. Though computer checks on the criminal records of prospective employees are now routine in Britain, and medical students are checked, applicants for doctorates in homicide studies apparently are not; or if they are, no notice is taken of what is found. Griffiths did not hide his propensities with any great cunning; why should he have bothered, in these nonjudgmental times of peace and tolerance toward all men? He kept hundreds of books about serial killers in his apartment, disclosed to his psychiatrists his intention to become a serial killer, and told girlfriends that he skinned and ate rats alive, adding that his ambition was to become even more notorious than the Yorkshire Ripper, a man who had killed 13 women in the 1970s. Nor did Griffiths hesitate to proclaim his oddity to the public; he used to take his pet lizards, which he also fed with live rats, for walks on a leash.
In 2009 and 2010, while pursuing his doctorate in the program, Griffiths killed and ate three women, two cooked and one raw, according to his own account. He later told the police that he had killed other women.
He committed his last murder in front of closed-circuit video cameras installed in his apartment building. According to the building’s superintendent, who saw the video and called the police, the victim, Suzanne Blamires, ran from Griffiths’s apartment with Griffiths, wielding a crossbow, in pursuit. She fell or was pushed, and he fired a bolt into her. Fully aware, even triumphant, that he was being recorded, Griffiths extended his finger to the camera and then dragged the lifeless body by the leg back into his apartment. There, he later claimed, he ate some of her. When asked for his name in court after his arrest, he identified himself as the “Crossbow Cannibal.” That reply alone assured him the notoriety that he had made no secret of craving. He was convicted of the three murders this past December and received a life sentence. Early reports suggest that Griffiths may be permitted to complete his doctorate—still at public expense, of course—while in prison.
His three known victims were prostitutes, as is often the case with such killers (a truck driver in the town of Ipswich, one Steven Wright, was convicted in 2008 of murdering five). This is said to indicate a hatred of women caused by sexual difficulties with them; psychologists will no doubt be interested in the fact that Griffiths hated his mother, who separated from his father when Griffiths was young and was reputed by neighbors to be a prostitute herself. Certainly she behaved in a sexually uninhibited way: she would go naked into the yard of their house in the town of Wakefield and have sex with a variety of men in full view of the neighbors. But the relation between early life and subsequent conduct is never fixed; many men have had mothers as irresponsible as Griffiths’s without becoming serial killers. Indeed, he himself had a younger brother who did not, and there is therefore always something incalculable about human conduct.
Nevertheless, there are certain regularities, and one of them is the way in which the victims of men such as Griffiths are described in the Guardian, the house journal of the British intelligentsia and its bureaucratic hangers-on. This is important because it illustrates the way in which a dominant elite—dominant de facto if not always de jure—thinks about social problems.
An article describing the victims of Wright, the Ipswich murderer, was titled the women put into harm’s way by drugs. A similar article about Griffiths’s victims was headed “crossbow cannibal” victims’ drug habits made them vulnerable to violence. In other words, these women became prostitutes by force majeure, on the streets not because of choices they had made but because of chemical substances that controlled them without any conscious intervention on their part—no more than if, say, an abyss caused by an earthquake had suddenly opened up and swallowed them.
Now either we are all like this—no different from inanimate objects, which act and react mechanically, as Descartes supposed that dogs and cats did—or we are not. The view that we are brings with it certain difficulties. No one could live as if it were true; no one thinks of himself, or of those about him, as automatons; we are all faced with the need to make conscious decisions, to weigh alternatives in our minds, every waking hour of every day. Human life would be impossible, literally inconceivable, without consciousness and conscious decision making. It is true that certain medical conditions, such as temporal-lobe epilepsy during fits, deprive people of normal consciousness and that they nevertheless continue to behave in a recognizably human way; but if all, or even most, of humanity suffered from those conditions, human life would soon be at an end.
Assuming, then, that not everyone is driven to what he does by his own equivalent of drug addiction, the Guardian must assume that Wright’s and Griffiths’s victims were fundamentally different from you and me. Unlike us, they were not responsible for their actions; they did not make choices; they were not human in the fullest sense. Not only is this a view unlikely to find much favor with women who resemble the victims in some way; it also has potentially the most illiberal consequences. For it would justify us, the full human beings, in depriving such women of liberty. If “their hopeless addiction to heroin, alcohol or crack cocaine led them to sell their bodies in the red light district on the edge of Bradford city centre and made them vulnerable to violence,” as the article tells us, surely we should force our help on them to recover their full humanity, or, if that proves impossible, take them into preventive detention to protect them. They are the sheep, we the shepherds.
One problem of liberal social thought is that it consigns a larger and larger proportion of the human race to the category of people driven into trouble. But there are other difficulties, too. Precisely because it is impossible to think of human life in consistently mechanistic terms, the liberal is soon led into contradictions. Moral evaluations are inseparable from thought about human existence, even if the metaphysical foundations of such judgments remain contentious; so it is not surprising that the article about Griffiths’s victims fairly oozes with morality, albeit of a saccharine and self-regarding kind, while at the same time pretending to avoid judgment.
For example, it refuses to use the word “prostitute,” replacing it with “sex worker” and “street worker.” The reason is clear enough: “prostitute” has negative moral connotations. The word “prostitution” suffers the same fate: it becomes “sex work.” This seems to have the corollary that both the work and the worker are perfectly respectable, the work having a social status, perhaps, somewhere between supermarket-shelf-stacking and neurosurgery. But if sex work is work like any other, are those who patronize sex workers “customers” or “clients” who ought to have the same protections that other consumers enjoy (such as “money back if not satisfied”)? Alas for them, no; the article refers to them as “punters,” a term in British English with connotations of vulgarity, dishonesty, and moral turpitude. But can a service be respectable whose clientele are scoundrels merely by the fact of availing themselves of it?
One of the three victims was 43-year-old Susan Rushworth. Her “marriage had imploded as a result of domestic violence and she became addicted to heroin,” the article said. “Her 21-year-old daughter began working the streets at 18 due to her crack cocaine and heroin addictions. . . . They eventually worked together, looking for punters.” The article ended with the moral reflections of a friend of another victim—reflections that, given their position in the article and the complete absence of irony in it heretofore, one may assume that the newspaper more or less endorses: “These women don’t deserve to die. They’re all somebody’s daughter, yet they’re described as prostitutes and it makes it so sleazy.”
No one, outside perhaps the Islamic Republic of Iran, would suggest that these women did deserve to die, of course. The friend’s statement also seems, astonishingly, to imply that it would be all right—that is, not “sleazy”—for women to sell sex to strangers on the streets of Bradford to pay for heroin, provided they were not called “prostitutes.” It is the naming that is the shaming. Change the name, and you change the thing, or at any rate the moral significance of the thing. Language is a powerful instrument, but not as powerful as that.
What lies behind these mental contortions? It is a form of sentimentality, a mask for a deeper indifference, according to which people who suffer or have led unhappy lives must be transformed into blameless victims so that we can pity them. It is as if, were they to have contributed in any way to their own situation, all sympathy for them would have to be withdrawn or abandoned. And since the liberal wants to be seen, particularly by his peers, as a man superior in compassion to everyone else, he uses all his powers of rationalization, generally increased by many years of education, to establish that such and such a group of people is without blame and thus suitably—indeed, necessarily—an object of his moral generosity. If, in the process, he comes to conclusions repugnant to common sense, so much the worse for common sense.
All this demonstrates the inferiority of a liberal secular, compared with a liberal religious, understanding of social problems. (I say this as someone without a religious ax to grind, and I exclude the more theocratic and intolerant end of the religious spectrum.) The liberal religious understanding is that men are sinners, including the men who do the understanding. This does not, or should not, preclude sympathy with sinners; for if it did, we should never show any sympathy at all. Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Of course, some people—like Stephen Griffiths—are so repellent in their actions that it is impossible to sympathize with them to any extent (despite the fact that such people frequently receive declarations of love from foolish self-dramatizers), though doctors and others have the duty to treat them with due consideration. But the liberal religious understanding means that there is no need to deny the sin itself, and consequently no need for the religious liberal to twist his mind into knots in an attempt to deny the obvious. He can therefore afford to look social reality in the face, and not indulge in mental Houdini tactics to escape its supposed chains in order to preserve his self-image as a compassionate and generous person.
For myself, I never had much difficulty in recognizing bad behavior for what it was without withdrawing my sympathy from the person who, I thought, had behaved badly. During my medical career, I had many prostitutes among my patients (incidentally, they never described themselves as anything but prostitutes, though they would sometimes say that they were “on the game”). It never occurred to me that they did not lead sordid lives, even those of the professional elite. One, for example, was a dominatrix with a website who, when not flying around the world humiliating judges and captains of industry for large sums of money, lived in a prosperous middle-class neighborhood. She did not tell her neighbors what she did for a living, and not only because she feared disapproval. She was not proud of it, even though we could laugh about it together.
In fact, I found prostitutes far more intellectually honest than the writers of such articles as the one I have quoted. I recall a former prostitute who during her period of prostitution had struggled to raise her daughter well. She had succeeded, and her daughter now had a good job and a steady boyfriend. I could not help but recognize her struggle as heroic, even if she had created the need for such heroism in the first place. Neither she nor any other prostitute whom I met claimed to have been driven onto the streets by anything other than their own mistakes and cupidity. It is true that the cupidity of prostitutes was sometimes occasioned by a desire for drugs, but they did not attribute that desire for drugs to anything other than their desire for immediate gratification. As far as they were concerned, their behavior was always explained by decisions that they had made.
The secular liberal, however, would like to convert them—religiously, as it were—to his own view of the matter: to convince them that it is (for example) the hopelessness of their addiction that accounts for their choices. Only in that way can the desire of the secular liberal for a providential role in the world be justified, though of course never fulfilled, which is just as well: for its fulfillment would destroy its justification.