A recent story out of Fairfax VA notes the tragedy of a double murder and suicide. A young man with Neo-Nazi interests was barred from seeing his girlfriend. He was discovered in her bedroom in the early hours by her parents and he promptly murdered the both of them before turning the gun on himself. No motive could be ascertained, the story reported, and the parents were eulogized as simply attempting to save their daughter from a dangerous influence. Given that all those involved were of the same ‘race’ and both families had sent their respective children to an elite private school – which in itself smacks of a kind of lingering fascism – the young man’s politics could not have been the deciding factor and were perhaps used as a well-intended rationalization for keeping the pair of them apart. No, the two young people were in love and when such a love is denied things can become dangerous very rapidly. The story recounts that an ‘intervention’ was made and that the young woman had been convinced to stay away. This seems an open question given the subsequent visitation. And indeed, the young man manufactured an intervention of his own. Love of this youthful and incandescent variety works like this: if you cannot be with your beloved then all those who have stopped you from being so must be eliminated. Since in doing so you have also eliminated any further chance of reunion yourself, you also might as well die. For life without the beloved is simply not worth living a moment longer. This is the motive for the events in Fairfax and others besides, including the Canadian example discussed in the essay below. Yes, the logic is irrational in the extreme, and adults who are in love do not love as do those with nothing further to lose or those who have no perspective on what might be lost (the elderly and youth among us respectively, are the only ones who actually love freely and unconditionally in this manner, more power to them, perhaps). In any case, the avoidance behavior associated with the contrived puzzlement regarding youthful love exposes the rest of us for what we have become: guarded, resentful, jealous, and controlling. We have become that not generally or originally through any calculated maleficence, but simply because we have loved and lost repeatedly, and the mystery of how that occurs and continues to occur is something as deep as it is abiding.
Read on if you are interested in a more detailed case and ethical argument concerning the nature of human love and its ambiguous character.
Who’s not J.R.? An essay on anti-morality
Back in the 1980s, the popular television soap opera Dallas, a melodrama chronicling the life and times of a dynastic oil family, titillated its viewers with one of the most famous cliffhangers in media history. The principle had been gunned down by an unknown assailant, and for a time the world of popular culture was regaled by a simple query: ‘Who shot JR?’ No doubt the super-wealthy magnate had made many enemies in his checkered career, including members of his own family. At length, the issue was resolved in typical Hollywood fashion and we viewers got on with our very much more mundane lives and times.
On May 6th, 2016, our very own J.R. was released from all further obligations to Canada’s justice system, having after about ten years completed successfully her psychological rehabilitation. She was now able to get on with her life, and the community of Medicine Hat got some closure to a traumatic affair that had, at the time, shocked the nation and promoted, in a rather different way than a soap opera cliffhanger, a flurry of fashionable querying as to just what had occurred. Because what the RCMP walked in on back in 2006 was a grotesque horror of undeniably bestial proportion. Three people, one an eight year old child, had been brutally murdered. It was no ordinary affair on at least two counts: One, the murders were as far from being ‘professional’ as one could imagine. Their detritus spoke volumes about the hatred and fury that must have been present in the murderers’ minds at the time of the slayings. Two, one of the criminals was the victims’ own twelve year old daughter, that is, J.R. herself.
Now we’ve perhaps gotten all too used to the brutality of murder, not least because of how it is portrayed in our entertainment fictions. The more gruesome, the more credit for the heroes – from the famous detective on down to the technicians of CSI and everyone in between – who solve the case. But solving isn’t quite enough, after all. What we seek is not merely the solution to such cases, but also their resolution. This sensibility isn’t important for television because in order to keep the series or the plot rolling along we need to always be on the edge of our moral seats, anxious that the next time, just maybe, our heroes may not be able to solve the problem. It certainly keeps us watching. But in real life, we know things to be a little different. In our day to day world there are plenty of ordinary heroes and villains, and plenty of events that cannot seem to be resolved, from world peace on down to a family dispute. Even so, the fact remains that we also know that we should resolve these issues, even if we do not appear to have the means at our current disposal. Peak time viewing cannot bear a real tragedy for overlong.
So when J.R. was deemed worthy of the great socially sanctioned grace of human freedom, the media turned back for a moment to the original events, if only to reset the circle that was now, at least officially, resolved. The case itself was closed long ago, but this is not of interest to us. It is almost as if we can hear some version of Sherlock Holmes reminding us that ‘murder is common, morality rare’. Our fictional heroes are often great moralizers. After all, they defend society and its mores, legally and sometimes, to our delight, extra-legally. The anti-hero is often still a hero. Whether it was Holmes himself, pushing his loyal partner into breaking the law to catch the real law-breaker to the Dark Knight of comic book land, we remain entranced by the idea that sometimes you have to play dirty to get the dirt on things. What separates our heroes and villains is not really their means, but their motives. In spite of the moral caveat of which we are also very aware – that the ends cannot justify the means – nevertheless we celebrate those who transgress in the name of righteousness. This attitude surely descends from religious outlooks wherein the messianic voice was always a revolutionary one: ‘you have heard it said, but I say unto you…’. The key word, the radical term, is ‘but’.
It seems like a simple little word. Yet it is the harbinger of change. It announces itself by pronouncing in an entirely different manner a language we thought we knew well enough. Its speaker claims that we have been living in a dream-world, but he or she knows the truth of things and is going to, gracefully or no, bestow it upon us. Most attempted religions are a flop for just this reason. Not enough of us are convinced by the new meanings to get a viable social movement begun. Those that are successful, however radically announced, tone themselves down considerably – often after their founder has died; all the more so if they are executed or murdered – and begin to look very much like what the rest of us have been used to all along. In spite of this, there is some change. Over long periods of time, we find ourselves living in a different world.
But, sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can’t bear to wait for change a moment longer. J.R. was one such person. Her parents had, no doubt amongst other things, forbidden her to continue to see her twenty-three year old boyfriend, a Mr. Steinke. We actually know his name because he was a legal adult at the time of the crime. Indeed, it is safe to assume that ‘J.R’. are not even the other person’s real initials, but no matter. Let’s examine this situation from the outside, using what we think we know about adolescent intimacies and also love of all kinds. Wait a minute, you’re saying, what’s this about ‘other things’? The attending officer was interviewed briefly in 2016. He had clearly not been able to vanquish the original scene from his mind. I doubt many of us could. All of the evidence that the courts were interested in was present. But there was also a surfeit of more profound evidence of the type that is truly disturbing because it forces us to confront the character of both our personalities and our social conditioning. The murderers, in their violence, appeared to sink below the level of animals, for no animal kills in this way. Indeed, one of the dubious marks of our humanity is that we do not simply kill, but rather murder. The unethical rationalization that warfare transmutes murder back into mere killing is just that. Of course, neither the twelve year old nor her adult accomplice had any practice at murder. They were manifestly not assassins of any ‘level’, let alone of the type that provides yet more dubious entertainment in video games and films alike. The stabbing, slashing, cutting, gutting, impaling and garroting that greeted the gutsy RCMP officer produced a sight that was not for the faint of heart, to say the least. But the ferocity of the attacks tells us of their authentic motive. And that motive was as far removed from what one would first imagine as it could possibly be.
In the Phaedrus, Socrates famously defines love as a form of madness. Sent by Aphrodite, it afflicts mortals because, though we have imagined love from the vantage point of heaven, the metaphorical wings we grow when in love cannot help us actually ascend there. We are thus fated to love on earth even though our attention is arrested by a vision of the beyond. This is why lovers appear to be so disinterested in the world around them and others outside of their blessed dyad. Now in Plato’s day, such a definition was to be taken as ‘value-neutral’. That is, when in love, human beings were known to be capable of extreme emotions, thoughts and acts. They might be deemed great and worthy by the surrounding society, ourselves, who might not at all be in love at the same time, but might recognize it because we had been in love or in fact because we still were in love. But such acts of love could also be vile, vindictive, and violent. For to be in love is to desire only its continuation. Its ‘visionary’ quality allows one to pretend that the things of the mundane world are of little import. No sacrifice for the beloved is too high to accomplish, no need too desperate to give succor. Even as recently as the beginning of the nineteenth century, this antique notion of love and how it transformed human consciousness and rationality was still taken as a given, indeed, celebrated famously and infamously by the Romantic movement in the arts. But with the rise of psychopathological discourse over the course of the Victorian period, our definitions of both love and madness were altered.
The first became the lighted space of all that was good and pure about human character. To be in love was to be one’s best self, to raise both self and other out of the slough of bestiality and to become role-models for one’s fellows, marking not only the good life but also the good society. The second became the ever darkening space of non-being, a disturbed reliquary of all that was evil and irrational about us. Love and madness were thus separated, almost at birth. The problem of irrationality was partially solved along these lines, though one could argue that it was psychology which invented the problem in the first place. But what psychology neglected to resolve was the ongoing reality of the tension between two new forms of being human: society and the individual, both scions of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Yes, community, group, ethnicity, tribe, cult and sect, amongst others, hailed from much earlier times. People, figures, roles, positions, and even the self, likewise. But society in the sense we know it today, and the individual, the sacredness of which we in North America particularly prize, were new. Their advent was both the result of and the catalyst for the political and intellectual revolutions to which we owe our current state of being. You might say that we are, as a collective, in love with them, because we would simply not be ourselves without their presence in our consciousness.
We too suffer from a collective madness, even so. What truly mature species jealously guards and feeds the means of its own destruction? Our love is strong, no doubt, but it does not yet extend to those we feel nothing for. We have not at all reached that pitch of ethical maturity that the contemporary philosopher Paul Ricoeur reminded us characterizes authentic love, stating ‘the love we have for our own children does not absolve us from loving the children of the world’. Quite so. Our kind of love remains selfish and parochial, in other words, a little mad. And this at the best of times, for no child can be cajoled, manipulated, or coerced into murdering her own family if that family was itself not already the space of violence, danger, abuse, and hatred. We speak of discipline, obedience, ‘oppositional defiance disorder’, civility and maturity. We school our children to conform and to ask mere technical questions. We threaten them with our absence, neglect, emotional and even sometimes still, physical violence. In the name of love, we do these things to and ‘for’ our children.
Clearly, in spite of modern psycho-social discourses, the nature of human love still looks more like the thing Socrates was talking about long ago. One wonders if today, love itself being also a commodity, we use it to secure for ourselves status and security more than anything else. Children, with their incomplete socializations and their almost innate ability to be pests, are a constant threat to our fragile control over the petty kingdoms we hold ever so close to our breasts. What contemporary psychology does tell us that makes sense is that children do not tend to develop relationships of any kind with older persons who are not family members unless there is some pressing need being unmet in the family itself.
I can, barely, recall being twenty-three. I am grateful for my failing memory. Nietzsche was right, of course, about those unable to forget being existentially doomed. Aside from living in the past – is it a coincidence that so much of our entertainment is nostalgic in character? – the mourning of lost youth, the jealousy and even resentment we feel towards adolescents who can seemingly do and feel all that we seemingly cannot, contributes bodily to a sense that we, as adults, have at once to protect youth from itself, but as well, and more darkly, to keep youth from having too much fun, for having such is seen at our expense. After all, what would children be without us, we ask? They’d starve on the street. Canada would look like Bulgaria after the fall of state socialism, with untended orphanages, child prostitutes and sexual predators alike, gangs of Dickensian youths of all stripes and skills.
But aren’t team sports fun? What about science camps? How about music and theatre? These days, even homework, that time-honoured extension of the surveillance of the schools into the homes, should be ‘fun’. But we adults know better. Being in love is fun. And forget love, sex is real fun. Now you’re talking. But don’t tell the kiddies! At the time of the Enlightenment, twelve and twenty-three was a normal, socially sanctioned age match for marriage. The girl was always younger, but old enough to bear children in at least a short while. The man must be older, for he was the one who had to earn the family’s keep. Now no one wants to go back to the social formations that made this work for millennia. Most men as servants, women as chattel, children as property, animals as tools or worse and so on. But just here we can note something of import: the rights of children are not the same as those of adults even in our own day. We say that is because they are not expected to have the same obligations, and this seems sensible so far as it goes. Even so, we have extended our notion of what rights children do not, by definition, hold, into the realm of their consciousness and emotional experience. This isn’t a case of not being able drink or vote. This is, rather, a case where young persons must be not only allowed, but encouraged, to explore their nascent humanity with one another.
At twenty-three, I was not much more than a child. My emotional age was probably around sixteen, and this is quite typical of young males in our culture. No need to read the criminal news to divine that. In spite of being half-way through a Masters degree, in spite of having placed second for the Governor General’s Silver Medal and having received monies bestowed on only the top one percent of students, I was nevertheless fully capable of falling in love. Yes, with some other ‘teenager’. If an actual fifteen year old girl had come along I would have known I had met my match. Indeed, physically, as well as cognitively, such an age gap makes far more sense than what we actually do sanction, as females mature far faster than males in far more than just smarts. Our ancestors recognized this as well, though their goals were hardly about two young people exploring love together. So Steinke, if he was a typical guy, was more or less like me, like most guys. Not a lunatic. Not a child molester. Not a manipulator. He was about ‘sixteen’, and J.R. could well have been a few years older than her chronological age. Many twelve year old girls are. If we presume the two of them to be typical – there simply isn’t enough public information available to know for sure, and what there is has been seriously compromised by our desperate predilection for confining and limiting such relationships given their threatening quality; threatening, that is, to our bad conscience about how we not only raise our kids but also to what we ourselves have become in the meanwhile – they could easily have been in love to the extent that the madness of being in love was readily available to them. And one thing we all know about being in love is its absolute impatience with anything in its way. Love cannot wait. It will not wait. No sacrifice is too great, no act impossible. And such acts carry themselves well past any morality of the day. Love is an essentially anti-moral or even non-moral phenomena. Nietzsche famously proclaimed “That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil’.
So all those who were interviewed in the ensuing weeks of 2016 who claimed they ‘could still not imagine how a child could do such a thing’, need to get a grip. And those who, with a little more public grace, suggested that J.R. had earned the right of a second chance, might consider spilling more of their apparent ellipses. Does this mean they knew something about this particular family? The idea of a second chance does not adhere as well to adults. Karla Homolka has become a Canadian archetype for this side of the coin. Yet surely she must have grown up wrong as well. Who could do such things and not have done so? And, in spite of ourselves, she did get her second chance after all was said and done, though we are skeptical of it and rather rightly so. And the idea, also rife in the interview material, that ‘children don’t really know what they’re doing’ is likely a calculated nonsense, martialed to decoy our suspicions away from the real problem: the family as we know it doesn’t work.
The question is not, ‘how could a child do such a thing?’ It is rather, ‘how come more children don’t do such things?’ It is the same question we can ask of other arenas which house our social inequities and inequalities. How come more women don’t murder men? How come more Blacks, or other subaltern ethnic groups, don’t murder Whites? Yes, I have heard the song from Jamaica, Mon. It was a man who murdered at the Polytechnic. Personal delusion was his ‘excuse’. But such murders in their very occurrence are already part of our wider social expectations of men. Women, and all the more so, children, do not figure on the debit sheets recording what we consider to be such incivility or worse. So we come up with the wildest rationales whenever they do make their rare appearance, including the manner in which such cases are handled. One person interviewed wondered if J.R. had somehow ‘tricked’ the rehabilitation program and justice system, and thus society at large. Oh, really? Oh wait, I forgot, she’s a demon-child, capable of super-human manipulation and trickery verging on sorcery. If anything, she’s been denuded of both her madness and her sense of being able to love. After all, ‘you can’t have one without the other’.
As a professional social scientist, my gut feeling was that I would want to actually meet J.R. and find out what really happened, at least, according to her perspective. But if our much-vaunted psycho-therapies were successful, I probably shouldn’t try: “Hey everybody, look, I just killed the philosopher and culture critic. He’s the true menace to society. I only killed my family but he wants to kill THE family. I only killed people but he kills morality itself. See, the therapy worked. I’m now so fully on your side that you can rely on me to defend society to the knife. This I vow. Surely killing the thinker more than makes up for what I did as a kid? The balance is restored and all of you have nothing to fear!”
She might be right. But a couple of last things remain of note. We know that our society could stand some improvement, and equally, we know killing people isn’t the answer. But where are the opportunities to question the authority of institutions, discourses, ideologies and social formations such as the family and gender relations that make the way things are seem as if they could only be this way? As if there were but one ‘human nature’. As if we were happily divorced from our own humanity.
J.R. was released, somehow fittingly, on Freud’s birthday. Proverbially, part of his theories concern the killing of one’s parents and their subsequent replacement with lovers. However allegorical, the idea is nonetheless in our heads. Steinke was in her life for a reason, Freudian or otherwise. Falling in love like that was a mark of both grace and desperation. Believing what they shared could be saved if only those who prohibited it were removed was a mark of adolescence at best, but what ended up being done was done out of love, nonetheless. Perhaps the one thing the rest of us can learn from this disaster is that the next time we find ourselves justifying something in love’s name, we’d better think twice about what love really is, and what it can do.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over two-dozen books on such diverse topics as ethics, education, art, religion and science.