Crime authors are accustomed to killing off characters in their novels. In this fictional world, a man’s life might not be worth more than a dime on longshoreman’s payday. We have no problem dispatching the evil, malignant, cruel, and selfish megalomaniac. In fact our readers often like those scenes when the bad guys expiry date is reached. If we reflect on this ‘liking’ for a moment, one has to admit there is a shared bond between author and reader over the necessity of killing the bad and protecting the good. We are natural born killers.
There are four intersecting worlds of killers and victims. There is the individual killer. He or she might be a hit man, a crazed ideological or religion-inspired zealot, an emotional hothead, a cold-blooded gang leader looking to keep his control and authority. We search out, arrest and punish these people. Then there are the corporate killers. Profit motive leads to killing to meet the next quarter’s results or the share price falls. Jay Gould, a famous American 19th century oligarch said, “I can hire one half the working-class to kill the other half.” That profit at any cost attitude hasn’t changed much in many parts of the world. And last, the killing machine of last resort, the one we agree has the right to kill in our name: the Nation-State.
How disposal people are selected and dealt with in the killing game pretty much correlates to whom is assigned the job of killing. When watching the killing game: we can automatically identify (without thinking too much about it) who was behind the trigger: an individual, a company, a religion or a government. You are going to say it is an individual in every case. And you’d be right. But the way we view killing, condemn, sanction, punish and investigate depends on whether the individual was acting on behalf of himself, a corporate sponsor, his god or idea, or the government. In modern times, the border lines between such categories blur, forming a smudged, inconclusive image that we try to interpret.
As crime authors, we walk among the fresh batch of corpses trying to bring some emotional clarity as to how and why the act of killing has happened. Authenticity to the murder means revealing the web of connections between the killer and victim, the circumstances of the killing, the motive of the killer. A crime narrative in modern literature is a meditation on the justice or injustice of the violent death. Most accept that killing is sometimes unavoidable. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have self-defense in a criminal prosecution. But mostly killing, most agree, is evil, wrong, and bad.
We like our sense of justice, and our sense of proportionality, fairness, due process and reason to be reflected in the stories we read. There are also readers who like to have these cultural perceptions challenged so as to rethink how we go about the business of killing.
Killing and the value of human life have a connection to the underlying values of the culture where the death occurs. Among the first questions to ask: What is the value of a human life? Unlike branded consumer products like a watch or handbag, which have similar prices across cultures, human life valuation remains largely medieval. At least, there is little impact from globalization or the information age that has substantially changed the local value assigned to a particular life.
We normally associate worth with value. In societies where there is a caste system or a strict social class system, the lower caste or class peoples’ lives have less value. If an upper-class Bangkok driver cuts a poor Laotian pedestrian in half driving his father’s new Porsche, the compensation is likely to be small, the penalty on the driver likely to be minor. In contrast, a Laotian peasant who ran over an upper class Bangkok teenager on the pavement, would likely go to prison for a lengthy period. There are two different lives in a society with clear class distinctions; and there are, not surprisingly, different ways of expressing the value of each life and monetarizing the loss.
So if someone is negligently killed, say in a car accident, the legal system assigns a value to that loss and the deceased’s family is compensated according to the cultural norms of that culture. When the killing is intentional then we enter the realm of crime, politics, culpability, and policy. There is an agreement in modern times that monopoly of violence is held by the State. In circumstances, where the officials of the State, the cops or military kill people they have acted according a set of rules and code of conduct.
The value of a human life, which has been intentionally taken, depends not only on the status of the victim, but the status, circumstances and authority of the killer.
The individual killer falls into a number of categories. This is not an exhaustive list but merely some of the obvious examples: (1) the professional killer who hires out his (or services) as an assassin; (2) the ordinary criminal whose goal is not murder but financial gain but kills in the course of his criminal conduct, i.e., bank robber, mugger; (3) domestic murders: wife killers and husband killers—most murders are of this domestic nature, the killer and victim know each other; (4) accidents, i.e., hunting, driving, sports, or fires and these are usually the result of negligence or recklessness, the compelling stories that appear in tabloids, crime novels, and the TV news; and (5) serial killers. It’s a mixed bag as to how the killer is processed, the victim valued, and compensation or punishment fixed. What is common to all these categories is assigning individual responsibility to the act.
Most of these killers (number 1 is an exception) are relatively easy to identify and catch, and while they are punished for their crimes they rarely have any money to compensate their victims even the low status ones with little monetary value attached.
Religious/Political Zealots as Killers
Bookstore shelves are filled with thrillers, mysteries, and crime stories featuring suicide bombers, abortion doctor killers, cultists, and others who believe that their sacred principles are advanced by killing the non-believer. For the religious fanatic murder is a ticket to heaven, and for the political zealot, a way to achieve or retain power, realize a utopia, put in place a new order. The happenings in the Middle East offer many examples of both religious and political zealots. The best of this genre of crime stories can be found in history books. The value of a human life opposed to a religious or political zealots in close to zero. These people are hard to catch alive, when caught, they are usually broke, and any compensation to the victim’s family is unlikely to follow.
The Jay Gould quote above about hiring one half of the working class to kill the other half indicates a state of mind. Workers are another kind of commodity. Another line item on the balance sheet and their worth is only calculated in terms of productivity. There are companies, which hire out mercenaries to governments in combat zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the killing is a byproduct of the business. Knowingly sending workers into a work place without basic safety is a kind of murder. The mining industry is an example of where workers routinely die on the job. In many countries, companies will make a calculation as to the cost of paying compensation for the death of a certain number of workers as opposed to the cost of employing safety equipment and protective devices to prevent deaths.
In this part of the world, individuals who demonstrate against development whether a pipeline, dam, chemical plant, waste disposal facilities are vulnerable to the corporate overlords. Activists when challenging large corporate interest are liable to be killed for their efforts. Similarly, an outside accountant who applies Western standards to an audit of a local company’s financial records may also not live to enjoy his retirement. Anyone who lives in Thailand will recall murders (mostly unsolved) of such individuals.
Hiring a hit man by a company to take out an activist or accountant is dramatic. Also the numbers are relatively small in comparison with the indirect way that corporate killing can rack up impressive numbers. CNN had a report titled Enslaved on ‘ghost ships’ documents how fishing boat owners use slave labor to man their boats. A slave’s value is no more than food and water and sleeping quarters. Being thrown overboard for insubordination is a certain risk.
Selling cigarettes is a way of murdering your consumer. It is a slow killing, but nonetheless killing him or her with a dangerous product. Such companies must continuously entrap new victims to replace those who have died. Tobacco companies pay dividends out of the proceeds the murdered victims have contributed over a lifetime of smoking. There is a list of products and services that fit alongside cigarettes. Many people will shrug and say this isn’t really murder. The victim had a choice. He knew or ought to have known the risks. Individual freedom means the right to do things that may not be life enhancing, but are pleasurable or fun even though they prematurely end life. The argument is that we shouldn’t stop people from skydiving, smoking, drinking, or sleeping with loaded guns under their pillows.
The corporate side of killing is complicated. There is a long history of looking the other way when the company is the killer. When there are jobs and money at risk, the value of human life becomes diminished. Consumers are disposable as are those who stand in the way of development. Markets are forever.
The people running these companies aren’t connected to the direct or indirect killings carried out by the company. Especially difficult to seek compensation, for the loss of life occurs where the Corporate Entity and State have combined to authorize lethal force—usually against foreigners, often poor foreigners. The people killed in this way often are more ‘disposable’ than others and thus of less value and the killing more accepted.
The State is sanctioned to kill people. The authority of the State to kill people has limits, however. The main limitation is due process. The killing must be justified with evidence, an inquiry, an independent fact-finder—usually a judge—and the right of the public to attend the hearings and the press to report the evidence and findings. Once that process is finished, killing the person by state officials is permitted.
That is the theory and it is what makes extra-judicial killing such a dangerous shortcut for the State. It’s not that just the procedures and processes are ignored. The terrifying reality is that cops and soldiers, who have the lethal power, are anointed with God-like powers over the lives of others. When they kill, no one can touch them. They most frightening word in any vocabulary when dealing with projection of violence by State officials is: impunity.
When the State kills to oppress its opponents or critics, we complain that is unjust. Turn on the TV nightly news and half of the stories over the past few months have been about rulers killing their own citizens in order to preserve their power. No one has resolved how outsiders are supposed to react to leaders of a country killing their own citizens who are calling for change. The cynic says it depends on whether the killing is done in places where there is oil. Others believe that human life is a universal right and if a ruler goes on a killing spree the international community has an obligation to step in and stop the blood shed even if it means increased killing to do so.
Even in the most repressive regimes, the government ordering the killing rarely admits to committing murder. Instead, it: (1) lies—we didn’t kill anyone; (2) blames the other side for the killing; (3) blames unknown rogue forces; or (4) demonizes the victims as if to diminish the status of the person killed. This indicates sensitivity by government officials to being perceived as ordering the outright slaughter of citizens or non-citizens. Governments understand they must account for killing people and compensation and penalties apply if the justification for the murder is insufficient or flawed. Also, governments are large, messy organizations with many different segments, and it is not always clear who issued what orders and when they were issued and who carried them out.
The State as a killing machine doesn’t always manifest itself through demonstrations and crowd protesting for change. Sometimes an overwhelming number of citizens agree that the State can use extra judicial killings to solve a social or economic problem. The unsolved murder of approximately 2,500 Thais during the so-called War on Drugs in 2003 in Thailand had huge amount of popular support at the time. Killing drug dealers—and who was a drug dealer? Whomever the police labeled—resulted in a large number of innocent people being killed, including some children. In any event, the death penalty would not have been applied to most of these people even had they been drug dealers, and in the absence of any due process, it is impossible to determine guilt or innocence. No one has ever been called to account for a single act of murder in the war on drugs in Thailand. The war on drugs had the approval of the government of the day. This allowed for a justification for what were State-sanctioned political killings and to ignore due process.
Impunity is the substitute for rule of law in many places. It is an aspect of human evil that killing is sanctioned. Period. But to sanction informal channels for State officials to get away with murder is institutionalized evil. It is difficult enough to detect and deal with the evil acts of a people, but to need to constantly look over your shoulder at a government, which can (and does) scale killing beyond the wildness imagination of any serial killer, and you start to understand the dimension of the problem.
The war on drugs is an extreme example. More common are the police using extra judicial killings. The extra judicial killing of the alleged murderer of a young woman illustrates the Judge Dredd attitude that comes into play. It is often difficult to know if an extra judicial killing has occurred. A recent case where some suspect this happened, involved a 24-year-old Thai man who had been accused of raping and killing a mother and seriously injuring her 11-month-old baby girl in Korat. A few days later, the suspect was shot dead by police. He’d been in police custody, had been interrogated by the police, confessed to the crime, and taken to a railway crossing to find a cell phone stolen from the victim, when he allegedly went for a cop’s gun. The suspect was shot twice in the chest and once in the forehead. No cop was hurt.
These extra-judicial killers are hard to connect to the murders they commit. As the victim is portrayed as killed by other mysterious forces, the State can avoid the awkward question of the value on the lives lost.
Murder lurks in the most likely and unlikely places. The value of life is not universally agreed upon. Nor is the right to kill in the name of the State or a Company.