Should We Feel Bad for Murderers Who Commit Suicide?
What the Internet’s reaction to the deaths of the “Facebook Killer” and Aaron Hernandez tells us about human compassion — and its limits.
In the span of 24 hours, both the “Facebook Killer” Steve Stephens & former NFL star Aaron Hernandez took their own lives. Stephens was at a McDonald’s in Erie, PA when a worker at the fast food restaurant recognized him & promptly called the police. During the pursuit, police say, Stephens shot himself in the head — effectively ending the pursuit as well as his life. Hernandez, who a few days ago was acquitted in a double murder charge, hanged himself with a bed sheet attached to his prison cell window. He set up a barrier behind the door, presumably to prevent anyone from rescuing him.
Two murderers now dead by their own hand. Tragic… or maybe not?
After all, these two men committed one of the gravest crimes: the taking of innocent human life. Stephens sadistically filmed himself shooting 74 year-old Robert Goodwin, a self-taught mechanic and grandfather of 14 grandchildren. Goodwin died in a pool of blood on a sidewalk, shot by a man he did not even know. Stephens uploaded the video to Facebook, broadcasting the horrific murder to millions.
Hernandez, though acquitted of the double murder charge, was still serving a life sentence for the murder of Odin Lloyd, who was shot 10 times by Hernandez. The former NFL superstar tight end for the New England Patriots had just signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension. Following Lloyd’s murder, Hernandez destroyed his home security system, his personal cellphone, and even hired a team of house-cleaners to cover up his crime.
These two men committed murder and their crimes were highly publicized, hitting the “breaking-news” headlines and taking the American media by storm. Both men were found guilty — Stephens by his own hand recording the graphic murder of Goodwin, and Hernandez by an official court trial proceedings. There is no doubt whatsoever that their actions were abominable. Whatever justice may have been served was cut short by their very own deaths by suicide.
And yet, should we feel bad for them?
This is an extremely provocative question. After all, we feel bad for victims because victims are those who suffer from crimes committed by another person. We feel bad for victims of theft, assault, harassment, etc. because we can see that they were the subjects affected by another’s misdeeds. It’s quite natural to sympathize with the families of Goodwin and Lloyd, because we see that a loved one was taken from them. As humans with a rational soul, we can determine between what is “right and just” & that which is evil and unjust. We see that both Stephens and Hernandez committed evil & unjust actions; we can see that the families of the victims deserve justice for such crimes.
Common Mob Mentality
Certainly, the popular opinion in America is this: feel bad for the victims, but not the perpetrator. The criminal (whether it be a thief, murder, rapist, etc.) made his/her own choice and screwed up. They committed an evil act which should be punished by that which justice requires. To feel bad for a criminal, therefore, is to somehow neglect the victim & the victim’s family, the innocent, and the reality that illegal/immoral actions must be punished accordingly. In the case of high-profile crimes, such as the ones committed by Stephens and Hernandez, the American public certainly feels confidence in their convictions:
The basic argument is this: if you commit a crime as grave as murder, you deserve death. Or, as a Facebook friend commented on my post, “ Why should we feel bad for him when he himself showed blatant disregard for human life, by killing a man?” This argumentation is common, and it seems to make sense at first.
Until it doesn’t.
You see, to “feel bad” for a murderer who commits suicide is not to justify the murder or pardon the murderer from any wrongdoing — it simply is to mourn the fact that he or she did not find in themselves any possibility for redemption and change. When people “feel bad” for criminals who commit suicide, it is because they view the human person as someone who can change for the better — despite flaws, difficulties, or even egregious criminal acts. No one is saying, “Eh maybe Stephens/Hernandez wasn’t that bad of a guy.” That would be pure insanity. What IS being said by those who feel bad for criminals is that, despite their terrible decisions, there is something in them that is worth something, something worth hoping for change, something in them which unites them — even tangentially — to us fellow humans.
Every human, regardless of age, race, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, political/religious beliefs, etc. is endowed with an intellect and free will. Though animals in one sense, human beings transcend basic animal behavior through their rational & intellectual faculty. As I have written before, no squirrel stops on a hill to admire a sunset. No penguin has written a symphony. St. Peter’s Basilica was not designed by a walrus. While we humans share basic characteristics with animals, it is an obvious fact that we — somehow — are different. We can use our intellect and free will to pursue beauty, truth, and goodness… or we can use it to pursue ugliness, falsehoods, and evil. The choice is ours. And yet, whether we choose good or evil, we never lose the faculties of the intellect and will.
Every human, regardless of age, race, appearance, gender, sexual orientation, political/religious beliefs, etc. is also endowed with an inherent & intrinsic dignity that can never be removed from them. This is obvious in our own system of laws: for example, why can we ethically use a buzz saw to cut down a tree in the forest, but to use the same saw on a fellow human is a crime? Each human person has worth. But what exactly determines one’s worth? Is it age? In that case, we would be justified in the mistreatment of children or the elderly or some other age group — but we clearly have laws against that. So it’s not age. Is it economic status? Well, that would justify oppression against the poor, which anyone with a basic moral compass can say is not a good thing. So it’s not age nor status. Is it family of origin? If so, then it’s the caste-system, something that has grown increasingly problematic for India and human rights organizations.
Human Dignity- Intrinsic, or Something we Earn?
The fact is this: nothing we do or don’t do “earns” our human dignity. By virtue of our existence, it is ours. If we started determining who has/doesn’t have dignity, then we fall into the twisted mindset of certain totalitarian regimes and can determine whose life is worth living vs. whose isn’t. If we do not confess that all human beings have an inherent worth to them, then it is open season for us to do anything we want to a person we see as “unworthy” — murder, oppress, enslave, torture, exploit, etc. And that… well, I hope we can generally agree that this is a bad thing.
In the case of criminals, however, the morality of it all seems to be convoluted. We often think that, by affirming the basic human dignity of, let’s say, Mussolini, that we are somehow infringing upon the rights of others to be justified in their anger against him, his policies, his crimes, etc. In other words, by “feeling sorry” for criminals, we are somehow justifying their crimes and their evil misdeeds. But this is not the case at all.
The Hypocrisy of Limit-Based Compassion
No human can ever claim to be ethical while celebrating the death of another human being. A true humanist can never rejoice in the death of one of our brothers and sisters. Yes, even Bin-Laden, Saddam Hussein, etc. No one is saying that they are paragons of virtue or even should have gone unpunished. What I am saying, however, is this — these men, still, even seconds before their death, held an inherent dignity courtesy of being a human being. This doesn’t mean that they cannot be imprisoned for life — certainly, justice needs to be served. But there is nothing “just” about celebrating another’s death, there is nothing “progressive” about the taking away of human life — even when the criminal takes his or her own.
For many people, compassion has limits. But I find that quite hypocritical and a bit odd. It is entirely possible to (1) condemn a crime/criminal; and (2) acknowledge his/her suicide as tragic. I feel bad for Steve Stephens and Aaron Hernandez, not because I think they were great people or worthy of praise, but rather because I mourn the fact that they felt that their lives were so depraved, so un-fixable, so irredeemable, that they decided to end their lives by their own hand. Me (or anyone) being righteously angry at them for doing the evil things that they did neither changes the fact that it was done nor does it help them (or myself) grow into a fuller human being. If anything, limit-based compassion is not compassion at all, and stunts human growth.
I know my position is not popular. After all, the Internet-mob mentality is louder and more popular voice, here. “Good, I’m glad he killed himself. ****ing scum!!!” is a more common response to their suicides than “While I think what they did was heinous, I wish they could have found redemption in prison.” The former of these reactions seems justified, especially since it seems to be coming from a place of solidarity to the victims. And yet, what happens when the family members of the victim forgive the killer? If anyone has a right to demand blood for blood, pain for pain, suffering for suffering, it presumably would be the families of Goodwin and Lloyd, those who were the innocent recipients of Stephens and Hernandez’s wrath. But that wasn’t the case for either family. They preached forgiveness and reconciliation — two forces of change greater than anything angry people on the Internet could offer.
And so, yeah, we can feel bad for murderers who commit suicide without minimizing the horrific and evil nature of their crimes. Just like the families prove, we should look to see how justice and mercy are not mutually opposed whatsoever. Compassion can be extended to both Stephens and Hernandez, even if it is as little as saying, “Damn, I wish they could’ve turned their lives around, albeit in jail.” In fact, displaying compassion for the victims and killers demonstrates how crimes affect the entire human family and how any of us are simply one action away from being on either side of the story.
Just don’t point it out to the mob — they are too busy sharpening their pitchforks.