Overhear that something unusually bad has happened in Whitehaven without at the same time overhearing what it might be, and the alarmist mind (mine) scoots recklessly ahead – knowing as it did nothing about Whitehaven except that it’s a town within easy fallout range of Sellafield – to invent a whole montage of pictures and reports of nuclear devastation. Had all the many newspaper and television reporters who were packed instantly off north to Cumbria to serve as intermediaries between events in Whitehaven and ourselves found in fact that they had some sort of fearsome meltdown to report on, they might also have found it simpler to measure up to than the real events they were faced with.
Few happenings of a criminal kind, other than one of these periodic episodes of multiple and indiscriminate killing, bring us more sharply up against the gap between what has happened and what can usefully be said about it, certainly by news reporters required to file far too many words and pictures within far too few minutes of their arrival at the crime scene. A serial killer like the Whitehaven cab driver, who chooses to murder all his victims and then himself inside three hours is not, you might cruelly say, playing by the media rules, eliminating as he does any element of suspense as to who he might be, whether there could be yet more victims, whether they have something in common, whether the police will ever find him and all the rest of it. What might have been a long story has been horribly abridged in both time and place, forcing those charged with telling it into fairly desperate and predictable exercises in speculation as they circulate among the population of a ‘traumatised’ town.
First question: tell us, what sort of man was this eventually murderous Derrick Bird? We know the answer to that question before it is put: decent enough bloke, quiet, liked walking his dog etc etc. How one almost longs for a local or neighbour to come on camera and tell us she knew all along he was going to do something like this, thoroughly bad egg as she’d long believed him to be.
And then the question you look forward to being raised least of all, unaswerable as it is, not just at the time but equally as much in the future: so why did he do it, why did he ‘flip’ – flipping being necessary if he was ever to pass out of the ranks of the decent blokes and into those of pathological killers. Since random killings like those committed in and around Whitehaven, even if some of the victims were known to the murderer, are indeed random, the assumption must be that the randomness is part of the killer’s ‘motive’, forced as those who report on crimes are to invoke that word.
It’ll never happen but it would be mighty refreshing if, on occasions like this at least, where there’s every reason to decide that the balance of the murderer’s mind was disturbed, in that good old coroner’s phrase used of suicides (and Bird was one), the distance held to exist between the crime and its motive were collapsed and the crime were seen as its own motive. The notion of the acte gratuit may sound rather literary and belong in a foreign language but it’s also sound philosophy so far as many of us are concerned, and its use to categorise if not ‘explain’ such acts as that of Derrick Bird would be a welcome innovation.