- In Search of the Assassin by Susie Morgan
Bloomsbury, 207 pp, £15.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0401 6
It may be that the grotesque world of the small wars waged by the Reagan Administration in Central America has faded from public memory. Even at the time, there were never that many who were prepared to make the effort to distinguish between Nicaragua and El Salvador, let alone the even more obscure Honduras and Costa Rica. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States. The Vietnam War eventually engaged mass attention, not least because it was fought by a conscript army. But Central America remained a blur. Within the Administration, there was a continuum which ran between the two conflicts: Reagan’s officials had pinned to the front of their minds the slogan ‘Never another Cuba, never another Vietnam.’ And of the personnel overlap one newspaper headline proclaimed: ‘The gang that blew Vietnam goes Latin.’ But in spite of Reagan’s efforts to endow those sad little countries with the stature of a real threat to their giant northern neighbour, and, even more implausibly, to paint the sordid Contra forces in the heroic colours of America’s founding fathers, the voters refused to be inspired, or even to get out the atlas. Central America was the President’s favourite topic in his addresses to the nation, yet, relatively late in his Presidency, opinion polls reported that most US citizens were not sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys ‘down there’. Asked to decide whether Daniel Ortega was a Mexican fast-food chain or the President of Nicaragua, a substantial majority opted for the tacos.
Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991
John Lanchester’s article (LRB, 11 July) about serial killers made particularly interesting reading in the light of Isabel Hilton’s piece in the same issue about what she called ‘the criminal underside of Reagan’s Central America policy’. As Amnesty International routinely reminds us, armies, police forces and secret services around the world employ serial killers in large numbers. It might be comforting to think this reflects simply the efficiency of these institutions at spotting whatever makes serial killers different from you and me (the absence of ‘whatever prevents the majority of us from acting on Nilsen’s “dark images” ’, to use Lanchester’s phrase). But although there must be a degree of self-selection among their personnel, the more likely and more disturbing explanation is that there is something about that kind of work that has, in the appropriate circumstances, the potential to make serial killers of a great many of us. Lanchester says ‘most murders are easy to understand’ and suggests that crimes of passion or greed are ones we can conceive of committing under ‘extremity of circumstances’. But what he finds incomprehensible about serial killing (‘ “stranger-to-stranger” crime, a “relationshipless act”; it has a terrible lightness to it’) describes perfectly the routine and bureaucratic character of much of the murder that governments commit in the name of efficient administration. There must be many people who took part in the bombing of Dresden, or the ‘elimination’ of terrorist suspects, and who have never spent an hour of guilty insomnia even though involvement in a crime of passion might have haunted them for the rest of their lives.
We know a little about the circumstances that make this mental detachment easier to achieve: it helps, for instance, to feel moral distaste for the victim (this, and not just their powerlessness, must be part of the attraction that ‘vagrants, migrant workers, homosexuals’ hold for the classic serial killer). So tales of the atrocities of which the other side is capable prove to be quite effective at enabling us to perpetrate similar acts. This suggests that those of us who do are not simply monsters (who would presumably be relatively unmoved by such tales) but people – perhaps frightened, perhaps dazed, perhaps indignant – with an ability to respond very selectively to the suffering of others.
Here, for instance, is a passage from a recent volume of memoirs by a former British officer in the Malay Police Force, describing an ambush of members of the Malayan Communist Party in the days when there was a quite explicit shoot-to-kill policy: ‘Suddenly the silence of the jungle was broken by his curdling, wailing cries, the screams of a man who knew he was doomed. He was at my mercy; he grappled for his tommy-gun to scythe me down, but I was too quick for him. Gritting my teeth, I fired a salvo from the hip. It was impossible to miss. As the bullets ripped into his body I shouted, “Now cry, you bastard.” ’ And so on and so on. ‘Someone has to help rid the country of the Communists,’ says the author at one point. It would be interesting to know how much of an anomaly John Lanchester would have been conscious of, if he had found such a volume among the pile of books he reviewed.
Churchill College, Cambridge