Friday, August 19, 2005

BTK and the inadequacy of language

"[H]ow great a language to convey such pepper-corn informations! . . . . Whilst we use this grand cipher to expedite the affairs of our pot and kettle, we feel that we have not yet put it to use, neither are we able. We are like travellers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

Though I know Emerson was trying to get at something rather different from what I'll be writing about today--indeed, just the opposite of what I'll be saying--I couldn't help recalling this passage as I read through yesterday's Wichita Eagle article about the first day of Dennis Rader's sentencing hearing. BTK, as my U.S. readers--and maybe even my international readers as well--know, reemerged as a national story last spring when the killer began sending letters and leaving packages for the media and police last spring. No doubt, your local media, if they've been covering this story, and certainly the national media, have used adjetives such as "gruesome" and "graphic" and maybe even "depraved" to describe the testimony that day, but the Eagle simply dispensed with those words and let the testimony speak in its full, almost-unmediated violence and power, even telling its readers to beware. Even "depraved" does not begin to convey what this man did; I cannot imagine what worship at Rader's church this Sunday will be like after knowing, now, that this man brought one of his victims to their sanctuary, placed her dead, bound body on the altar, and photographed her. Even "desecration" might not be strong enough a word.
Despite my great admiration for Cormac McCarthy, who depicts scenes of violence in horrific detail, I admit to not being strong enough to finish that article. Thank God for the justification of Needing to Get My Work Done. Before I finally stopped reading, though, I ran across the rather strange tidbit that, outside the courtroom after that first day of testimony, some relatives of those murdered were making fun of Rader's mispronunciation of words such as "ruse" (he pronounced it "russ," according to detectives) and "coup de grace" ("coop de grayce" was Rader's attempt at it). At first I thought, Given what this man had done to his victims, how strange, if not inappropriate, of these people to be responding by poking fun at his mispronunciations. But then, I immediately thought, Perhaps, in the presence of what they've been listening to, this is all they have, the only chink in the armor of this man who committed the acts that he did, the only space left for them for derision of this man. It's as though this man's actions were/are so spectacularly depraved that they seem immune to most, maybe all, conventional denunciation. In this instance, Emerson's "volcano" is not language but act; even language, powerful as it is, utterly fails to respond at all adequately to Rader's actions.
Well, what about "evil," then? I hesitate to use that term (even though, paradoxically, that is the only accurate one) because, sadly, "evil" gets used so often these days to describe acts that, to my mind, are NOT evil. In our nation's political and religious zeal to label things as "evil," we are gradually leaching out that word's weight, the fact that it speaks not to acts so much as to the intention behind the act, such that, as is now the case with our so-frequently-heard-they're-emasculated curse words, we'll end up with this once-powerful word's meaning, more or less, "whatever we happen to disagree with."
Interestingly, though, some psychologists are wrestling with the notion of actually using "evil" as a diagnosis for some patients, as shown by this February 2005 NY Times article, reprinted by Target=Blank. Even in our secularized society, it remains important for us to retain some capacity to account for human actions that truly do transcend all the "usual" ways of explaining them.

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