Wednesday’s Guardian led, reasonably enough, with the suicide of Harold Shipman.
though, splashed across the front page, was peculiar: "The final betrayal".
Here’s how the story started:
Just after 6am yesterday, Harold Shipman, described as a man addicted to
murder by the judge inquiring into his 23-year killing spree, wound one end
of a prison sheet round his neck and the other round the bars of his cell
and took his own life on the eve of his 58th birthday.
It was the final betrayal.
The Guardian clearly took the view that on the day of Shipman’s death, the
defining point of view was that of the victims’ families. They, after all, were
the ones who were "betrayed":
Jane Gaskill, daughter of one of Shipman’s victims, 68-year-old Bertha Moss,
said: "He has won again. He has taken the easy way out. He has controlled
us all the way through and he has controlled the last step and I hate him
What a horrible man this Shipman was! Not only did he murder at least 215 people,
but he also betrayed their families!
When I read something like this, I feel a screeching of ethical gears. Yes,
betraying victims’ families is a bad thing: we should all have compassion for
these people. But compared to one of the biggest killing sprees the world has
ever known? It’s not really up there on the scale.
The Guardian also reported
on the fact that Shipman’s wife would now be receiving a pension. Once again,
the victims’ families are trundled out:
Some relatives of his victims were said to be upset at hearing that she would
be receiving the money. Ann Alexander, the lawyer representing relatives of
many of Shipman’s victims, said: "The families that I have spoken to
are deeply uncomfortable with this."
Anybody associated with the WTC, of course, knows what it’s like to be guilt-tripped
by victims’ families, who seem to have more control over the rebuilding of the
World Trade Center site than even Daniel Libeskind. It was the victims’ families,
for instance, who more or less forced the WTC footprints to be treated as "sacred",
thereby essentially dictating the overall site plan. They also forced the memorial
designers to go down to bedrock (that’s "sacred", too), include an
area with relics from the disaster, and even include a special room in the memorial
just for them. They also managed to frame the terms of the debate, making it
clear that the more acreage that was given over to the memorial, the happier
they would be. Never mind the quality, feel the width!
Oh, yes, and they also got $5.2 billion of federal funds in compensation for
their family members’ having been killed. In my last posting I complained about
the enormity the $1.5 billion that Bush is intending to spend on marriage: that
sum is dwarfed by the amount he’s already spent on WTC victims’ families, and
which, of course, comes on top of enormous life-insurance and charitable contributions
the families also received.
It seems that when lots of people lose their lives in a headline-grabbing event,
the families first receive sympathy, then are told that nothing can possibly
compensate them for the loss they have suffered, and then finally everybody
starts, well, trying to compensate them for the loss they have suffered –
if not with money, then by making every effort to give their opinions on anything
to do with the tragedy much more weight than everybody else’s.
The upshot of this is that we essentially get a hereditary system of control
over enormously important matters such as the rebuilding of lower Manhattan.
And just as there are good kings and bad, there are useful victims’ family members,
and then there are ones who are, well, not so useful.
Sometimes, as in the case of Pan Am flight 103 and Jim Swire, the spokesman
for UK relatives in Lockerbie, the victims’ families end up playing an extremely
important role in a very professional manner. At other times, we get quotes
like this one, from Anthony Gardner, a member of a coalition for WTC victims’
families, on the subject of the proposed memorial:
"This is minimalism, and you can’t minimalize the impact and the enormity
of Sept. 11," Gardner said. "You can’t minimalize the deaths. You
can’t minimalize the response of New Yorkers."
Even so, criticizing family members is completely taboo. Everybody involved
in the WTC project, for instance, insists on referring to pretty much all the
victims as "heroes", even when they did nothing heroic. This pisses
off the family members of the uniformed personnel, who want their family
members singled out as being the real heroes of the day. A lot of them
received so much money in the wake of the tragedy that they have essentially
now become professional Family Members, spending vast amounts of their time
lobbying for whatever it is that they want to see on the site. Far from moving
on with their lives, they are stuck in September 11, 2001, reliving it over
and over again.
One word that frequently comes up in such discussions is "closure":
Shipman’s victims’ family members need him to describe what he did and why he
did it before they can achieve closure, or the WTC victims’ family members need
a place where unidentified remains are kept before they can achieve closure.
But I’m far from convinced that closure really exists in the kind of sense
that these family members seem to think it does. Even if it did, I’m pretty
sure it can’t be achieved through external, as opposed to internal, means. But
it’s taboo to say such things: the family members have become secular saints,
and anything they say must be given the fullest measure of respect, just because
of who is saying it. No one else in society has their words received so uncritically,
and I’m not sure that it does anybody any good in the long term.
Certainly, its very far from edifying to see a 9/11 firefighter’s widow splashed
all over the front page of the New York post for taking up with another, married,
firefighter. The saint is in fact a sinner! We all know that the tabloids love
to raise people up only to knock them down again, but adulterous affairs happen
the whole time, and this is only news because it’s based on the erroneous assumption
that as a Victim’s Family Member, she was somehow raised up to a higher level
to start with.
I think that this deification of the family members is actually a byproduct
of our media-saturated society. After all, people die tragically every day,
in car accidents or from rare diseases, and the deaths reverberate in their
families for years. But those families don’t get kowtowed to in the national
press, don’t get to tell the rest of the world what’s sacred and what isn’t,
don’t dictate front-page headlines in sensible papers like the Guardian. It’s
only when the tragedy makes news headlines that the transformation occurs.
Wouldn’t it be great if news organisations pledged not to quote victims’ family
members unless they say something useful and/or interesting? If they realised
that such people simply don’t have privileged access to the truth? But that
will never happen. The family members would never stand for such a policy.