Murders, Life and Death

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. (June 2008)Mass murder at a Florida high school is in the news again.

Someone has been accused of killing 17 students and staff on February 14, 2018. He’s being tried and may be executed.

I’ll be talking about him, one of the dead students and why I think human life matters. All human life:

Justice, Real and Imagined

(From H. Strickland Constable, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Constable’s 1899 illustration of ‘low types,’ left and right; and “superior races,” center.)

American news media’s often says “alleged” and “suspect” when discussing accused killers. Caution like that can get on my nerves. But I think it’s far better than ‘the good old days.’

American journalism has been — colorful. The same goes for our views. Someone could be accused, tried and convicted long before a judge sat down.

I don’t think the accused killer in this case is innocent. There’s ample evidence, and his statement, that Nikolas Cruz killed 17 folks.

I do think going through “due process” is a good idea. It’s supposed to reduce the odds of someone being unjustly convicted.

But it doesn’t always end in an emotionally-satisfying way.

Participation in a lynching may feel good to the lynchers, at least for the moment. But I like to think that most folks would not want a system like that. Not if they took time to rationally consider the matter.

On the other hand, I realize that people can have very regrettable notions of ‘justice.’1

I’ll admit to a bias. I’m not quite what some folks have thought of as a ‘real American.’ My profile is about halfway between the “Irish Iberian” and the “Anglo-Teutonic” chap in that 1899 illustration. That’s not surprising, considering my ancestry.

I’m glad America has put the days of ‘no Irish need apply’ behind. Not that today’s America is perfect. (November 29, 2016; September 20, 2016)

Tried and Lynched: 1913-1915

The Atlanta Georgian: April 29, 1913. 'Police Have the Strangler' headline, a pre-trial announcement that Leo Frank had murdered Mary Phagan.
(From Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Headlines from 1913.)

Mary Phagan, a teenager, was strangled in 1913. She worked at a factory where Leo Frank was director. She was white. So was Leo Frank, sort of. He was a Jew.

Frank hadn’t been the first pick for suspect. He was the third person arrested.

For many in 1913, Leo Frank was “the strangler.” That’s what headlines said when he was arrested.

Evidence at his trial was dubious, even by 1913 standards.

The victim’s blood was on her clothing. But not where police said Frank killed her.

They’d found red stains on their star witness’s clothing, but decided it was rust. There was no blood on Frank, or his clothes, or in his house.

They had two notes, which may or may not have been written by the victim. One of them referred to the “night witch.” Their star witness, when told to write “night watchman,” wrote “night witch.”

Frank was sentenced to death. His lawyers appealed, unsuccessfully.

The state governor looked at evidence and testimony in 1915. He commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison. This didn’t please some pillars of the community.

Whether Frank was abducted by a “lynch mob” or not depends partly on viewpoint. The 28 men included a number of professionals: an electrician, mechanics, a locksmith, and others who applied their skills to the task of disabling prison security and hanging Frank.

They probably saw themselves as public-spirited citizens with justice in their hearts. I hope so, for their sake. One of them was a former mayor, another a former state governor. The former mayor went on to become president of the state senate.

It wasn’t an uneducated rabble by any reasonable definition.

I’m inclined to think commuting Frank’s sentence was reasonable.

But I also think killing Father James Coyle was a bad idea. Even though he had helped a Puerto Rican and a nice white girl get married. That was in 1921. (June 4, 2017)

Again: I do not miss the ‘good old days.’

“He Will Be Remembered”

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Peter Wang, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student.”
(BBC News))

“…Friend Jordan Moll told the BBC Peter was a ‘kind and caring’ person, saying: ‘It was great spending the time I had with him. His family always treated my friends and I well when we visited. Even though they don’t speak English, they were always happy when we came over. I’m very grateful that I met Peter, and he will be remembered.'”
(BBC News)

Students Alaina Petty, Martin Duque, and Peter Wang were given posthumus ROTC Medals for Heroism. They were in the JROTC, Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. It won’t make them any less dead, but I think the medals were appropriate.

Peter Wang was born in China and lived there a few years. Then he and his parents moved to America. He was in uniform when the killings started. Maybe he could have survived.

Instead, he decided to hold a door open for others trying to escape. That most likely saved lives. But not his. I am sure his parents, family, and friends are grieving their loss. But, as his friend said, “he will be remembered.”

So will the accused killer. But not, I think, quite so favorably.

A “Depressed Loner”

(From Broward’s Sheriff’s Office, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Nikolas Cruz is facing 17 counts of murder”
(BBC News))

Florida shooting: Prosecutors seek death penalty for Nikolas Cruz
BBC News (March 13, 2018)

US prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the teenager accused of killing 17 people at a Florida high school last month.

“Nikolas Cruz, 19, has admitted carrying out the attack and is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder.

“The attack, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is the deadliest US school shooting since 2012….”

Nikolas Cruz was seen entering the school. The school’s surveillance cameras recorded his actions inside. Survivors saw and recognized him while the killings were taking place. The sheriff’s office says he has acknowledged killing the victims.

He may be innocent, but that’s not likely.

He’s been described as a “depressed loner ‘crazy about guns'” — by BBC News. I’m pretty sure I could find even more vivid descriptions.

“Crazy about” is more of a colloquial expression than a clinical diagnoses. But “crazy” isn’t too far from the mark in this case.

The killer’s earlier behavior got the attention of Florida Department of Children and Families folks. He’d been pegged as having depression, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

They’d also decided that he “was at low risk of harming himself or others.”2 They were half-right about that. Or maybe not, since his actions ‘harmed’ his future prospects. In a sense. Even if he’s not sentenced to death, his future doesn’t look bright.

20-20 Hindsight

He’d gotten medical treatment of some sort. But not recently.

I’m pretty sure that folks have discussed that. 20-20 hindsight shows clear warnings that something bad would happen.

I’ve seen considerable attention given to the technology involved. I don’t doubt that folks on all sides of the furor are sincere.

My own opinion is that tech doesn’t make us do anything, good or bad. Someone can use a knife to whittle wood or kill people. We can use a rock as a none-too-efficient hammer. Or a murder weapon. Or use rocks to build a garden wall.

From one viewpoint, the main difference between a stone wall and an electric fence is aesthetic. Given time, we may design next-generation electric fences with the rustic charm of old garden walls. And that’s another topic.

I suspect Nikolas Cruz could have benefited from “medical treatment.” The right sort. We’ve learned a lot about depression, autism spectrum disorders, and other psychiatric issues in recent decades. We have much left to learn.

That said, I’m not overly-anxious for ‘crazy people’ to be forced into rehabilitation. But I think restraining folks who arguably can’t control destructive impulses can be a good idea.

I also realize how easy it’s been to define and treat ‘insanity’ unjustly. Folks promoting ideas like neurodiversity probably mean well.3 And that’s another topic for another day.

I do not miss eras when getting inconveniently eccentric folks locked up was much easier. That’s partly because I’m one of ‘them.’

Different Decisions

My medical records are more detailed and specific than news media’s descriptions of Nikolas Cruz.

But they’re not all that different. I was called a “loner” in high school, and have since learned that my clinical depression started when I was 12.

PTSD, too. Adding that to a lifetime on the autism spectrum — I’m a mess. But not, I think, a menace to society. On the other hand, I’m definitely “eccentric.”

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to focus on writing and art, not mass murder.

Maybe it’s partly because even during my teen years I could think about probable long-term outcomes. Benefit-risk ratios for any sort of crime are far from favorable.

Thinking that ethical standards are based on something other than whim and opinion polls probably helped too.

For whatever reason or reasons, my run-ins with the law were mainly traffic tickets. I developed writing skills and ‘went digital’ with my art.

No pressure, but you might find my online shop’s “Brilliant, Talented, and On Medication” self-description interesting. Or not. And that’s yet another topic.

About 11 years back, my wife told me I should talk with a psychiatrist. I agreed, and have been getting “medical treatment” ever since.

It’s not an ideal situation. But not ‘fighting the machinery’ just to think is very nice. (January 7, 2018; July 2, 2017)

Death and Grim Humor

I think human life is precious. I also think murder and suicide are bad ideas.

How individuals and cultures see life’s value varies quite a bit. So do opinions on whose life matters.

My branch of Western civilization has been going through a series of difficult attitude adjustments — for some time now.

“After all a murderer is only an extroverted suicide”
(Criminologist in a Monty Python skit ca. 1969 (“The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words. Volume one, Volume 1,” edited by Graham Chapman, Monty Python)

“‘…We blowed out a cylinder-head.’
“‘Good gracious! anybody hurt?’
“‘No’m. Killed a [redacted]
“‘Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt….’
(“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Part 2 (1885), Chapter XXXII, Mark Twain; via

“The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”
(“On Suicide,” David Hume (1777))

The cracked criminologist’s opinion wasn’t all that far from serious views of the day. But I’m pretty sure the Monty Python crew weren’t being ‘relevant.’

Human Life Matters

The Monty Python skit’s equating murder and suicide isn’t entirely daft. Both acts cut a life short.

Cutting my life short would be a really bad idea. In effect, I’d be committing murder and giving myself no time for second thoughts.

My suicidal impulses are much easier to manage now, and that’s yet again another topic. (October 2, 2017; October 14, 2016)

Views like David Hume’s are still fashionable in some circles. Maybe it’s a reaction to hubris. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure than even Mr. Hume would have objected to someone cutting his oyster-valued life short.

I thought seeing human life as insignificant or meaningless didn’t make sense in my youth. I still do. And now I’ve got a better idea of why it matters.

My life — everyone’s — is sacred, a gift from God. We’re made in the divine image. (Genesis 1:27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2258, 2260)

That’s why I’m obliged to see murder as a bad idea. The obligations don’t stop there. Among other things, I’m expected to refrain from kidnapping and take reasonably good care of my health. It’s quite a list. (Catechism, 22582317)

I could take offense at someone telling me that getting and staying healthy is a good idea. Or that kidnapping isn’t okay. I’d much rather make sense.


A book could be filled with ‘dos and don’ts.’ Several books, probably.

Trying to micromanage human behavior may appeal to some, but not me.

I’d much rather keep my list short and simple. And limited to principles that don’t change. (February 5, 2017)

Others, not necessarily just control freaks, apparently prefer situation-specific rules.

I don’t see a problem with either approach. I’m also quite sure that both my ‘short and simple’ preference and ‘rules and etiquette for every occasion’ regulations can be misused.

I think reading and studying specific rules can be useful. That sort of thing helped me learn how unchanging principles get applied to specific situations.

My ‘short and simple’ list boils down to one word: love.

I should love God and my neighbors. “Neighbors” aren’t just the folks next door or in this town. Everyone is my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1789)

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,
“that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
(Matthew 5:4345)

This love isn’t a warm, fuzzy feeling.

It can be. Love is easier when I ‘feel like it.’ But I should love my neighbor no matter matter how I’m feeling.

Murder is a bad idea. But folks who kill others still matter. We’re all neighbors; no matter who we are, who our ancestors are, or what we’ve done. (Catechism, 357, 361, 369370, 1700, 1730, 22682269, 1929, 22732274, 22762279)

I’d be concerned if I didn’t feel something each time I learn that someone is murdered.

Emotions, including anger, are good. At least in the sense that they’re part of being human. They connect “the life of the senses and the life of the mind.” (Catechism, 1764)

In another way, emotions aren’t good or bad by themselves. What I decide to do about them is what matters. (Catechism, 17621770)

Doing what’s right and avoiding what’s wrong is easier when my emotions and reasons are in sync. But no matter what I’m feeling, using my brain is a good idea. Emotions can tell me something needs attention, but “…conscience is a law of the mind….” (Catechism, 17771782)

I can decide to help or hurt others. Like everyone else, it’s my decision. (Catechism, 17011709, 2258)

Life, Death and Judgment

Whether someone uses a knife, a gun, a car or a rock to kill someone else, the victim is dead. Like I said before, murder is a bad idea. There’s a strong and natural impulse to get even with whoever killed an innocent person.

Justice is one of the cardinal virtues. Vengeance isn’t. (Deuteronomy 32:35; Sirach 27:2728; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:3031; Catechism, 1807, 2262)

Justice what happens when we apply loving neighbors to living with others. It goes far beyond what’s in legal codes. (Catechism, 24012449)

Murder is a serious injustice. Inflicting massive retribution on whoever ended an innocent life often ‘feels right.’ But I’ve got a brain. I’m expected to think before I act.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

I’ve never been in a life-or-death situation, and don’t mind that one bit. I know how I should react. Whether I’d apply that knowledge is another matter.

My life is precious. So is yours. That’s why either of us defending our lives, using the least force necessary, is a good idea: even if that action results in the attacker’s death. (Catechism, 22632267)

That’s not even close to killing someone because I think maybe he’ll hurt someone else, eventually.

I’m pretty sure many folks will passionately desire a sentence of capital punishment for Nikolas Cruz. That’s understandable.

I think the State of Florida can afford to restrain a murderer without killing him. There may be places where folks are so desperately poor that they must kill some of their number to protect others. I’m pretty sure that no state in America is in that position.

I also think capital punishment is acceptable. If it really “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” (Catechism, 2267)

That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

Even before I became a Catholic, I thought capital punishment might not be a good idea. Partly because I thought judges and juries can make mistakes.

Someone who has been locked up can be set free. Someone who’s dead — not even the United States Supreme Court can say something like “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:144)

They could, actually. But not with that sort of authority.

Sometimes not killing someone who deserves it has perhaps-unexpected results. I’ve talked about St. Maria Goretti’s killer, Alessandro Serenelli, before. (November 21, 2016)

I’m pretty sure Nikolas Cruz killed 17 folks. It’s remotely possible that he somehow imagined that his life was in mortal danger, or maybe he just felt like killing them. Either way, it was a bad idea.

He may deserve death. But he’s still a human being. I’m pretty sure the state of Florida can protect folks without killing him.

Maybe he thinks his actions were justified. But maybe, given time, he’ll have second thoughts. Giving him time to think makes sense.

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends….”
(Gandalf, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” via Wikiquote)

Not that Tolkien’s trilogy is the ultimate authority.

More of how I see life, death, justice, and using my brain:

1 Justice, real and imagined:

2 Ash Wednesday mass murder, background:

3 Insanity — some progress, still learning:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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