Families of Elliot Rodger’s first three victims – his two roommates and the young man who happened to be visiting at the time – have expressed outrage and dismay over the media’s focus on the depraved killer rather than on his victims. On May 23, Rodger stabbed and hacked to death Cheng Yuan “James” Hong and Weihan “David” Wang, both 20, who shared the apartment with Rodger, and George Chen, 19. He then went out in his BMW on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, California.
Their survivors particularly resent the fact that Barbara Walters is coming out of her recent retirement to interview the killer’s father. In a statement to ABC News, they wrote: “As parents, we plea you not to focus on the killer side.” Instead, they asked the network to “pay respect to the six beautiful lives gone too soon.”
Do the parents have a legitimate gripe? They definitely do.
But is the focus on the killer understandable? That’s also a “Yes.”
It is true that we tend to focus more on the perpetrators than the victims. Part of this phenomenon certainly derives from the same emotional core that motivates us to watch horror movies and read crime novels – the vicarious experiencing of things that are too horrible to contemplate as actually applied to ourselves. But there is another, more profound explanation, which gets to the heart of why people like me write about true crime and the justice system that attempts to deal with it.
Permit me to go a little “inside baseball” on the writerly craft.
How do you define character as a writer? You can list a bunch of traits, but that is lazy and boring. In scriptwriting, it is frowned upon as writing “on the nose” as opposed to showing the person in action. So when writers think about showing character, they do so by considering the choices the individual makes. In other words, to quote an old writing maxim, Character is choice.
In a crime, it is the perpetrator who makes the choice. He is the active participant in the drama. The victim may then be presented with a series of choices, but it is the perpetrator who initiates the action.
And what we all want to know is: Why?
Those of us who consider ourselves relatively “normal” (whatever that means), understand the victim or victims. They are us. The horror that happened to them could happen to any of us. We can “fill in the blanks” in their lives and instinctively feel their pain – or at least we should.
But as human beings, we are inexorably drawn to mystery. As Robert Penn Warren put it so plainly in his magnificent novel, All the King’s Men, “The end of man is to know.”
The perpetrator represents the mystery of evil. He has chosen to do something we can’t imagine doing ourselves. We understand his anger, jealousy, hatred, rage, resentment and/or sense of inadequacy, because we’ve all felt those emotions. What we can’t understand is the inability or unwillingness to suppress those emotions to the point of wantonly injuring someone else or taking a life.
We tell ourselves that we understand, but we really don’t. If we did, we might be able to recognize the evil and stop it before it happens – something we ask about each time there is another mass murder.
Any time a victim is marginalized or forgotten, a terrible injustice takes place. But it is unreasonable to expect us not to be interested in the perpetrator. Because the choice of evil is probably the greatest mystery there is.