Could you kill someone?

I started wondering about it when I read this paragraph in Franzen’s How to be alone. It’s a book of essays – some quite dated now – that I didn’t enjoy as much as I wanted to. Having said that, the essay on the Chicago post office in the 1990s is fascinating. Or maybe that’s just because I’m a dork.

Anyway, this paragraph:

Bikerts confesses to an envy for the Devil: “I wonder, as I did in high school when confronted with the smooth and athletic ones, the team captains and class presidents, whether I would not [this is where the page breaks, so you can see how I thought it was going to be about killing the popular kids, Heathers-style. Or perhaps you can’t see that and it says more about me than anything else] deep down, trade in all this doubting and wondering and just be him.”

You guys all ask yourselves questions you’ll never really answer, right? Like, could I eat poo (absolutely not), could I eat placenta (maybe, it if had a nice sauce, although I don’t know if I’d eat someone else’s), could I be a surrogate mother for a friend who couldn’t have kids (perhaps, but who knows if I’m able to have kids, and besides, this incubator is gettin’ a little old), could I put my hand on the hotplate when it’s glowing red (probably, but it would be really dumb because it would hurt for a really long time). See, questions. Irrelevant questions.

In high school I used to babysit two awesome kids. The oldest was in year six and I let her stay up and watch Rage with me if she raced to her room and pretended to be asleep when her parents go home. She used to ask me all sorts of interesting questions but the first was whether, if I went back in time, I would kill Hitler. I said of course. She replied with a doozy: what if killing him meant there was a 50/50 chance that someone worse would take his place? Would you take that risk? You can see why I liked this kid.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I haven’t driven a car in 16 years – not from any grand decision but because when I moved to Sydney after school, I didn’t have access to a car. And since those 16 years have been filled with various combinations of full-time study, part-time work, full-time work, part-time study and McJobs, owning a car has never been something I’ve considered. Shit, I own a fridge, how much more grown-up do I need to be?

But I used to drive. We lived out of town and the road went around the lake. There was this one particular corner, where you were getting up speed coming down the hill, that was just a couple of metres from the lake. And every time I approached it, I wondered if I could floor it and go flying into the water. Not in a “I want to kill myself” kind of way, but in a “I wonder what would happen if I did that” kind of way.

So when I read this post by The Bloggess, I thought “phew, it’s not just me”: I can’t tell if I won this argument or lost it. I’d feel better if I at least had nachos:

me: I would kill myself in about 8 seconds in that car. What about all the times you think about driving off the edge of a cliff? Does it compensate for that?

Victor: Who the hell thinks about driving off a cliff?

me: Um…me. And everyone.

Victor: *

Yeah, Victor. Everyone.

Over to you – and I’ll leave this post up over the weekend so you’ve got time to think about it – what stupid questions do you ask yourself?

32 responses to “Questions

  1. Actually, the “could you kill” question had me getting funny looks when I was at high school.
    I have always been extremely introspective, and we had a conversation at school about some mass murder that occurred and we had the usual “I could never do that” comments.
    I said “I could”. I went on to explain the view I still hold today that we are separated by the complete loss of reality shown in many mass-murderers by a shadow’s width. It takes very little. One small change in our circumstance that leads us down a path into self-destruction.
    When I realised this, it was really liberating. To know the beast inside. I think the pivotal moment was in an English class when we were talking about Othello. I felt myself drift off as if out of my body, turn around and looked inside of me. What I saw was a dark malevolent tempest. It scared me. It really did.
    But it gave me the realisation that I have the power to choose. I can do great good or great “evil”. Or somewhere in the middle.
    I guess it was one of those pivotal moments in my life where everything changed.

  2. I’m still not sure. I think I chose good. Might be up to others to decide. 🙂

    I like this post because I ask myself all manner of questions almost constantly. What would happen if those I loved died? What would happen if I did lose grip on reality? What if everyone disappeared a la Quiet Earth?

    I sometimes think I am not entirely normal. I often think about conversations I might have. I get a little dreamy and when I regain my faculties I think back on my imaginary conversation. It’s as if I run through several minutes of conversation in just a couple of seconds.

    I sometimes just can’t stop the weird thoughts. What if I was gay? I wonder if I was abused (I seem to have a peculiar affinity with people from abusive backgrounds). Could I handle losing my right arm/hand? If my wife and I lost our jobs, homes, everything we hold dear, how would we handle it?

    There are times when I feel like I could be a David Grey (Aramoana, not singer), and walk down the street randomly shooting people, mind just gone completely blank.

    Oh – and I am glad to hear the “driving off a cliff” thing. Sometimes I have a vision of myself stealing a high-performance car, driving over the Paekakariki Hill Road and speeding off the edge or off the top of a car parking building.

    It was really pleasing to talk to my counsellor about this one time and be told that you would not be entirely healthy if you didn’t have those thoughts.

    It is one of the curses of being a thinker. The thoughts aren’t controlled, they just flow. But at least I remember that I am just the observer of the thoughts. They don’t drive me, they are just interesting to watch.

    Sorry for the tome. This is just the sort of thing I can talk about for hours.

    • Don’t apologise for leaving long comments. I love long comments.

      I think you’re right about it being the curse of a thinker. And, like you, I never feel the need to act on these thoughts – just to let them wash over me. I think it’s quite interesting.

  3. As someone who lives a lot of her life inside her own headspace….(I have been known to have full on animated conversations with myself/imaginary people) this is a tough question to answer.

    I’ll have to chew on it some. I have many odd thoughts floating around here *points to head*…I have often wondered if I am perhaps a little disturbed, but I’ve been told that if I was really disturbed, I wouldn’t question whether I was or not.

    But I do know this much, I think in order to actually kill someone, I would have to be very afraid or on the defensive(as in hurting someon who was trying to hurt some one I loved). I don’t know if I could kill someone in cold blood.

  4. Rhiannon Saxon

    I think of things like, ‘What would I eat if forced to choose between steak tartare with a raw egg yolk, or a boiled egg?”
    (The raw steak wins – the idea of voluntarily putting a boiled egg near my actual face is nauseating.)
    Or…what if this knife I am carrying to the knife-block suddenly flipped up and whacked me across the forehead?
    Or, what if I climbed over my balcony and jumped down to the drive way? (6 metres from my loungeroom deck to the access road underneath. It would be messy.)
    Or, what would I do with a million dollars?
    And the conversations, especially angry ones. It’s amazing how convincing, and what a good communicator I can be when I supply the other person’s answers as well.

    I also don’t think I could kill someone in cold blood – I have certainly lost it in fights during early high-school but when my cousin and I (as KIDS) would corral peacocks in the amphitheatre at his place (short explanation – my cousins lived at Symbio Koala Gardens in the Illawarra when I was growing up and we spent a lot of school holidays there. The amphitheatre was for cow-milking and lamb-and-kid-feeding demos.)
    Anyway, we used to corral peacocks and try and pull out their tail-feathers and I, even when my lust for possessing interesting feathers was combined with a double-handful of peacock tail, could NEVER bring myself to actually PULL. I couldn’t make myself hurt the poor terrified things. (scare them out of their wits by chasing? Hell yes.)
    Hmmm. May have revealed a little too much about myself here!

    • “It’s amazing how convincing, and what a good communicator I can be when I supply the other person’s answers as well.”

      Rhiannon, I do this all the time. In my head, my sister didn’t marry her douchebag boyfriend because of my intelligent communication.

  5. One that pops into my head on occasion is “Would I sacrifice my own life in order to try and save my child’s life even if it seemed hopeless?” I don’t like thinking about the answer. Nor is it a particularly stupid question really…

    The crashing the car into water thing has crossed my mind now and then as well.

    • I can’t answer that question because I don’t have kids and so don’t know what it’s like. But if I was in labour and had to choose between saving my life and that of the unborn child, I’d choose mine, because as horrible as it is to lose a baby, you can have/adopt another baby when you’re ready. I don’t think it’s selfish because the grief is shared, it’s something you deal with together. Why would you leave your partner, someone you love dearly, to cope alone with a newborn and unbearable grief?

  6. yup, a lot of this sort of stuff goes around my head too. Certainly the ‘could I kill someone’ used to be a frequent obsession, having decided at 13 that I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. Having now been working in criminal justice for over ten years, the questions just get more bizarre, though more aobut others’ behaviour than mine (why would you have sex with a Jack Russell just because you saw it there on the way back from visiting your mother’s graveside? True story… esp bizarre given the man was in his 60s, married, management job etc etc). The ones about my kids (would I kill someone who hurt them (no – I have seen too many people whose lives were destroyed by their inability to grieve appropriately); would I die to save their lives (yes, I think so); would I give them a kidney (definitely, but I’d want some pretty strong drugs and chocolate to get me through). The money ones don’t fuss me so much, but health stuff (could I pull the plug on a loved one? Would I put a pillow over their face if they were in insufferable pain? etc) are part of what keep me awake at 4 in the morning (though not now – right now I’m going to go and write some lecture notes for killing in self-defence – so I guess it’s all really quite connected in my mind!).

    But yes, I think in a strange way, these sorts of thoughts ARE normal. Existential angst is part of what distinguishes us as sentient beings, though when I look around at some of my colleagues, clearly some of them are less sentient than others…

    • though when I look around at some of my colleagues, clearly some of them are less sentient than others… Fuck yes. I had a housemate once who I suspect, unless she was actually engaged in conversation, had nothing going on in her head. She was so unaware of other people.

  7. There is a cure for the types of angst that keeps people awake at night its called alcohol.
    Of course someone else will then stay awake at night wondering if they are living with an alcoholic

    Conversations with yourself are great you never lose the argument and inconvenient fact are omitted.

    Does thinking about killing Tony Abbott count?
    What about Howard when he was PM?

  8. “when I look around at some of my colleagues, clearly some of them are less sentient than others”

    I love it. And so very familiar.

    Rhiannon – people have often posed to me the sort of egg/steak choices you mention. But I usually like to think that there are never just two choices. The Far Side has a great cartoon of the four personality types which demonstrate the absence of dichotomy. 1: The glass is half full. 2: The glass is half empty. 3: The glass is half full. No half empty. No half full. What was the question again? 4: Hey – I ordered a cheeseburger. I think I am the cheeseburger. So to speak.

    One thing I think people do when posed these questions is thinking about it from their current mindset. Because I experience depression (have been on meds for more than half my life) I think about how easy it would be for me to become some creature from the id. I think about how easy I can become one of the mental health consumers who make the news in the worst possible way. And what I think this does for me is it provides me with some points of reference – I know I could lose my mind, and these thoughts give me checkpoints. Places where I can check my own behaviour and thoughts. And if they stray too far down the dark path, I can do something about it.

    I often think of the movie Falling Down. A guy who seems perfectly normal, has a wonderful family life, great job. Loses his job and goes a bit off the edge. Pretends to go to work every day. One day, he gets caught in a traffic jam, and a series of events just sends him to that really dark place from which few people return.

    There was one delightful scene (although a tad violent) which I am sure has played across the minds of many people. He goes to a burger restaurant at 10:35 and orders a breakfast. He gets told that he can’t because they stop that at 10:30. After a bit of arguing he goes for a burger. It arrives and he looks at it. Looks at the picture on the board. Looks at the burger, the picture. “Excuse me… Does this look like that?”

    TW for violence and abuse in the following.

    With the pillow over the face thing, I had to seriously consider this recently. My Mum grew up in a abusive household. Violent father, violent brother-in-law in the same household. My father while not physically violent was emotionally and spiritually violent. She became a chain-smoking alcoholic. After they separated, she found her self again. Gave up drinking, gave up smoking, started to get healthy, walked everywhere.

    An aortic aneurysm knocked her off her feet but she really quickly recovered. Three years later, a second aneurysm had her recovery from that second one wasn’t so good. She was left partially paralysed and with a flaccid bowel. She was already partially blind and that was getting worse. She wanted to die. She once asked me if I would think less of her if she did take her own life (Hell no, said I). She really just wanted to escape her misery.

    And because of this, I have had to think many times the extent to which I would go to aid her suicide. Putting aside legal repercussions, I know that if I did, I would be hated by the rest of my family. But that doesn’t concern me. I concluded that I would, without hesitation, sacrifice my relationship with the rest of my family to help my Mum.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me share this.

    • No, thank you for sharing it. I feel honoured when people share their really personal stories. Your Mum sounds like such a strong woman. I get that your family wants to have her with them for as long as possible, but I don’t know how they reconcile that with knowing that she’s in immense pain and wants to go.

      There was a poll here a few days ago putting public support for voluntary euthanasia at 85 per cent, yet politicians won’t do anything about it because they’re too scared of the very small group of hardcore religious people. It’s outrageous that my personal choices are being dictated by a small group of people who believe in a fairy in the sky.

      • On a v dull note about this, speaking as a policy analyst, I wouldn’t want to write this policy. Full of pit falls, liabilities, where do you draw the line, what constitutes informed consent etc etc. Not saying it shouldnt be done cos its too hard, but maybe cos its so hard, it doesn’t get done and this is the reason rather than due to fear of the religious right.

        • Yes, it would be an incredibly hard policy to write. But can you see either side doing it? Neither will decriminalise abortion either, despite public support, because of the religious right.

  9. Can I really do it? I’m not talking about murder or suicide or driving into lakes for a little adventure.

  10. I love this post! In fact, I’ve never really spoken about this to anyone before (’cause funnily enough it never really comes up in conversation), but occasionally when I’m driving alone – say over a bridge for example – I’ll suddenly think, “Gee .. I wonder what would happen if I just swerved the car slightly to the right? I’d probably take out that oncoming car, killing us both and maybe we’d wind up going over the edge and in the water.” These types of thoughts just pop in my head out of nowhere, but they in no way indicate that I mean to harm myself, or even others. I used to get a bit spooked by it, but now all it really does is remind me of the fragility of life and how even when doing something completely mundane, like driving home from work we’re still walking a knife edge between having chops for dinner and winding up at the bottom of Tom Uglys Bridge. Because all it takes is a slight swerve of the wheel. Weird huh?

    • Exactly – it’s got nothing to do with wanting to actually harm yourself or anyone else. Just random thoughts. Did you click through to The Bloggess? It’s an absolutely hilarious post. I love it so much.

  11. Rhiannon Saxon

    NWN – THANK YOOOOOOUUUU for introducing me and my FB friends to The Bloggess. THANKYOU.

  12. The going back in time to kill Hitler thing was totally what Einstein did to (unintentionally) kick off an entirely new timeline where Stalin had time to get his shit together, almost all of Europe ended up behind the iron curtain, and the cold war went hot.

    In a computer game >.>

    On a more serious note, I don’t do that much cliff driving, but I definitely get the involuntary “what if”s about all manner of different things. Often it’s while drifting off to sleep and my mind is wandering. It happens to wander into some entirely imaginary scene where there’s a nail gun, or a band saw or some other appalling way to injure oneself, followed by “I wonder…” and then the horrifying, cringe-inducing mental image of the end result seared near-indelibly into my mind. And there goes any hope of sleep for a while.
    “Stop thinking about how much it would hurt if your toes were crushed by a falling bookshelf” isn’t the best inner monologue to get oneself to sleep.

    Mind controlled car would be dangerous for me, though, as I am always tempted to slam on the brakes while being tail-gated.

    As for could you kill, it’s a question that’s always haunted me. It is very difficult – particularly as a youngish child (I started tormenting myself with philosophical issues at an early age) – to reconcile an image of oneself as a decent person with the realisation that there are probably circumstances in which you would take a human life.

    It has become particularly troubling – and somewhat more pressing – of late, as I have settled on a chosen career path. When that path is policing, it makes me very glad I don’t live in Texas. Of all the questions that consideration of policing as a career raised (temperament, suitability, potential to impact hypothetical future relationships/family), the prospect of needing to carry a gun and being willing to use it if necessary has dominated my thinking. It has been more prevalent even than considerations of personal safety.

    Ultimately the thought process always ends up in the same place. As someone with a deep-seated belief in equality, fundamental human rights and the importance of natural justice, the idea that one life could be worth more than another is incredibly confronting. As much as one can rationalise that random hypothetical armed robber is less… worthy? than the random hypothetical person on the street, both are human. Killing to save the life of an innocent may be intellectually justifiable, but one is still acting as judge, jury and executioner. As justifiable and legal as such an act may be – particularly for a cop – it is unsettling to be faced with the prospect that arguably arbitrary death can be doled out, and justified – if not celebrated – by society.

    I just have to hope that, living in South Australia, I am never faced with that eventuality. And that if it were ever to happen I could find enough solace, from the good that I had done throughout a career promoting dearly-held principles and protecting people (cue cheesy inspirational music), to not be destroyed by it.

    So endeth the sleep-deprived meanderings of a pragmatic idealist.

    • Chris, that’s really interesting – why are some lives considered more worthy than others? If you hurt/kill an off-duty officer, why is that worse than hurting/killing someone else? If they’re not in uniform, then how would you know they were a cop? But I’m sure off-duty cops would react to a situation in a way that identified them instantly as a police officer, so then you would know. I think about this stuff too because my baby brother is a cop.

      • I suspect that the qualitative assessment of the difference between injuring a cop versus a random citizen comes from different places depending on whether you’re a cop (or family member/friend thereof) or not. The cop side of the equation would, I suspect, be simply that the injury or death of an officer – on duty or not – reminds people of the dangers inherent in policing that they would prefer to not think about. There’s probably also an aspect of insularity.

        On the other side, I’m not quite as sure. My mindset has most certainly shifted since settling on this path, so I have only vague memory and speculation to go on. I suspect that the reaction to the death of an ambo or firie would be similar: they are people who give over their lives to helping others. When it comes to the death of a cop there is probably also an aspect of fear. It would amplify the threat of violence by raising questions about how the general public can be protected if the protectors can’t protect themselves.

  13. @ David, as others have said, I think those thoughts are fairly normal – especially if you are introspective.
    For example, I often think that, if I were raised in Palestine/Israel/Sudan or some other (let’s be honest) awful environment, that I would be one of those blowing themselves up. See – although, I am a pacificist, I think that that has alot to do with my upbringing, in a peaceful society, with progressive parents, a good K-12 education and a social sciences/humanties tertiary education.

    Whereas, I think that if I were brought up in a society where exposure to violence was the norm rather than the extreme, where my family were starving, where people in my extended family may have been killed – why wouldn’t I be angry and want to retaliate? This doesn’t mean I condone violent behaviour *I don’t, in any way shape or form*, but, I think that my pacifism comes from my privelege. How do I know how much of what I think/feel/react comes from my environmental upbringing and how much comes from what is me?

    On a lighter note – I regularly find myself wondering ‘what if i flicked the wheel and ramned into that pole, drove off that mountain’ – it isn’t a suicidal notion, rather, just curious – how would it feel? Sometimes I think that it is also my minds way of reminding me that I am hurtling along in a metal death trap. – Awesome to read that others have these thoughts though – nips, awesome and thought provoking again!

  14. Thanks Natalie. I know I am starting to drift again, but something you mentioned has always fascinated me. We are, to a large extent, a product of our upbringing. But sometimes there is something else at play.

    I had a fairly easy life, but all around me were influences of degradation of women, racism, homophobia. In my memory, there was a lot of intolerance. I ought to be a rabid homophobic misogynist. But there was something else that drove me.

    I saw this a lot in my work with abuse victims. Some carry the scars and go on to inflict others, while others … there is some sort of spark, some light in the darkness that others don’t get to see.

    It kinda comes back to the post on Scube’s blog about choice. We are all free to choose our responses to stimuli. We can choose to be nasty and violent, just as we can choose to be caring and nurturing. But our upbringing, our genetics to a certain degree, our economic and physical environment, all compromise our ability to make choices. I think that if we are under-privileged, we can still make the same choices the privileged can make – it is just a lot harder to do so.

    As for pacifism, it is funny – I am 44 and talk of it still makes me think back to my school days. I was a nerd, a creep and a weirdo. Picked on a beaten up. But I never fought back. I remember that I used to think it was because I was weak and couldn’t stand up for myself. But in my later school years, it changed. I chose not to fight back because I didn’t want to be like “them”.

    I have a very clear recollection of playing on the field and one of the bullies taunted me, and I yelled out “Fuck off, [name withheld]”. He said “Come here and say that!” So I did. I walked up to him, looked him in the face and repeated it. Turned to walk away and he said again “Come here and say that!!” So I did. As I turned to walk away, he struck out at me and caught the orbit of my eye, so it didn’t really hurt. I turned back, looked him in the eye again, and turned and walked away. I was so very proud of myself (even though I went into a private area and cried like hell – not because I was physically hurt but because of the emotional pain).

    What this story demonstrates, I think, is that while there is a fundamental privilege behind pacifism, it can sometimes stem from great turmoil. I would love to be able to see where that spark comes from. My Mum had it, so has many of her family members, and so do I. But I just don’t know its source.

    I like to think of it as a benign force. Whether you call it God, nature, karma or whatever, it is comforting to know it is there, and I can draw on it when need be.

    Dammit – I guess I am just a drifter with no role – perhaps more apt than I first realised –

  15. The brilliant book ‘On Killing’ by LTCOL Dave Grossman (who runs the amusingly named Killology Research Group) will reveal that even when faced with the choice of kill or be killed, almost everyone will fail to kill.

    • Kimsonof, you’re back! Hello, hello! How does the army train people to kill? How do you take the emotion out of it, because the “enemy” hasn’t done anything to you personally?

  16. Pingback: Not enjoying the enlightenment | the news with nipples

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