There are a lot of things that go into writing about crime. You have to research not only the methods of killing but also the mentality of the killer. What makes a “good” murderer, one who is smart and can get away with his or her crimes? What are realistic motives? What are those serial killers and just plain murderers thinking? But what about the odd relationship between killing and kindness?
Think of all the famous serial killers you have probably heard of: Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac Killer, Jack the Ripper, and others. How many of their victims’ names do you know? How many of them were killed for acts of kindness offered to the wrong person at the wrong time?
Caution and Wisdom vs. Killing and Kindness
So let me start this “killing and kindness” discussion by saying this: we know it’s a fact that kindness, misinterpreted or mistaught, can result in disaster. So let me share what kindness is and what it is not.
Kindness is defined as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” Notice that this does not include rolling over and taking punishment you shouldn’t, nor does it include taking unnecessary risks for the well-being of another human being who is potentially or even actively hostile.
Kindness campaigns, taken too far, can lead to disaster and even crimes like abuse, murder, and worse. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them—it means we need to add elements of caution and wisdom to our rhetoric.
As a crime writer, also one thing you quickly learn is how horrible human beings can be to each other, so before we talk about kindness, let’s look at some common scenarios and an appropriate, kind response that is also cautious and wise.
If you are in an abusive relationship, get out. If you see someone in an abusive relationship, whether that is physically, emotionally, or psychological, do your best to help them get out. In this case, you are choosing the greater kindness, to yourself or your friend rather than toward a dangerous human being.
And there are dangerous human beings, ones who cannot be reached by mere kindness. Some need a serious wakeup call like a punch to the groin or some jail time to think things over. Kindness never means rolling over or staying in these situations. Defend yourself. Don’t wait for someone to change. If you need help, or are struggling and wondering what to do, call someone, please. The abuse is a crime in and of itself, and it often results in more serious crimes, like murder on both sides—either the abuser killing their partner or victim, or the victim snapping and killing their abuser. Neither person ever “wins” in this situation.
Kindness to Strangers
If you see someone broken down on the side of the road, and it is dark, in an isolated area or shady neighborhood, or in the middle of nowhere, and if you are alone DO NOT stop to help them, whether you are a male or female, old, young, strong, or weak.
This doesn’t mean you do nothing. Call someone for them, preferably the state police or other law enforcement first. If the person has malicious intent to anyone, that will stop them in their tracks. If their intentions are good, they’ll welcome the help. If you don’t have cell service, drive to where you do and then call.
Even if the person appears to be helpless, don’t be fooled. They could be bait for someone else waiting in hiding for an unwitting victim. If you are not alone, one person should always stay in the locked car at a safe distance while the other person checks on the stranger. Until you are SURE what you are walking into, don’t put anyone else in danger.
And for the sake of all that is holy, learn to defend yourself. While most people are innocent and have good intentions, it only takes one who isn’t to ruin your whole day or your whole life.
Kindness does not mean being oblivious to your surroundings and not being prepared in case something happens. Kindness sometimes means calling for backup before you get yourself in a bad situation.
Listen to your intuition and your gut. They are right more often than not. I’ve heard plenty of stories and can tell some of my own that prove this to be true. Kindness also requires mindfulness. Be cautious and wise in the way you show kindness and even whether you offer it at all.
Kindness to a Killer?
That brings up a great question. What about the killer or the person who commits a crime once they are caught? Should we offer them kindness? I would argue that in light of their crimes, we already are kind to killers and criminals.
This never means that the victim should be friendly. This simply can lead on the perpetrator of abuse and lead to more problems. The victim should be GONE at this point or distanced enough not be in danger even if they have to testify at a trial. If you are a victim, the person who hurt you does not deserve your kindness, forgiveness, or consideration in any way. The same is true for the victim’s family and those close to them.
Police and other law enforcement officials often tend to use friendliness as a tactic to get answers from a suspect. Why? Because you tend to get a better response than if you try torture (which is also illegal, see Guantanamo Bay) and then answers you get are more likely, to be honest. It pays at this stage to refer back to caution and wisdom though. This person could be lying just to avoid punishment or torture. Friendliness should never go too far and always refer to the paragraph above with any questions.
Generosity and Consideration
Let’s just get this out of the way. Our justice system is broken, and if there is anything “The Confession Killer” on Netflix (if you haven’t watched it, do) teaches us is that police and prosecutors are often so focused on clearing cases, there have been instances of rushing to judgment.
But overall, our justice system is pretty generous to those who have legitimately committed crimes. Prisoners are fed daily, allowed to bathe and in some cases see sunlight, often have workout facilities and entertainment available, and are given a chance to face their accusers in court and present evidence in their defense even if they are clearly guilty.
There are less generous systems and those places where vigilante justice is preferred (even in some of our own inner cities). So we’re already generous to killers in some ways and consider their needs, even after they have been convicted.
Why We’re Fascinated by Crime and Criminals
Why do readers read mystery and crime? The reason is not that we want to know “Whodunnit?” although that is sometimes a factor. The most common is that we want to know why the killer did it. People are defined by their motive, and that speaks to their very character. So there are a couple of reasons we are fascinated by crime and criminals.
First, we want to understand the motives of those around us because it helps us navigate the world and the social construct in it. The more we know why the people around us act the way they do, the easier it will be to determine if we can trust them or not.
The second reason goes a little deeper, psychology wise. We want to understand our own darkness and guilt, so we seek to understand the darkness of others. We want, no almost need, to see how far someone can go and still be redeemable.
It is for these reasons that we focus on the criminal and not the victim. We often remember the detective, and typically more so if he is flawed. To the reader, or even the viewer of real-life tragedy, the victims rarely deserved what they got, and while that is tragic, their lives are rarely memorable to us (unless they contain clues to WHY they were killed). Think of Dexter, books or the television series by the same name.
But the victims and their families are the ones who deserve our time and attention more than the killers. We should remember Margaret Bowman as one of the co-eds Ted Bundy killed, or Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler as two of the survivors of his final killing spree as easily as we recall Bundy’s name. But to be honest, I had to Google them to recall who they were even after studying Bundy extensively.
Those girls and all his other victims had families. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and more were forever changed by the actions of one merciless man. They deserve our kindness, recognition, and respect.
Final Words on Killing and Kindness
The longer I live and write the better I understand that life is about balance, the yin and yang of things. Walking the narrow line in the middle is hard, unpopular, and fraught with danger. Step too far to one side or the other, and there are wolves waiting to devour you.
Writing about crime and studying the dark underbelly of humanity comes with the risk of mistrust and the belief that everyone is suspect, and all kindness is potentially deadly.
Embracing kindness initiatives with the belief that everyone is good, or there is some good in everyone is at best naïve and at worst dangerous and deadly. The balance of caution, wisdom, and kindness is much harder to achieve.
And we’re going to make mistakes. We’re human after all. We will be cynical about someone who is genuine, and we will be too kind to someone who is undeserving and malicious. That’s why kindness is a practice and developing discernment and wisdom a lifelong endeavor. And it’s why, to an extent, that killing and kindness may always go hand in hand.