Americans Love Murder

Chalk Outline

How should we grapple with the use of violent death as a plot device – from our entertainment to our news cycles?

As an undeniably dreary 2014 draws to a close, the subject of murder has been hard to escape. Protests over the failure of grand juries to indict the officers responsible for the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner continue to dominate headlines. The other staples of media coverage – missing women, serial killers, and the like – fill out the rest of the news section. Serial, the breakout true-crime podcast with over one million listeners, has generated both fawning think pieces and guilty articles on the ethics of loving Serial. Celebrated showrunner Shonda Rhimes has made murder a cottage industry; How to Get Away With Murder, the latest addition to the Shondaland line-up, debuted in September to rave reviews and millions of viewers.

Murder has long been a cultural fascination in America, as it has in human societies throughout history. The taking of another’s life arouses a range of strong human emotions – from fear to outrage and bloodlust. Our deeply ingrained notions of morality demand that justice follow murder, though we often disagree on the definition of justice. Police killings of unarmed black men have galvanized the nation in part due to the singular way in which murder grips the imagination and offends the basic tenets of our moral code.

At the same time, murder titillates; as our most grave social transgression, it evokes an aura of taboo excitement. Our current focus on the grand jury decisions harkens back to the “Trial of the Century” tradition of sensationalized court cases, just as the killings themselves echo our shameful history of lynching (murder as social and racial control). Many of our cultural archetypes – the gunslinger, the vigilante, the lawman – are tied up in violent death. Our deeply strange and widely accepted enthrallment with serial killers is another facet of our greater societal obsession. Charles Manson was headline news as recently as last month, and he committed his crimes 45 years ago. This more prurient desire, for the grisly details and shocking revelations, should give us pause.

A deeply disturbing recent case is the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy from Cleveland, at the hands of a police officer. The tragic story is one concerning our worst impulses – the shoot-first, cowboy mentality that is the scourge of our police departments; the conflation of children’s toys with violent weaponry; and a nation prepared to exchange outrage and endless recriminations as the details of the crime slowly come to light. But we shouldn’t forget the simple heartbreak of a life snuffed out prematurely, or the shattered existences left in calamity’s wake.

Despite our reasons – a call to social justice, a desire for casual entertainment, voyeuristic curiosity – what are the ethical ramifications of using the murder of actual human beings to serve other ends? The nature of our media today, which plucks individuals out of complete obscurity to serve as avatars in our common narrative, and the new technologies that allow us all to play detective from the comfort of our screens, make the ethical considerations more urgent. In our rush to adjudicate the facts of individual cases, uncover the hidden lives of those involved and demonize or deify the participants, we too quickly forget the human-scale tragedy that a murder entails. If we are looking for martyrs and villains, or heroes and demons, then we will definitely fail to find human beings.