Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Tale of Two Monsters

Eastern Ontario, as peaceable a part of the world as you can find, has recently had the dubious privilege of witnessing two of the most horrific and high-profile murder trials in the history of Canada.

In 2010, in Belleville, the world was transfixed during the sentencing of Russell Williams who had pleaded guilty to two first-degree murder charges and many dozens of lesser charges. Only days ago, in Kingston, three members of the Shafia family were sentenced to four counts each of first-degree murder for the so-called honour killing of three teenage members of their family and the first of Mohammad Shafia's two wives.

In each of these cases, the conduct of the accused was absolutely incomprehensible to the average onlooker. In each case, the circumstances of the killings were monstrous and therefore surely the perpetrators were monsters.

Russell Williams
The first monster, Russell Williams, was a most unusual sexual predator. So far as we know, he had never acted upon his deviant sexual urges until well into his adult years. He began breaking and entering into houses that he knew would contain female undergarments. He videotaped himself in various acts involving those garments. This he repeated dozens of times, including in the homes of his neighbours and people he knew in his private life.  He targeted the homes of women and young girls.

Williams' private life was another feature that made him a most unusual monster. Unlike many and perhaps most sex offenders, he was an outwardly successful and well-adjusted man. He had a successful military career as a pilot, having been chosen to fly Queen Elizabeth on one occasion. He rose to the rank of Base Commander at CFB Trenton. He was seemingly happily married, and he was to all appearances an exemplary citizen and soldier.

However, his sexual fetishism escalated into sexual assaults and eventually to two blood-curdling murders of women who had come to his attention and who he had used for sexual gratification.  All of his crimes were meticulously recorded by him so that he could relive them again and again in the privacy of his own sick mind.

He was caught for the simplest of reasons. He happened to have a vehicle with a fairly rare tire tread pattern and because of this the police could place him at the scene of one of the murders. He walked into a police station, filled with the confidence and arrogance of a military man whose orders are promptly obeyed, in order to answer a few routine questions, but he never left. During a lengthy interrogation, he was confronted with the evidence against him and made a full confession.

After living a double life for many years, Russell Williams chose to make a clean breast of it. He pleaded guilty plea to all the charges and he co-operated in the gathering of evidence against him. He was forced to sit through a sentencing hearing during which all of the humiliating evidence that he had gathered to document his various sick triumphs was used to justify a life sentence.  We were all left in a state of shock at what the evidence he had gathered against himself disclosed.  He was a narcissistic and unfeeling sadist.  He also had no respect for persons under his care.  One of his victims was a member of the Canadian military under his command.

Mohammed Shafia, Tooba Yahya and Hamed Shafia
The Shafia case, just concluded in Kingston, was very different. Mohammad Shafia and his second wife and their son were convicted of the premeditated murder of three teenage daughters of the family and the first wife of Mr. Shafia. Unlike Russell Williams, the accused have vociferously protested their innocence, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.

The murders took place because three teenage girls wanted to be free of the medieval rules under which their father wanted them to live. Their stepmother died because she was sympathetic to the girls. Mohammad Shafia lived in a world in which the sexuality of his daughters was his to dispose of. Unauthorized behaviour, including the wearing of clothing of which he did not approve, was a betrayal of his "honour." His second wife and their son were complicit in these murders but the father was the instigator, the real monster.

Or, rather, the monster is the belief system that the father acquired in his native Afghanistan and that survived within him after he emigrated first to Australia, then to Dubai and finally to Montréal. The daughters of Mohammad Shafia were, in this belief system, not independent young women to be encouraged to choose a mate or a career. They were his property. They were, in fact, his property to the extent that when they rejected his view of the world and of their future as envisioned and indeed dictated by him, by simply acting as normal teenagers, he saw no alternative but to murder them. It appears that his wife and son were so steeped in the same sick worldview that they readily agreed and assisted in the simple harebrained scheme he came up with to dispose of them.

The facts came out at trial revealed Shafia to be a small-minded, penny-pinching, petty, tyrannical and ultimately stupid man. He formulated a plan that had no chance of remaining undetected by law enforcement officials. He left evidence of the plan and half-baked attempts to cover-up the plan all over Eastern Ontario.

What can we learn from the cases of these monsters? Perhaps the first thing of note is that the best way to avoid the notice of such people is not to be a woman. Both Russell Williams and Mohammad Shafia acted out of perverted ideas about, or at least responses to, sexuality. Apart from that, what do we make of these two cases? Russell Williams terrifies us because he could be anyone in our midst. A successful man with a ready smile, he was the type of man people trusted. Who could possibly know that a Mr. Hyde lurked within him? How can we ever know who among us carries such perversion within him? How can we protect ourselves from people who can so well conceal their capacity to extinguish human life for their own gratification?

But at least Russell Williams knew that what he was doing was wrong. When he was confronted with the evidence, he confessed, almost with a sense of relief. Mohammad Shafia will almost certainly go to his grave knowing that he was right to murder his daughters and his first wife. No condemnation by our society can make a dent in his unalterable belief that he had the right to dispose of his daughters as if they were chattels because they would not bend to his will. The trial judge called him dishonourable and despicable, but one must take away the sense that these words coming from a representative of our mainstream society mean nothing to a man like him, because only his internal sense of honour matters.

His son had been researching whether a landlord could still look after real estate from jail before the murders had taken place.  It seems that they expected to be jailed, or at least looked into that possibility before carrying out their murderous plan.  Despite this the Shafias lied through their teeth in attempt to escape the most harsh penalty our society can exact. But all of this was nothing as compared to Mohammad Shafia's sense of damaged honour.

Many people have noted, and I accept their word on this, that honour killing is not an Islamic phenomenon.  I have no doubt that the Koran is opposed to this despicable practice, and that it is based in cultural norms that likely far predate the birth of Mohammad the Prophet.

Honour killing is in fact found in other cultures.  Just a couple of weeks ago a mother in Maple Ridge, BC was arrested for arranging the murder of her own daughter in India.  The murder took place ten years ago, but only now, and after extensive media coverage, have Canadian police laid a charge.  The family are Sikhs.  The sin of the daughter was to marry a man the family did not approve of.  And for that reason the family killed her, or so it seems.

And so, which of these is the greater monster? Only a year ago I would have said that I could imagine no worse monster than Russell Williams. Now I'm not so sure. The cold-blooded murder of three of one's children for the reasons that animated Mohammad Shafia will be hard to top.

Russell Williams is one of a kind, and whatever produced him could arise in anyone, anywhere.  And at least whatever produced him is not contagious.  Mohammad Shafia is the prisoner of a culture.  It seems that anyone brought up this culture can come to act upon its hateful principles. Which should we fear more:  the individual psychopath or the contagious, toxic culture of hate?  Frankly, for me it is the latter.

Even here, in in the most peaceable country of Eastern Ontario, there be monsters.  It would be nice to think that we might be done with them for a while.  But all the same, they are here.

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