Paul Vallely: Harold Shipman shows how far we are from understanding the nature of evil

Was the fact that he took his own life evidence that even a man like him was capable of a transforming journey?
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The Independent Online

There is something apt, in a macabre way, about the fact that Harold Shipman is dead, and by his own hand. It appeals to our sense of poetic justice that he has been driven to kill himself just as he killed so many others, and that his final deadly experiment should be upon himself.

For a murderer to die, rather than lingering for life in some high-security prison, satisfies our sense of retribution. Thousands of years of literature testify to that. It has a symmetry to it, much in the way that the death penalty does. For the relatives, of course, things are more complicated; the wound of grief is reopened, unanswered questions are raised again, the lack of what popular psychology calls "closure" is rekindled, as is the anger at the man who has cheated them of this. But for all of us it confronts us yet again with the unfathomability of evil, and asks us whether our response to it is - and indeed should be - emotional or rational.

Evil threatens human reason. It challenges our hope that the world makes sense. This is why our formulae for dealing with it are so inadequate - whether we demonise it, scapegoat it, or take refuge in dismissing it with phrases of bogus indifference about "the banality of evil".

In reality, of course, it is our responses which are closer to banality. That much was clear yesterday. Within hours of the news that Britain's biggest serial killer - the doctor who four years ago was convicted of killing 15 of his patients and who almost certainly murdered 200 more - was found hanging by his bed sheets from the bars of his cell in Wakefield prison. The man had "cheated justice", "taken the coward's way out"; hanging had been "too good for him", though it was "good riddance"; but he had "taken his secrets to the grave", and now we would "never get to the bottom [of] what his motivation was".

The truth is that we never had any hope of doing that. Evil challenges our sense of order. It tells us that what is real is not, as we had hoped, what is rational. In the past ,we had a way of dealing with this. It was to name evil as something external, to demonise it as a form of "possession" by some outside devil, and then to deal with that alien force by killing or expelling it. The ancient Jews literally took a goat, loaded it with the symbolic sins of the community, and drove it into the wilderness. We have not totally abandoned this scapegoating technique, as the treatment of paedophiles shows, and as the tabloid portraits of individuals like Myra Hindley revealed.

Modern trends - in psychology, philosophy and theology - have moved in the opposite direction. As we have abandoned metaphysics in favour of epistemology - working out "how we know" what we know - evil has been internalised.

We can all detect, in those moments when we lose our temper, the seeds of something which - if neglected or perversely nurtured - might lead us to a passionate blindness which could result in murder. Or at the very least, it enables us to magnify and imagine that possibility.

The problem with men like Harold Shipman or Ian Huntley - how ironic that on the day of the death of the one, an inquiry opened into how the other got a job as a school caretaker despite his history of predatory sexuality - is that they take us into a different realm. It is one most peculiarly characterised by a lack of the remorse the rest of us would feel once the terrible event was done (a remorse which most convicted killers experience).

Something is evil, as distinct from just wrong or bad, because it is a distortion of what we intuitively know about the world. Evil makes the impossible come true. It is absolute wrongdoing that leaves no room for explanation or expiation, and in doing so it shatters our trust in the world.

Society has tried to handle this in two ways, as the philosopher Susan Neiman sets out in her book, Evil in Modern Thought. One tradition, from Rousseau to Arendt (passing through Leibnitz, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Marx) insists that we have to make evil intelligible. The other, from Voltaire to Adorno (including Hume, de Sade and Schopenhauer) demands that we cannot and indeed must not.

The history of the 20th century seemed to give credence to the instincts of the latter group. What Auschwitz taught us, in the words of the German thinker Theodor Adorno, is that to some things "silence is the only civilised response". The notion that there can always be closure, explanation or expiation may be attractive but it is false.

In Shipman's case, it was popularly said that so long as he was around there was the possibility of an explanation. This begs the question as to what a satisfactory explanation could ever be for the motiveless murders of victims ranging from a 47-year-old man to a 93-year-old woman.

Moreover, even if he had spoken could we have believed him? The issue is not simply that of the lies and self-justification we saw Ian Huntley attempt at his trial. There is the matter of self-awareness, psychological denial and delusion. Or worse.

Consider Ian Brady's book The Gates of Janus, in which the Moors murderer offers a cocktail of misanthropic philosophy, forensic psychology and psychoanalysis of other serial killers. He draws on Jung's multi-personae model of psychology to offer a "multi-motivational model" of what drives serial killers. Yet his pseudo-academic approach shows no understanding of the burden of emotional horror implicit in his accounts of matricide, murder, necrophilia, bisexual rape and other ghastly preoccupations.

It is, according to the murder writer Ian Rankin, a professional student of matters evil, a self-justification which makes out that in a dog-eat-dog world the killer merely takes our general "attitude to others" to its logical conclusion. And if the killer is top dog then the serial killer becomes a kind of superman. To the rest of us, it is not so much logical conclusion as reductio ad absurdum. Small wonder that Rankin says The Gates of Janus is the only book he would gladly see burned.

Harold Shipman's suicide raises a particular and intriguing question. Was the fact that he took his own life evidence that even a man like him was capable of a transforming journey?

Perhaps it reveals that, four years on, with only his own company in that lonely Wakefield cell, he finally took the fateful step that crosses, from the realm of evil, into the territory of remorse which is what distinguishes the world the rest of us live in from the one in which the psychopath is imprisoned. Perhaps the news that he was to be allowed an appeal on a technical point of law, with the prospect of another lengthy courtroom appearance, was more reality than his previous self-delusion could bear.

Perhaps. Or perhaps suicide was the ultimate self-indulgence, a wallowing on the eve of his 58th birthday in self-pity at the prospect of the rest of his life behind the bars from which he finally hanged himself. As with so much else, we shall never know. Such is the mystery of evil.