Leading article: Evil, unnatural, but only too human

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The Independent Online
Whenever a horrific murder is committed we search desperately for a way of understanding it. That urge for explanation is multiplied tenfold when the horror is perpetrated by a child. Then, predictably, we tend to turn to the same stack of ready explanations. Lacking a map to understand the mind of a 12-year-old child who murders, apparently for semi-sexual pleasure, we grab any clue that offers the relief of comprehension. In truth, though, as we shall show, the quick and ready answers are often a blind - a way of avoiding understanding, of failing to grasp how a child turns into a killer.

Many of us were struggling yesterday to understand Sharon Carr, scrabbling through press reports, staring at her grinning photo. Here was a child who described being "turned on" by stabbing her 18-year-old victim 29 times and then mutilating her. Her crime was so violent, so extreme in its rapacity, that detectives felt compelled to assume that it had been committed by a strong, brutal young man. But this child, when finally interviewed, showed no remorse. Sentenced to indefinite imprisonment, she stepped smiling from the dock. Her diaries described the murder in terms that freeze the mind: "If only I could kill you again. I promise I would make you suffer more this time."

And that provided the first quick and easy way of interpreting Sharon Carr. Cold; chilling; therefore inhuman. She was an alien, a creature apart, not comparable to you or your neighbour. And that provides a kind of easy answer, the relief that says: "I couldn't do that. My child couldn't do that."

In this case, there was a second quick answer: ancient, primeval wickedness, called by its most intimidating name: voodoo. Of course, white European and American demonology has similar opportunities for escaping from rational interpretation. Witchcraft has a long and bloody and hypocritical history in both main branches of Christianity, from Salamanca to Salem. But this child is black. She grew up in Belize City. Her mother burnt black and red candles, sacrificed animals. Or so it is said. And there we have it: the child's mind was turned by black magic.

This - evil of the most primal kind - is the easiest escape route of all. We could call it the Stephen King school of understanding. It conjures up images from B-movies of men painted as skeletons, bedraggled in chicken feathers, wearing top hats, dancing madly round fires in the night to summon the spirits of the dead. The implication is that such practices corrupt an impressionable mind, turning the child into an automaton. And that, once again, conveniently allows us to regard her as inhuman.

There is some truth in these ways of explaining how Sharon Carr came to be who she is. But they seem vaguely to suggest that there is a heart of darkness in all our souls, which can be conjured up with a few feathers and an incantation. Nonsense: we are not all inherently evil killers. It is tempting to try to understand extremely depraved acts by arguing that we are all capable of committing them, given the right pressures, the right circumstances. But no: apart from anything else, many children are riddled with lunatic ideas by their parents and their surroundings, but succeed in shaking them off as they gain their own judgement and experience. And many people, confronted by apparently inhuman horror, retain their humanity intact: witness the civilised individuals who survived the Holocaust.

The real story inside the story may be a simpler one. In a twisted way, it is a homely story. For, when you strip away the peculiarities of most cases of other-worldly violence, you almost always find an all-too-worldly reality of abuse, of systematic damage being done to a mind, not through Satanism, but through all-too-common parental neglect. It seems far more plausible that Sharon Carr's mind was mutilated, not by seeing chickens beheaded, but by routine violence enacted by her mother and others on herself, and all those around her. Violence begets violence. ``Those to whom evil is done, Do evil in return.'' It is a law older than the Old Testament, but equally true in the Home Counties homes where sexual abuse has just the same capacity to turn bullying children into abusing adults. The cycle goes on and on, the abused growing up into abuser.

The discovery of the pervasive damage done to our society by domestic violence and abuse of children is one of the great and potent discoveries of recent times. Only in the past couple of decades have we started to grasp how significant a factor it is in engendering what the world previously understood merely as abstract evil. If, like Sharon Carr, a child has pepper poured on her vagina as routine punishment; if she witnesses her mother fry her stepfather's head in boiling fat; if this is the only way that she understands a whole gamut of human behaviour, then it is perfectly possible to understand that a child's mind may flip.

Not all minds do; we don't yet know what factors decide that one child will convert to a capacity for evil, but another does not. Neuroscientists are learning more and more about brain patterns, and genetic predisposition for certain traits, but their discoveries are at a rudimentary stage. Maybe one day we will be able to decide what is fated, and what nurture (or lack of nurture) may provoke.

Maybe some of us have murder-triggers that others lack. We do not know what they are, or how they are pulled. But we do know that where evil does break out, it comes from a complex blend of a natural self and of the horribly unnatural things that have been done to that individual. In other words, though it is by no means universal, it is only too human. Sharon is evil. But she isn't an alien.