Too much information

So now we've all seen pictures of Russell Williams in stolen lingerie and read ghastly details of his murders and other sex crimes. Have we learned anything about the nature of evil?

I hope so, because we have surely been on a trip through hell this week and if we did not go there to learn something important we may be suspected of disgraceful voyeurism. Indeed, my initial reaction to this week's news coverage was that it was lurid and grotesque. Permit me to quote the tee-up from this very newspaper on Monday: "It's not yet clear whether anyone, least of all Williams himself, will offer any insight into his state-of-mind. The case promises to draw reporters and columnists from across Canada and the U.S. (The Citizen is sending a team of seven to cover the sentencing.)"

How many journalists does it take to type "He was convicted of unspeakable sex crimes and sentenced to life with no parole for 25 years"?

There was a time when people would have called such crimes "unspeakable" and meant it literally. Only a small number would have been privy to the details: police, a coroner, a few court and prison officials. And they would not have spoken of it because it was morally filthy without redeeming value.

I do not mean to sound squeamish. I would not, for example, oppose showing photographs of the emaciated, naked corpses found at Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps. It is not merely dangerous to be unaware of evil in the world; it is a dereliction of duty. We must understand who and what we are, the depths to which we can sink and how, if we are to be fully human and live as we should.

In the case of Nazism, there was a practical lesson: It was important to grasp the kind of horror that could emerge not from primitive cultures but from modernity. And I wish all who call themselves "pro-choice" would watch Silent Scream before defending abortion. But when it comes to sex killings, we are all already aware of their existence, their brutality, deliberate humiliation and terror. Would you look at pictures?

No? But stories and columns in recent days have not only given me obscene details of Williams' conduct, they have detailed the agonized horror of his victims' last hours and even described the position in which one died. What business have I knowing that, and what business has anyone describing it?

At this point you may object that I have clearly read the accounts and accuse me of hypocrisy for poring over the details and then professing shock. It was not possible to avoid exposure to the famous pictures of Williams in stolen lingerie. But I could have refused to read further and very nearly did.

My justification for doing the opposite is that, as a public commentator, I thought it was important to find out whether the stories that are selling newspapers were as lurid as the headlines suggested. They are. They are full of words I will not put in print, and images that will haunt us all our lives. Which brings me back to my opening question: Are we doing this to learn something important?

We might be. If you go back and read the quotation near the top of this column, it refers to the murderer's state of mind. What the devil do I care for his state of mind? This is not Silence of the Lambs and we are not sending him to a psychiatrist. What interests me in this dreadful affair is the state of his soul.

So look again at those internationally famous pictures of him in stolen underwear. Standing there expressionless, awkward, ludicrous and sinister, he looks like ... what? I was tempted to say he doesn't look like anything, that there is nothing useful to see here. But then I realized he looks like an idiot.

I don't mean that in a cheap shot kind of way, as you might call someone an idiot for driving badly or wearing an ugly hat. There is no therapeutic value in calling a sex killer names. I mean he literally looks like an idiot. That blank stare shows no trace of intellect, emotion or moral awareness.

In this there is something of value: the familiar but important recognition of the banality of evil. A number of stories referred to his escalating deviance as though he were embarked on some wild, forbidden adventure. But the truth lies in the pathetic quality of the pictures when he had to look at them in a courtroom.

Here is no superman, no transvaluer of values, dethroning God and issuing his own commandments. He is lethal, but utterly squalid. As Chesterton has Father Brown observe, "There is this about evil, that it opens door after door in hell, and always into smaller and smaller chambers."

We are justified in peering far enough into these crimes to reinforce the vital conclusion that even the worst evil is sordid, small and banal. The rest is just gruesome smut.

[First published in The Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson