For the past five years I’ve been interviewing people from around the world who have taken a life: here’s what I’ve found.
Gunfire erupts during a crowded party in Omaha leaving three people dead, Islamic State publicly execute two more civilians, Boko Haram attack Baga killing scores of men and women, a homemade bomb explodes in Central Cairo, two people are executed in China for murdering a woman, and a young couple are the victims of suspected honour killing in Istanbul … the list goes on.
This is the harsh world we live in, and this is just the last week.
At first glance these incidents seem like isolated examples of the very worst of our species, yet on closer inspection each incident is revealed as simply an individual component of a much larger and harsher reality. The reality is that killing is a part of our culture, and that isn’t going to change.
Last year, a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report revealed that 437,000 people across the world lost their lives in 2012 as a result of intentional homicide and violence. Their data supports what many of us have believed to be true for a very long time; our society – our species – has violence at its core.
The UNODC data confirms the saddening truth that as much as we’d like to believe we’ve managed to evolve beyond our ancestral brutality over the course of our 150,000 year journey as a civilisation, that just isn’t the case. Author Ashim Shanker said it best: “Brutality, dominance, and cruelty are no less prevalent now than in early human history.”
The figures reveal a lot of things we already know to be true. Firearms are the most widely used murder weapons, causing four in 10 homicides globally. Globally, the male homicide rate is almost four times times higher than for females (9.7 versus 2.7 per 100,000 people each year). Almost 15 per cent of all homicides stem from domestic violence, and some 80 per cent of homicide victims and 95 per cent of perpetrators are men.
For the past five years I’ve been researching and interviewing a wide range of people from around the world who have taken a life, or lives, by choice or by circumstance. The goal of this research has been to understand why we kill. To date, I’ve researched euthanasia, abortion, soldiers at war, terrorism, preachers, parents, animal rights activists, child soldiers, vigilantism and a range of other topics; research which has for the most part validated many of my long held beliefs and values.
Even as our news headlines are crowded with stories of domestic or gang violence, terrorism and our troops at war, there’s a noticeable absence of stories focused on the 100 million girls that have disappeared in China as a result of the one-child policy. The 800,000 suicides that occur each year. The estimated 250,000 child soldiers being forced to fight around the world today, or the 5000 honour-related killings that occur every year. And let’s not forget the 700-plus state executions that occurred around the globe. Seems we can handle killing, but we do have our limits.
As a former soldier, I can reconcile the fact that soldiers will die during times of war. But the question I was once unable to understand – why so many people die from intentional violence and murder – I now have a pseudo-answer for.
After coming to know soldiers and doctors, preachers, parents and activists, one thing has become crystal clear: like it or not, when it all comes down to it, we all have a good reason to kill. For some of us it’s family and friends, for others there are religious or nationalist affiliations. Irrespective of how savoury our reasons, I’ve come to the evolutionary inevitable conclusion that despite what we might like to believe about ourselves, we are all capable of killing.
One positive of this realisation is that if more people understand that we are all capable of doing the worst things, even if it’s for what we think is a good reason, then we may find a common ground and stop blaming easy targets.
When we are all potential killers, maybe peace ensues.
Chris Rhyss Edwards is the author of Good Reasons to Kill