Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Devil made him do it?

I'll be talking to the Bishop of Carlisle about the Lake District shootings, announced Samira Ahmed, this week's presenter of Radio 4's Sunday programme. This is going to be fun, I thought. But I was wrong. Apparently there's a new bishop of Carlisle, one James Newcombe, and other than a few platitudes about the community coming together and the Church being there for people, he said virtually nothing. Just your typical middle-of-the-road Anglican bishop, in fact.

I wonder what his predecessor would have said. Carlisle's last bishop, after all, was the loopy but infinitely quotable Graham Dow, a man who once wrote that demonic activity was widespread in Britain, and that a sure sign that a person was diabolically infestated was a preference for wearing black. (That's most of his priestly colleagues who need watching, then.) Dow also speculated that the floods that hit his diocese a few years back were a sign of God's righteous anger with the "moral degradation" of modern Britain, as evidenced by gay civil partnerships among other things. He told a General Synod fringe meeting that Gordon Brown's government reminded him of the Beast prophesied in the Book of Revelation. And he supported a campaign to remove, and preferably have exorcised, a work of art from a Carlisle museum which incorporated a strongly-worded medieval curse. It was, he commented, ungodly.

He may have been a few wafers short of a communion, but at least Dow knew what he believed and wasn't afraid to say so - something that may have endeared him to Tony Blair, whose early faith he helped to form (thanks a lot, Graham). I suspect he would have seen in Derrick Bird's rampage clear evidence of demonic possession. The devil entered into him - that, surely, is all the explanation that is needed for an event so otherwise puzzling, for all the attempts in the newspapers to rationalise it as the consequence of Bird's fear of going to jail for non-payment of taxes, or feeling cheated by his brother, deeply-laid fraternal jealousies or more recent disagreements with colleagues, even the suggestion (found in yesterday's Mail) that his brother was better-looking and more successful and thus had to die. None of these speculations really work, for the simple reason that they do not ordinarily move people to engage in killing sprees. Suicide, yes. A single murder, even. But not what happened in Cumbria.

With his strong moral views, the former bishop might also have been interested in Bird's penchant for holidays in Thailand, with all that that implies. In the cab-driver's sex-tourism he would have found all the "moral degradation" needed to explain why Satan found in Derrick Bird a promising vehicle for his demonic will. Everything suddenly makes sense: the reason Bird's actions were so out of keeping with the person known to his family and friends was they were not his actions at all. He was no more in control of his body than he was of his mind. He was little more than a Satanically programmed zombie.

The modern mind, embodied in the world of journalism as much as in the world of science, revolts against such archaic notions, of course. Partly this is because of the absurdity of the idea of possession - or at least its irreconcilability with the findings of science about the nature of the brain. But the problem also lies in the strongly-held belief in psychological causality, the need to establish, in quasi-rational terms, what makes a person act in a certain way. Hence the feverish search for the key to Derrick Bird's mentality, both for the trigger event that set off his killing spree and the deep, long-festering psychological forces that ultimately reached a tipping point last Wednesday.

There must, after all, be such an explanation if the crime is to "make sense", and the need for things to make sense, or at least appear to make sense, is an important element in the narrative framework within which both the media and many traditional forms of psychology operate. The speculative frenzy that has engulfed Bird's crime in the past few days is a form of storytelling - and stories require logic and coherence that the messy randomness of life often lacks.

If you happen to believe in the Devil and in demonic possession, then it makes a perfectly rational explanation for Derrick Bird: a force external to him took him over and forced him to act in a manner that could not have been foreseen, whatever might be said of his petty frustrations and fears. Arguably, it is more logical (once one accepts the irrational premise) to allow for such a possibility than to insist that Bird must have had his reasons.

There are other, less mythological, ways of expressing this, of course. David Cameron, impressively level-headed in response to the tragedy, said that "you can't legislate against a switch going off in someone's head". The silicon chip inside Bird's head might indeed have been set to overload, perhaps for physiological reasons (brain damage?) that it may never be possible to establish. As with demonic possession, however, such causes do not make for a satisfying explanation because they do not follow the pattern established by the Western tradition of novels and cinema. We collectively want to get inside his head, because we have been primed to believe that that is the place where answers will be found.

Politics, like journalism and psychology, is also a narrative art, driven by the need for psychological plausibility. Hence many observers have been surprised by the calmness of the Cameron response to the Cumbria shootings. Matthew d'Ancona in today's Telegraph imagines what New Labour (the über-storytellers of modern British politics) would have done: there would have been instant reviews followed by hasty legislation, designed to show not just that the government was Doing Something but that the story had an ultimate meaning, if only as a macabre way of demonstrating the existence of loopholes in the law and the State's ability to do something. Under Labour, indeed, the government response has become a vital part of the narrative of tragic incidents - and a vital part of that has been the identification of something or someone to blame.

Our ancestors invented demons to explain the random and inexplicable events and behaviours that challenged the predictability of life and human behaviour. The Graham Dows of this world still believe in them. For the most part, though, we have jettisoned such ideas but not yet found a psychologically satisfying replacement. Instead, insist that there must be reasons - and not any old reasons, but with a view of human beings as rational, morally responsible agents. That might well turn out to be as erroneous a belief as the existence of Satan.