Cases of "family annihilators" - people who murder their families and sometimes themselves as well - have been much in the news lately. Most recently, in Maryland, Christopher Wood killed his wife, children, and himself, and William Parente did the same. The press has always devoted considerable coverage to these cases ever since James Yates became the first American to murder his family in 1781.
It is puzzling to me, though not surprising, that some try to pair these headlines with others on our front pages today. As the Washington Post headline recently put it, Some Link Economy With Spate of Killings. This purely speculative hypothesis is supported by criminologist James Alan Fox. He remarks: "There's a combination of feeling despair and hopelessness at the same time as a certain degree of anger and blame."
Another university expert, Richard Gelles, also blames these cases on the economy. In another Washington Post piece about Christopher Wood, the expert remarked: "This is a very rare but patterned way that people respond to economic reversals in their lives."
I'm sorry, but I think that is complete rot. At least the Washington Post was cautious enough to quote a more creditable criminologist, Shawn Bushway, who responded that the guessing and supposing on the question of the motive of family annihilators is "like reading tea leaves."
I thoroughly agree with Bushway. In a case of a family annihilator, by definition, the most critical witnesses are dead. We can never, ever know what happened behind closed doors. Was there violence? Was there sexual abuse? Was there a threat of divorce? Mental illness? The list of possibilities is endless. Can a serious financial setback be a factor, or an immediate trigger? Sure. But the motive?
We can look for patterns, but they will always elude us. This is still an extremely rare crime, despite what recent coverage might lead some to believe. We seem to forget that the United States is approaching a population of a third of a billion people.
Even if a family was experiencing financial difficulties or even profound financial distress, that cannot ever serve as an adequate explanation for motive. Otherwise you'd reasonably expect to see a spate of these cases in Michigan, which has lost 240,000 auto jobs this decade alone, and the decade isn't over. At least you'd expect to see some of these cases in Detroit right now. Last I checked, the unemployment rate here was twenty-two percent and rising. The city is profoundly depressed and in great despair as Chrysler and GM edge toward bankruptcy. Bankruptcy! So...?
But more importantly, there is no objective proof that family annihilators are more common today than they were in good times. I know of at least one case of an annihilator who murdered his family for, he said, economic reasons, yet he left a fortune in the bank.
One study quoted in the Wikipedia entry on family annihilators actually concluded that the motive for such crimes is "to stop their children's suffering." That is preposterous on its face. It may be what some annihilators have offered as an excuse for their barbaric acts, something they tell themselves to justify it -- Andrea Yates said something along these lines - but it is hardly the motive.
Yet if you have any credentials, and if you're willing to go on the air and say that our economy is causing a massive outbreak of family annihilations, you'll get plenty of time. Recently on National Public Radio, another purported expert was given several minutes to claim a connection between the economy and family annihilators.
I think Corporal Mike Hill, Baltimore County PD, commenting on the deaths of the Parente family, got it perfectly correct when he commented on the killer's motive: ""We have not reached that determination and we may never reach that determination."
I hope these experts will stop blaming the economy for these crimes. Why give the annihilator the excuse? The economy made him do it? Please. The responsibility ought to rest entirely on the shoulders of the criminals who betray the love and trust of their families with their truly senseless acts.