Thursday 20 June 2019

But he was such a quiet man…


This article first appeared in Malta Today

Whenever a violent crime occurs, especially in a domestic setting, the immediate (and understandable) knee-jerk reaction is to analyse whether we could have seen it coming.  Newsrooms, especially, have a penchant for interviewing the neighbours, and nine times out of ten, shock is expressed that the person living next door was capable of such a thing.  After all, it is not easy to wrap your head around the realization that the person you have said ‘hello’ to for years as you walked out of your front door every morning is suddenly splashed on the front page of every newspaper, news portal and social media, charged with committing a heinous crime. 

This scenario was played out once again following the double murder in Ghaxaq last week, after a man murdered his mother and sister.  This particular double murder was also different to the “if I cannot have you, then no one can” type of domestic violence murder by a spurned husband or lover. 

The accused is reported to have shot the two women, bludgeoned them with a mallet, then loaded their bodies onto a cart, after which he transported them by car to a nearby field and buried their bodies.  He disposed of the weapons at a bulky refuse amenity site and then reported them missing. It was only when he broke down under Police interrogation that he confessed to the crime and told officers where they could find the bodies and the weapons.  

Police searching for the murder weapons

However, when various newsrooms spoke to the stunned neighbours, all of them described the suspect, Joseph Bonnici, as a good, quiet, reserved man, “always with his head hung low” and they simply could not believe the news. (Although to be perfectly frank, if someone keeps their head down and does not make eye contact, it does not necessarily make them a “good” man).  But the general consensus was that of sheer disbelief. This was “a good family, who never had any serious arguments between them and were never heard fighting.” One report even quoted the neighbours as saying that the siblings had a very good relationship.  “We are all stunned. I can’t imagine what could have led to this. He seemed like a good man; (but) then so did his father,” one man told Times of Malta.

The father, as it turned out is serving a 31-year jail sentence for having shot and killed the couple next door to them, following an argument 19 years ago.  In fact, sources who spoke to TVM said that during the interrogation, Joseph Bonnici allegedly told police that he had killed his mother because she was responsible for his father being jailed after killing the couple Joseph and Carmela Dalli. He said he killed his sister because he alleged she was blackmailing him with false reports that he had raped her when she was a youngster.

As the old saying goes, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors.  Nor can we ever really fathom what murderous thoughts and demons may be lurking behind a seemingly quiet exterior. How many times have serial killers or teenagers who carry out mass shootings at a school been described in similar terms: “he was so quiet, he always kept to himself, we never even heard him raise his voice.”

If we take two of the most famous serial killers, Ted Bundy and Jeremy Dahmer, the way they were described by those who knew them is disconcerting. Ted Bundy was known to all who knew him as a charming man. He was a volunteer at a suicide hotline and a college graduate. However, he was executed for the murder of 40 women in the ’80s.  When Jeffrey Dahmer’s actions came to light, it was quite the shock to those who knew him as a thoughtful, active citizen. Dahmer supported gay rights in his hometown, but was secretly killing young men in the dark (as quoted in www.ranker.com, “The serial killers who seemed most normal”).

The motive behind domestic murders, of course, is very different to that of the pre-meditated, coldly executed and random killings of strangers by serial killers, who are usually sociopaths. There is, however, a certain similarity in the description of the culprit who seems, to the outside eye, as someone who is “normal” and ordinary.   

It is only natural for us to try and make sense of what leads someone to kill. It is simply too disquieting to think that there are people around us, whether acquaintances or next-door neighbours (or maybe even family) who could, at any moment, simply snap and do horrible, macabre things. Surely there should be some warning signs; some indication that a person is capable of such things so that we can be forewarned and ideally, prevent it? Or at the very least, steer away and keep our distance?  For, if even those who “appear” that they would not hurt a fly have it in them to commit murder, that means we really cannot tell who around us is a ticking time bomb, ready to go off at any time. That sobering realisation is simply too disturbing for us to absorb.

On the other hand, there is a wise Maltese adage which suits this situation perfectly: “il-kwiet ibża minnu” (be careful of the quiet ones).  Which makes perfect sense of course.  Those who keep their emotions all bottled up for a long time, for years, maybe even for a lifetime, are the ones most likely to one fine day, simply explode. Like the proverbial pressure cooker, there is only so much you can keep under a lid before the lid is blown off.  In healthy relationships, the natural ebb and flow of human interaction means that verbal disagreements and “letting off steam” are par for the course.  But someone who never loses their cool or who buries their true feelings and anger over a long period of time can only do so for so long. A passive demeanor may be a camouflage for something much darker, much more sinister, especially if the person (usually a man) has never really learned how to express his true feelings and has never learned how to manage his anger in a way which doesn’t turn to violence.  

Social conditioning is often to blame for this.  From a young age we expect boys to be “manly” and not cry, but then cannot understand why, when they become men, they cannot communicate about what is bothering them. As a general rule, women are quite comfortable sharing their thoughts about their problems or some personal crisis (often to their girlfriends) because we have been doing it since we were little girls, but many men simply clam up and retreat, avoiding conflict, and dreading the sound of those four words “we need to talk”.   

This is no way an attempt to excuse or justify what leads some men to violence and murder. But rather than chalking up yet another grisly statistic we need to try and understand the underlying problem, especially among “quiet” men who suddenly snap and do the unthinkable.  Part of the problem, I think, does lie in the fact that some men have never learned how to open up about their troubles and feelings. They refuse to go to therapy, they refuse to admit there is any issue whatsoever. They think they can handle anything and everything, because society expects them too. 

Until one day, they just don’t. 

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