The gruesome details of how Johan Kotzé allegedly tortured his wife have shocked a packed courthouse in Pretoria. Here is what CyberShrink had to say shortly after Archbishop Desmond Tutu asked people last year not to refer to Kotzé as the "Modimolle Monster'.
Faced with a case like the Modimolle murder, we tend to fall into circular reasoning. Finding such awful deeds impossible to understand, we call them "sick", though actually sick people probably do such things less often than the guy next door. But then we may too easily assume that the perpetrator must have some specific illness.
The alternative explanation surprisingly rarely considered, is that some people are simply evil? A great psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, once wrote a book called "Whatever happened to sin?" It's become unfashionable to speak of sin, evil, wickedness, or other such terms - the Archbishop seems not to include them in urging us not to speak badly of monstrous people. Such words and concepts are not cheery enough for many modern churchmen. Similarly, we don't hear of atonement, or repentance.
At this stage, comments can only be based on media reports, and far more reliable information should become available as the trial progresses. We don't yet know enough about the detailed background, previous relationships and behaviours of the accused in this case, but in time we will.
The meek can also murder
Many nasty murders are committed by previously meek and mild seeming people. And many manage by their people skills (grotesque as it is to think of these behaviours in that way) to hide their basic nature for many years before it is revealed. A recent documentary reminded me of a case which has long interested me. Christie, the killer at 10 Rillington Place, was a serial killer unrecognised for years, to the point of having the husband of one of his victims convicted and hanged for murder, even testifying against him, while other bodies were tucked away around his home. Until he eventually went too far and got found out, nobody thought ill of him.
Before someone reveals themselves by a dreadful deed, they may reveal their essentially contemptuous attitude towards others in other ways, consistent but less dramatic. The difference is one of degree rather than of kind.
People with psychopathic/sociopathic personality disorder may show a consistent pattern of selfish behaviour with a disregard for the feelings and needs of others They may show this in a variety of ways, including cruelty towards animals, from childhood. Eventually, a situation may arise in which they feel sufficiently furious, especially when someone they expect to be tractable defies them or won't do as they wish, that they may act out violently towards that person. Reports that he may have had a "hit-list" of people he considered harming is not surprising, and would make it hard for him in court to avoid a presumption that his actions were pre-meditated.
Rehabilitation often impossible
Rehabilitation is more rare than society might like to admit, and containment, protecting others from any further incidents, would be more realistic.
It's not all that uncommon for such a person to force others to participate directly in attacks on the victim. Criminals often enrol others to assist, by coercion or persuasion; forcing them to do so is odd, and usually wouldn't be practical or useful. There are unpleasant racist elements in this one - maybe the alleged perpetrator couldn't think of anything more awful for the victim than being raped by multiple black men, and if so, he couldn't do that on his own. It's interesting that instead of fleeing, he hung around close to the scene of the crime.
People with psychopathic tendencies do see others as tools, to be used as needed. In a sense he may have used the son as a tool. He may not have actively or specifically wished harm to the young man, but recognised that forcing him to plead for his life, and then allegedly killing him, within his mother's hearing, would be an appalling experience for the mother. The alleged perpetrator seems to have taken great care to cause maximum suffering to his ex-wife, even at the cost of leaving her as a witness against him. He may have accepted his fate as a price worth paying to hurt her so badly.
Why didn't he just kill her? Because then her suffering would immediately be over. It seems he wanted her to live, and to remember what happened. In my earlier studies of torture used in coercive interrogation, I pointed out that when, uncommonly, this was thought of at all, the PTSD and other post-traumatic psychological damage it caused was usually thought of as an unfortunate side effect. Yet often it was the desired primary effect, and that may be so in this case.
(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, first published in February 2011)
Read more of CyberShrink's columns here.