04 April 2011

The Axeman cometh

Three men killed with an axe by a rugby player out of revenge for his daughter's rape. How did this rumour originate and why was there such a huge reaction? CyberShrink comments.


A news story which emerged last week stirred an outpouring of emotions and reactions, which were then shaken when a different version emerged on April 1st, almost like a bad April Fool's joke.

People reacted first to news reports that a man, apparently a vengeful father, had been hunting down and killing men he accused of having raped his daughter and given her an HIV infection. 

The story pushed so many emotional buttons - innocent victim, presumably a child rape victim, attacked and infected  a father beside himself with revenge who took an awful retaliation against the rapists; the nation's chronic frustration at the perceived uselessness of the Police Service and justice system; the horror of the murders; and so on. 

Actually, though some seem now to want as usual to blame "the media", the reporting seems to have reflected the information made available in the early days, and was reasonably responsible. The first stories apparently arose from police statements, rather than investigative reporting. If this is so, one wonders: why did the police choose to release some of the information, and not other relevant facts, and in so doing allowed the controversy to grow? Comments poured in on different web pages at such a rate that comment boxes had to be closed.

How did the inflammatory story arise?
What was unclear, and still is, to some degree, is where the elements of the story came from - apparently from Police statements. Back on 27 March, the Durban Sunday Tribune is quoted as revealing the police thought the killer in 3 recent murders and one attempt, was the same man. And they quote the police as saying: "Police were investigating the possibility the alleged attacker was taking revenge against a gang he suspected raped his daughter."

A man who had escaped the killer is reported to have stated that his attacker said: "Did you know we would ever meet? Why did you rape my daughter and give her HIV? You destroyed her future."  But different papers reported these alleged words differently. One, for instance, added: "Do you think I'm stupid?" Maybe the lucky survivor varied in what he claimed his attacker had said.  

At any rate, it seems to have been assumed, not unreasonably, that these words reflected the attacker's motives, and only later was it contradicted by facts. But quite early on a police spokesman (they have indeed been busy lately) was reported to have said that they would investigate whether there had been a daughter raped, "later", which sounded distinctly odd. 

Similarly, it was a police spokesman who apparently revealed that the suspect was, from a tip-off from the public, a former "provincial"/Blue Bulls rugby player. With a story as obviously provocative as this, one would hope that much greater care would have been taken in deciding what details would be released before the court appearance, and that there was no deliberate mischief by anyone in creating misleading impressions. 

People assumed the reports were true. The media assumed that what the police said was the truth, and worse, that it was the whole truth.

A national Rorschach
Though it's gone very much out of fashion these days, for decades psychologists used projective tests, the best known of which was the Rorschach Ink Blot Test. These gave you a deliberately ambiguous picture or story (in the Rorschach, literally, complex ink blots with no inherent necessary meaning at all); and you were asked to say what you saw in them, on the assumption that patterns in what you saw would be very revealing of your own deep conflicts and concerns. 

So it was in this case. People became deeply engaged with the story and their reactions to it revealed their assumptions and concerns. The killer was said to have been a former rugby player (an odd detail for the police to have revealed, as it would hardly have helped to find or apprehend the guy) most readers assumed he was white. Then in court those assumptions were shattered. The rugby player was black, as were his victims. But further details of his rugby career were provided, for reasons that mystify me.

Most importantly, he had no daughter. Later a police spokesman confirmed that there was no preceding rape, either. Someone who survived an attack said in his sworn statement that his attacker said: “You gave my baby girl HIV”, making no mention of rape. But different versions have been quoted. So we don't know what the attacker actually said or even meant. It's far from clear whether these were entirely random attacks, or whether the killer knew and sought out these particular men, or from what motive. 

More unhelpful comments
Unfortunately, the police spokesman then added a most unhelpful comment, saying. "It was purely murders with aggravating circumstances that can only be linked to evil practices." Neither expert, factual nor helpful.

Police spokesmen seem lately to make a habit of adding superfluous commentary to what are supposed to be pronouncements of facts. Rather like the soothing voice on Weather24 forecasts on DSTV, who keeps suggesting it's perfect weather for me to ride my motorbike and play golf. 

An obvious need for him to be sent for observation
Officially, we know nothing of Mr Ntshongwana's previous medical and psychiatric history, though a report from a psychologist is said to have been handed in. We must avoid the sort of crude psychiatric diagnosis too often arising in such situations, of the "To do something like that you'd have to be mad" school of diagnosis.  Some horribly sane people do some atrociously awful things. In fact, psychiatric patients are, if anything, usually less dangerous than their supposedly normal neighbours.

The defence seem, sensibly, to want him sent for a period of observation and expert assessment, which will surely be what a more senior court is certain to do before long. The prosecution seems to be demanding first an assessment from a district surgeon, which will be largely irrelevant, and inevitably too inexpert to be helpful.

With such gruesome murders, and apparently possible further charges pending, the more expert assessment is inevitable. The weapon chosen and the decapitations, suggest an unusually high degree of violence in the attacks, and are not traditional choices. If the victims were indeed randomly chosen, the motivation needs to be sought within the killer's psyche. Only the most expert level of assessment might shed any useful light on some of the essential questions here.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, April 2011)







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