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The least bad mass murderer

By: David Edmonds

One man murdered 270 people, but his release from prison caused only moderate outrage.  Another murdered 13 people and it is unlikely he will ever be released because the public would not stand for it.  Why the difference?

I am puzzled by a comparison of intuitions about Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi  and the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.   Put aside doubts  about al-Megrahi ‘s guilt; let us assume his conviction was sound, and that he did plant the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103.  Did he not cause more harm than Peter Sutcliffe? 

There has been considerable opposition to al-Megrahi’s release two months back, but this has mainly been triggered by the suspicion that the British government had economic motives for letting al-Megrahi go (trade, oil deals etc.), and that the decision to liberate him was not taken purely, perhaps not even principally, on grounds of compassion.   The London government denies having any influence on the Scottish legal ruling, but it’s the whiff of dishonesty that riles people, and the sense that the legal process has been subordinated to the political.  Nonetheless, even some of the families of those blown up on Pan Am 103 have said it’s acceptable for this dying man to spend his final days surrounded by loved ones. 

In the 1970s, Peter Sutcliffe sexually assaulted and brutally murdered thirteen women in the north of England and attempted to murder several others.  He is currently serving a sentence of life imprisonment.   He is now in his sixties.   Will he be freed when, like al-Megrahi, he is dying, and poses zero threat to the public?  I doubt it.

For the British tabloid press, Sutcliffe is the embodiment of evil.   For almost all of us it would be more difficult, psychologically, to murder a person in the flesh, than to leave an explosive in a bag with the consequence that some time later a set of individuals will die – people about whom one knows nothing.   For that reason, Sutcliffe is the more alien figure.   Sutcliffe acted for personal gratification, al-Megrahigo, apparently, out of political ideology.  Does this make what Sutcliffe did worse  –  after all, al-Megrahigo (again, assuming his guilt) destroyed the lives and families of twenty times as many people.   What’s more, Sutcliffe is held less morally responsible than al-Megrahigo: he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and is confined to a secure mental hospital.   Still, the public could never stomach his release and the puzzle over our intuitions remains…

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6 Comment on this post

  1. Hi David, interesting post! Not sure I agree with your analysis though. As I understand the case, there are some fairly serious doubts about al Megrahi’s guilt. So how can you can “put aside” these doubts when you discuss why “some of the families” accepted his release, and why the public in general exhibited only “moderate outrage” over it? Another factor is that we could never be quite sure that Peter Sutcliffe wouldn’t be motivated do similar nasty things again on his release, whereas the nature of al Megrahi’s motivations (if he is indeed guilty) coupled with his short expected life span give us no reason to believe he will ever reoffend. Can you be sure that our intuitions would diverge between the cases if there were no doubts about guilt, and doubts about recidivism, involved?

  2. A quick guess – I would imagine it has something to do with our different reactions to personal and impersonal situations. You mention this yourself: that it is more difficult, psychologically, to murder someone in the flesh.
    It’s easier to shoot someone than it is to stab them. It’s easier to drop a bomb from a huge height than to shoot at ground level. It’s easier to flip a switch that changes the course of a train than to shove a fat man off a bridge. The closer we are to the action, the harder it is to commit a moral transgression; our moral emotions are stronger when the situation is personal.
    This is the case when we are faced with committing a morally-dubious action ourselves, and also when we observe or imagine the actions of another.
    Sutcliffe is indeed the more alien figure; and contemplation of his actions fills us with a greater horror. Our moral judgements tend to be guided by our moral emotions, rather than a consequentialist calculation; and our moral emotions are stirred by personal situations.

  3. Hi Simon

    Thanks for that. But (a) I really don’t believe many people have been following the ins and outs of the case that closely – and I don’t think doubts about his guilt have anything to do with the lack of outrage, and (b)I drew a parallel with a hypothetical case (which will become reality, sooner or later), when Sutcliffe is too ill to be any threat. Still, his release will never be sanctioned, because the public would never tolerate it. This is a prediction that can be falsified.


  4. Idon’t believe in moral intuitions, but here’s my take:

    Most people (rightly, in my view) find nihilism a more repulsive motivation than anything else. Sutcliffe is obviously nihilistic. He killed for the sake of killing.

    Al-Megrahi’s motivation I also think was nihilistic, but it has the pseudo-justification of a religious ideology, an ideology that pretends to offer values (eternal life in a fantastic super-reality, etc.). It is much more difficult to see the nihilism operating behind al-Megrahi.

  5. The bombing of PanAm 103 seems more like war than murder. There was no malice involved, and the moral status of a warrior even if that person kills innocents/noncombatants seems less negative and hence less likely to excite public hatred, than is that of a person like the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe.

  6. Is the personal malice or gratification attributed to Sutcliffe less morally reprehensible than al-Megrahi’s presumed ideological motivation ? What about Eichmann. He didn’t personally murder anyone but was impersonally responsible for mass murder on an unprecedented scale for what appears to have been an ideological motive.

    If Eichmann had been imprisoned instead of executed would the people who were philosophical about the ‘humanity’ implicit in al-Megrahi’s release have adopted the same attitude toward Eichmann if he had been diagnosed with a terminal condition. Somehow I doubt it !

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