Blind Man with a Pistol


Modern Tragedy

Josef Fritzl. Nothing can possibly be said. An unspeakable tragedy. A ghastly act of sustained horror the likes of which cannot be recalled in history or in imagination.

Yet something must be said, because he is to stand trial. The debate over whether he is mentally fit, whether sentences in Europe are long enough (and if, at 73, he would survive an appropriate one anyway), and whether or not his case merits capital punishment. A lifetime (maybe two) of rape, four childhoods stolen, inconceivable abuse and imprisonment must now be translated into prison time.

How absurd. What would a punitive sentence accomplish? As a deterrent to future Josef Fritzls? As a stern lesson in the hopes of rehabilitation? A crucible for his soul? The barbarity of his crime has eliminated the possibility of justice.

Usually society is spared such futile calisthenics. When Nickel Mines killed five Amish school children in October 2006, he thankfully turned the gun on himself. The villain behind Austria’s other recent rape and imprisonment narrative, Wolfgang Priklopil, threw himself in front of a street car hours after his prisoner, Natascha Kampusch, escaped. Suicide provides closure to tragedies that would otherwise offer too many questions, that mock, rather than demonstrate our system of justice.

The day after Kimveer Gill opened fire on his Dawson College classmates on 13 September 2006, killing Anastasia Rebecca De Sousa, the Toronto Star ran the headline “Killer loved guns, hated people,” as if it were that simple. As if Kimveer Gill was an anomaly, a one-off who by some hellish mischance developed both a love for guns and a hatred for people. The blame, such a headline suggests, is wholly his: what could possibly be done about such a nutcase?

The logic of such headlines characterize our editorial pages in the aftermath of Josef Fritzl. “How could his wife not have known?”, they question. They could as easily ask how any of us could also not have known: we neighbours, we fellow Austrians, or we fellow human beings who were equally duped. This question, this displacement of blame, reveals that we did know—we do know. Likewise, ridiculous questions concerning the severity of Fritzl’s sentence distract us from the difficult social introspection of which his suicide would have wholly absolved us. We place the onus on Fritzl’s wife, on Gill’s love of guns, on anything that will do because we know, in our heart of hearts, that we are to blame.

The truth is that society failed these individuals catastrophically. When Oedipus Rex tears out his own eyes on stage in one of the most violent scenes in art, it is the price he pays for revealing the hypocrisies and impossible contradictions of the social contract. And the audience watches on, unsettled by the violence but satisfied that he has paid for his crime, that justice has been served. Yet what is truly tragic about Sophocles’s play is that we are complicit in Oedipus’s plight. Our laws and our social mores, the matrix in which we participate and which we reproduce daily, necessitate and determine Oedipus’s fate even as we punish him for it. And Oedipus, blood running from dull sockets, shows us his eyes as if to urge us to revelation.

This is the hard lesson of Josef Fritzl. What kind of society can create such a monster? How do we, as its citizens, contribute to such atrocity? How can a civilization that fantasizes about capturing and torturing women, that imprisons children in illegal concentration camps for a third of their life, that endorses endemic rape and violence in Africa, possibly be surprised when someone shows us our eyes?

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