Monday, September 2, 2013

Ideas Don't Kill People, People Kill People!

While I'm on the subject, Kate Wilhelm's 2008 "legal thriller" Cold Case (Mira), like many mysteries, is partly a novel of ideas.  Unfortunately it doesn't do all that much with them, but it did give me some food for thought.

The situation is that an East Coast college professor, David Etheridge, author of a successful and controversial book on American history, has returned to Eugene, Oregon, where he was an undergraduate two decades before.  The book, while not exactly revisionist -- its arguments are familiar enough to people who know the history -- sets off a wave of protests by those who prefer their American history mythological, their heroes white and godly.  The author is known to be an atheist, which gives the wowsers more to yell about.

While he is in town, a former classmate of his, now a rising politician, is murdered.  Suspicion falls on him for various reasons, but mostly because he's handy.  The killing is tied to another murder, the eponymous cold case, of a childhood friend of Etheridge also known to the politician, twenty-two years earlier.  There are those who want to pin that murder, too, on the atheistic professor.  But then he is attacked and nearly killed himself, as he leaves a lecture hall in Eugene.  Because of the special brutality of the attack, the police treat it as a "hate crime," even a "random hate crime."  The task of the lawyer/detective in the book, one Barbara Holloway, ably mentored and assisted by her widowed father Frank, is to discover the real killer and keep her client the professor alive long enough to be cleared.

One of the passages that caught my eye was this one, of Barbara Holloway explaining to Etheridge why he'll have a hard time if the case goes before a jury:
"I'm afraid a general belief is that atheists are inclined to take the law into their own hands, mete out their own punishment when they see fit and scorn the morality that guides everyone else on the straight and narrow path of righteousness" [193].
This assessment of the public view of atheists is confirmed by the district attorney at a bail hearing for Etheridge later on.  "By his own words," the man declares, "he has demonstrated his disdain for government, his lack of respect for laws and his disbelief in the higher authority of religion to guide human behavior by a divine sense of moral and ethical conduct" (196).

It's funny, really, because if you look at the history of people taking the law into their hands in this country, it hasn't often been atheists who were responsible.  Lynchings, for example, or settlers driving Indians off their land, or vigilante justice in general seldom seems to have involved atheists: usually they were the work of decent, God-fearing folks who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.  Those who now look like good guys (and I'd agree are good guys) like Harriet Tubman, who took the law into her own hands and freed herself and numerous others slaves, or John Brown, who took the law into his own hands and tried to overthrow slavery, were not atheists.  When atheists appear on the scene, we're generally using the courts to try to get what we want.  There are exceptions on both sides, of course, but the notion of atheists as amoral is for better or worse false.  Whether Wilhelm would agree with me on this I don't know; she doesn't have any character comment on the accusation.

A recurring theme, almost a refrain, in the novel is Frank's lament, "Half the world's trying to kill the other half over ideas" (31).
"A lot of people prefer to live in their own dream world," Frank said drily.  "Just the idea of waking up to reality is too frightening to contemplate.  And reality is what they have to face if they read [Etheridge's] book with an iota of comprehension" [31].
I think Wilhelm does agree with this, since Frank is an important positive character and general fount of wisdom in the book.  And yet none of the victims in this book was killed over ideas.  I don't think it's a spoiler to say that one is killed in an eruption of wounded pride and sexual jealousy; another is killed mainly to prevent the killer's identity from being exposed.  In general, I'm not persuaded that people often do commit violence over ideas: more often ideas are the rationalization, not the real reason.  That would be true in Cold Case: perhaps the killer might have used principle to justify the killings, but the author makes clear that these are crimes of passion.

And there's some confusion about what a "hate crime" is, I think; especially the notion of a "random hate crime."  Hate crimes aren't random: their targets are picked specifically, if not always personally, for some hated quality they possess.  Maybe Wilhelm meant this ironically, but I don't think so.  She's a good writer, but earnest: everything going on is right on the surface, what you see is what you get.  Cold Case is a good read, but I doubt I'll return to Kate Wilhelm's mysteries.  What I need to do is dig up the science fiction that originally made her reputation, like Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.