The Mythological "Cold-Blooded" Killer

In the wake of Debo Adegbile's rejection by the Senate and the sudden reemergence of the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, there's an interesting piece of rhetoric I wanted to draw attention to, because it's so common yet at such odds with reality. As Adegbile's nomination was discussed, one of the things his opponents would say is that he should be rejected because his organization filed an amicus brief in Mumia's case, and Mumia is a "cold-blooded killer." Delaware senator Chris Coons, for instance, explained his vote against Adegbile by saying that Abu-Jamal is "a heinous, cold-blooded killer." An op-ed in the Philadelphia Daily News described Abu-Jamal's victim being "gunned down in cold blood." Another Philadelphia writer said Abu-Jamal "murdered a cop in cold blood." The Philadelphia D.A. called Abu-Jamal a "cold-blooded murderer." We even heard Senator Tom Harkin, speaking in support of Adegbile's nomination, bring up the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts once defended "someone who killed eight people in cold blood."

What's odd about this is is that in the real world, there are almost no cold-blooded killers, and almost nobody is ever killed in cold blood. People are killed in anger, in desperation, by accident, or when things get out of hand. Even murders that are planned with "malice aforethought," as the expression goes, seldom wind up being cold-blooded when they actually happen. Although there are a few people in real life who might actually be calm and methodical when going about a murder—true psychopaths don't feel empathy, which could dull their response to the violence of a murder, and some people who have suffered damage to the amygdala are unable to feel fear—those are extremely rare cases.

It certainly isn't true of Mumia Abu-Jamal, no matter what you think of him. The last thing I want to do is get into the details of his case, but even in the prosecution's version of events, Abu-Jamal shot officer Daniel Faulkner when he came upon Faulkner in an altercation with Abu-Jamal's brother; in other words, a violent, chaotic situation that ended with gunfire, which is the opposite of a "cold-blooded" killing. But it seems as though people believe that simply saying someone is a murderer or a killer doesn't convey the proper moral condemnation; only if we also assert that the murder was conducted without any adrenaline pumping have we denounced it sufficiently.

You might say, well, this has virtually no meaning whatsoever. It's just something we say, adding "cold-blooded" to "killer" without intending anything in particular. People use it the way Joe Biden uses "literally," not because of the actual meaning of the words, but as a kind of generic note of emphasis. When they say "cold-blooded killer," all they actually mean is "really bad killer."

Perhaps. But why "cold-blooded," as opposed to "crazed" or "maniacal" or anything else? I think the reason is that in movies and on TV, killers are almost always cold-blooded. They plan their killings carefully and befuddle the police with their brilliance. When the time for the deed comes, they don't feel fear, or sweat, or grunt, or shout, or run away in panic afterward. They don't just commit evil acts, they are evil, as though the devil himself urged them on and gave them their preternatural tranquility.

So that's our template for the murderers we truly hate and fear. We want to believe that murders are something outside the range of normal human capability, that a murderer must be someone with an almost supernatural ability to remain unperturbed and collected in even the most stressful and violent situations imaginable. Among other things, that helps justify things like not just imprisoning murderers but putting them in solitary confinement for years or even decades, a form of torture that literally drives people insane.

But there are about 14,000 homicides in the United States every year, or around 40 each and every day. There aren't 14,000 Hannibal Lecters out there, carrying out their vile deeds with care and calm. So why do we want to believe there are?

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