We Seldom Murder

So, this weekend, a guy in Beijing stabbed a tourist to death, in public, in the middle of the day.

Also recently, a guy riding a Greyhound bus in Canada stabbed his seatmate to death, hacked his head off, and displayed it to the 37 other passengers who’d run screaming out of the bus.  Which…wow.  As if riding a Greyhound isn’t horror enough in itself. 

And, while we’re talking murders, there’s a new book out on the 1924 Leopold & Loeb affair, which, if you’ll remember, involved two smart, young men carefully murdering a stranger for absolutely no reason:

Neither killer showed any remorse after being captured and indicted for murder. Kidnapping had been involved; they had sent a ransom note to their victim’s family. But money wasn’t their true motive. Perfection was. Leopold and Loeb dreamed of committing the perfect crime, and they found philosophical backing for their desire in Nietzsche’s notion of the Übermensch. Leopold wrote to Loeb: “A superman . . . is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.”

You know, I ride the subway every day, and it is a constant source of wonder to me that very rarely does anybody shove anybody else out in front of an oncoming train.  Frankly, the rarity of this reaffirms my belief that, no matter what else you might be able to say for human beings, we’re at least far more likely to be passively harmless than actively malicious.  I have an overactive imagination, especially concerning possible physical pain and harm to my body, and as I wait for the train, I am forever anticipating a good firm shove in between my shoulder blades.  I imagine myself plummeting forward onto the tracks, surprised and remorseful, as the train barrels down upon me, and, like Anna Karenina, all my Earthly concerns are finally resolved.  I can imagine this vividly, with conviction, as if it had actually happened to me at some point in the past.  You might think, given these daily grim imaginings, that I would be forever looking back cagily over my shoulder, or hugging the wall far from the yawning chasm.  But I don’t.  And neither does anybody else.  We all teeter precariously near the brink of the train platform, peering impatiently into the black, yawning tunnel, and when the headlights of an oncoming train come charging up at us, preceded by a whoosh of stale air that blows our hair back on our heads, and followed quickly by a screaming, hurtling death machine shooting past not one foot from where we stand, we barely shift our weight ever so slightly back.   Nobody ever suspects the throngs of people pushing and jostling up against them on all sides.

Even if New Yorkers were not constantly possessed with a murderous rage towards anyone and everyone around them, and even if a good number of them weren’t stark mad and/or under the influence of everything under the sun, and even if the platforms weren’t dangerously overcrowded so that the slightest slip of a high-heeled power-walker could easily send everyone toppling over like dominoes…even if, in short, the Manhattan subway tunnels were filled with good-hearted, cheery, conscientious folk whistling happily on their way to work, following orderly and careful pedestrian traffic patterns, and granting each other a good margin of personal space to navigate in, it would still be a freaking miracle that everybody wasn’t forever being shoved in front of an oncoming train.  So, being that New Yorkers are indeed furious, crowded, impatient and insane, it is a ringing endorsement of the general non-murderousness of human beings that we all for the most part repeatedly survive our daily commute.

Of course, in addition to imagining someone might push me out in front of an oncoming train, I am also forever imagining that, in a moment of caprice, I might suddenly leap out in front of one on my own volition.  I’m pretty sure everybody thinks about this, just as whenever you are somewhere high, you fear you might decide to leap over whatever banister you’re peering down from.  Again, for the most part, we all resist such impulses, or rather, we manage not to ever forget to mind very carefully that we not accidentally leap to our deaths without giving the matter due consideration first.  If we do jump, we really mean it.

So, every day, I imagine being murdered, and I imagine murdering myself.  The third possibility, of course, is whether I might push somebody else in front of a train.  Lord knows, I’m not without cause.  However, oddly enough, I rarely vividly imagine pushing other people in front of a train.  When I was a kid, I used to have nightmares that I was driven by a sort of frenzied compulsion to murder dozens of strangers and bury them in our backyard.  At some point in the dream, one of my parents would discover this, and suddenly, my dreaming self would fully realize what sort of awful business I had been up to, and the full onslaught of this realization – of what a monstrous person I was, and of how much destruction I’d wrought, and of the guilt I would now have to bear – would come crashing down on me all at once, and my real-life self would wake up in a cold sweat, and it would be awhile before I could reassure myself I’d only dreamed it, and furthermore, that I wasn’t still guilty of any sort of latent murderous intent for even having merely dreamed it.

So, I used to worry a lot that I would at some point become a serial killer.  But that was when I was a kid.  As an adult, while I do constantly worry that others might suddenly be the death of me (whether by accident or intent), or that I might slip up and kill myself, I don’t have any real apprehension that I might suddenly start killing other people.  And I think I can count this as a personal virtue, because apparently, some people really do find themselves – suddenly, of an afternoon – hacking a stranger to death with a knife.  But this is a rare event, and if it makes you frightened about what might befall you out there amongst others, reassure yourself the way I do:  think about how seldom we nudge each other off train platforms (and this is certainly not because we like the people around us), despite how incredibly easy it would be to do so.

6 Comments

  1. I found this post very interesting!!!

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  2. Quiconque

    I am always afraid that I will die because of my own carelessness or clumsiness, like slipping on a wet leaf on the rocky steps behind Neuschwanstein Castle (well, that actually almost happened). On subway platforms, I am often afraid that a friend will come up behind me and pretend to push me, as a joke, and that I will do some kung fu manoevre and flip them onto the tracks in self-defense. That I do not know kung fu and that my friends are not that stupid mean nothing in this scenario.

    Hey, my foot is almost better. Let’s go out for drinks.

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  3. I scratched a woman on the train this morning. I wasn’t holding on, the train started moving and I reached for the bar, only to realize her body was blocking it. I reached higher and accidentally scratched her forehead.
    I feel bad about it, but at the same time, if she hadn’t been blocking the rest of the pole with her body, I wouldn’t have had to reach so high.
    I apologized, and she forgave saying: “This shit happens.” A roommate of mine spilled her coffee down someones white pants a few weeks ago… man the subway is rough, yet I like it more then driving daily.

    And yes, I often think of jumping down onto the tracks. I spend less time visualizing my death, or more time figuring out what the best logical solution would be down there.

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  4. Elizabeth

    Sara, pole-huggers deserve to be scratched. They drive me nuts. Also, we all know what to do on the tracks, thanks to Sandra Bullock in While You Were Sleeping.

    And Q – you’re on! I’m glad you’re on the mend.

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  5. It’s funny Sara should say that because while I do often imagine being pushed down onto the tracks (or jumping down to save a handsome stranger/cute animal/cell phone) I also then imagine myself vaulting like a superhero back up on the platform (rescuee in tow) or dashing across to the other side of the tracks, dodging perilous (preferably sparking) third rails, just before the N train rushes through.

    For some reason I never think the train will kill me. And crazy people are out of my control and not worth worrying about. They will always be there, I just need to avoid dating them.

    Cars and messenger bikes, on the other hand, scare the crap out of me. Every time I have to cross the street i imagine me-brain splattered all over 5th Avenue.

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  6. What great writing! I don’t live in NY but I just visited last week and that’s ALL I could think about while I waiting for the subway! What if someone pushed me just as the subway approached? What if I pushed my friend? How can she stand there so oblivious to the possibility that she might be shoved–wait, why would I even think that?!

    Seriously this was am extremely entertaining and unique blog! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it!

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