Are we all capable of killing someone? What a criminologist thinks

Aare you able to kill someone What if you’re in a particularly bad mood? What if someone really asks for it? In the BBC’s new drama insider, David Tennant’s character, a minister, is falsely accused of possessing objectionable images of children. He faces the following everyday dilemma: Should he allow his accuser to spread falsehood? Or should he just cut her off when he gets the chance? Thus begins a show that explores the idea that “everyone is a killer. You just have to meet the right person.”

Those words are uttered by Stanley Tucci’s character, Jefferson Grieff, who speaks from experience: he’s locked up on death row awaiting execution. But is he right? Is there a murderer inside every non-murderer trying to get out? David Wilson, Professor Emeritus of Criminology at Birmingham City University, believes no. He, too, speaks from experience, having spent his professional life working with men who have committed murder, mentoring them as a prison warden, and interviewing them as academics.

The idea that everyone is a potential killer, says Wilson, is “nonsense.” (Phew.) We all have bad days, Wilson says, “and we all meet people we don’t particularly like. But if we killed like this [Tucci’s character] said, then the number of killers would be so much higher than it actually is.” Chance encounters don’t make a killer.

The homicide rate has been declining for decades. In England and Wales, 710 homicides were recorded by police in 2021/22, up from the 570 the previous year but much less than the 1,047 in 2022/23. Wilson refers to American academic Steven Pinker’s finding that humanity is becoming less violent in general. But our appetite for murder drama and podcasts has never been so insatiable. dahmer, a series about American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, is currently the most watched show on Netflix. The issue of murder, says Wilson, “is something zeitgeist right now.”

Why? We shouldn’t worry, says Wilson, that we’re far more involved in murder than our ancestors were. “Murder has always been popular news and a dramatic trump card since early Victorian times. I wouldn’t even say we’re more interested in it today than our ancestors were – after all, hanging days were public holidays and drew huge audiences.”

Those who find murder shows captivating might have been in the front row at public executions in another era. The human fascination with death is deep-rooted and ancient. “We’re drawn to stories like this for all sorts of reasons,” says Wilson. “But the writer, the storyteller, uses these stories because there’s drama in them.” In 90 per cent of British murders, he says, the perpetrator is caught, and often it’s someone known to the victim. “But that criminal logical reality doesn’t make for very good drama.”

Instead, TV writers tend to focus on two main themes: unsolved murders and the notion that we are all potential killers. The latter is an idea as compelling as it is terrifying, so it should come as no surprise that writers refer to it so frequently.

However, as Wilson says, it is not true. And not only is it untrue, it’s also a rather pro-murderer view: It’s an argument commonly made by murderers trying to garner sympathy through affiliation. “And by implying that we are all one step away from being murderers, they are attempting to detach themselves from that personal responsibility. That’s really often my job: to make them realize, ‘No, no, it was you who did that and you have to make it up to the extent that you can, and we have to help you figure out how to get into the got into a position where you took other people’s lives.’”

Serial killers in particular, says Wilson, “have always liked to portray themselves as somehow more willing to take the extra step that we would all take if only we had as much courage and insight as they did.” He recalls a conversation with Dennis Nilsen, the Scottish serial killer and necrophile who murdered at least 12 boys and young men. Nilsen describes himself as “an ordinary man who has come to an extraordinary conclusion,” he explains – similar to how Tucci argues insider Character. “And you had to say to Dennis Nilsen, ‘You were never an ordinary man. And this “extraordinary conclusion” is a crime. That’s called murder, and people don’t do that.’”

Evan Peters in “Dahmer”


Postulating murder as something anyone could do — or writing a drama inspired by that thought — is doing the killer’s PR for them, says Wilson. “A lot of the serial killers I’ve worked with are very keen on manipulating their own PR or image. When you prioritize their narrative, when you prioritize their thinking about what they did, you enable them to capture the narrative.”

In some cases, movies and TV shows add a touch of glamor to killers. quoted Wilson The silence of the Lambs, as well as the novel by Thomas Harris on which the film is based. “You have the evil genius who talks about Florentine architecture and good food and loves Bach’s Toccatas. Trust me, I’ve never met a serial killer who had any of those interests.”

Instead of doing this random PR work, let’s consider the social issues that cause and accompany murder. “With Dahmer, for heaven’s sake, it was homophobia and the failure of our police, like Dennis Nilsen.”

Tennant played Nilsen in a three-part drama, Of, in 2020 — a show that Wilson says did a good job of telling the story in a way Nilsen wasn’t overly sympathetic to. “It prioritized the voice of Brian Masters, Nilsen’s biographer, who effectively brought to life the feeling of questioning Nilsen rather than giving him the narration. And the other person in the drama was the Detective Chief Inspector who arrested Nilsen and who therefore brought the victims into the story.”

David Wilson is Professor Emeritus of Criminology at Birmingham City University

(Gavin Hopkins)

In contrast, Tennant’s character is in insider appears to be stumbling on the brink of possible murder. “Yesterday,” his wife tells him, “you were a pastor. Today you are a man who attacked and locked a woman in his basement because you were so desperate to protect your son.”

So what does Wilson think of drama? insider? “I’m not against it,” he says, somewhat surprisingly. Tennant’s character could be overly likable, but such shows, Wilson hopes, could help improve public discourse about murder. “What I want to do,” Wilson suggests, “is take advantage of the public’s fascination with these types of dramas and use that fascination to get the public to think about other things.” Serial killers target vulnerable groups , he says, and we would do well to think about it. “When we question homophobia, when we have an adult debate about sex work, when we consider the place of older people in our culture, we are doing a lot more to reduce the incidence of serial killings.”

It remains to be seen what insider complements the conversation. But thanks to Wilson, at least we can watch the show without fear of unexpected murder.

David Wilson and Emilia Fox present the podcast If It Bleeds, It Leads. They will be entertaining at the Emmanuel Centre, London, on October 28th Are we all capable of killing someone? What a criminologist thinks


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