Understanding a Mass Murderer

July 13, 2005

I’ve been thinking about Joseph Edward Duncan III today. I wonder if anyone calls him Joe? You don’t know his name? He’s the man accused of killing three family members in Idaho and kidnapping and molesting Dylan and Shasta Groene and then killing Dylan. I don’t even have to link to the story. You can find it anywhere, on any news service.

Mass Murderers are not usually my brain’s breakfast food. I can honestly say I despise them and what they do. They cause much more terror for the average person than Osama Bin Laden. But I can’t stop thinking about Joseph Edward Duncan III. Here’s why.

When he was brought to his first bail hearing, and the cameras were all focused on this demented demoniac, he did something I wasn’t ready for. He requested a certain person as a lawyer, some clean underwear and some reading material. These are banal requests, hardly notable or even recordable. But I can’t stop thinking about them.

He has killed a family, ending their existence on this planet. He has raped a young girl, scarring her for life and altering her existence. He has altered the feeling of safety that thousands in the Idaho Panhandle are used to feeling, living as far away from “dangerous” cities as they do. Yet, his face showed no sign he even noticed the effect he had on anyone. He wanted clean underwear. He wanted a certain person to help him in his “problem”.

Then I got it. I got what sin is.

Sin is selfishness. It is becoming wrapped up in our own stuff to the exclusion of others. Of course, it is easy to see that it is Joseph Edward Duncan III on a frenzied hackfest. But it is also the teacher who ignores the bruises on the 8-year old because it is too much trouble to tell someone her suspicions. It is also the office worker who uses the perpetual bad breath of a co-worker as an excuse to exclude them from after-work drinks. And it is as real as my driving by someone struggling to get the flat tire off his car because I am thinking about which fast-food restaurant I want to poison my body with.

Underwear, lawyer, a magazine. The opposite of love is not hate. It is self-absorption. Think where it could lead.



  1. Are we “allowed” to despise someone who does this?

  2. Anon…

    Allowed? Sure. Is it the Christ-like way to live? Nope, but it’s sure human (and I do it too).

    I (there we go — self-absorbed and starting my sentence with “I”) wasn’t sure that I would read this post; this sort of news is so depressing. Glad that I did, because the point you make is a powerful one. The closest that I’ve come to getting away from self-absorption is in becoming a parent. If I could just take a hint of the carelessness toward self that my daughter inspires in me and apply it to the rest of my life, I might actually learn real love.

  3. Anon: I think that despising him is allowed in the global sense. He represents a wretched altering of the way things ought to be. In the local sense, where he might meet me if I visited him before his likely execution, then my despising would have to be modified. If Jesus could despise what the money-changers were doing to God’s Place, then I can despise what a man has done to a family.
    Alli: Having a baby really does challenge our love. And most of us will love those helpless bundles of dirty diapers and smiles. Being a parent of a small child is where love is really learned. That’s where I really started to learn it.

  4. I completely agree… I think our society doesn’t encourage people to help each other. We’ve made it the responsibility of government to do this (road patrols, welfare, child protective agencies, schools, etc.). How can an entity as impersonal as government really do a better job at this?

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