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whither the great american...

i came across this story during one of my regular perusals of boing boing and it got me to thinking. actually, i'd been thinking about this for a while, but i just never got around to doing the blog post about it. whatever happened to that american institution (not to say that they don't exist elsewhere, but the most (in)famous examples are american), the serial killer.

this actually occurred to me several months ago, while re-watching david fincher's criminally underrated "zodiac". when the heck was the last time you heard about a serial killer? (assuming you don't count the link just mentioned. -ed.)

it used to seem like there were serial killers lurking on every corner. john wayne gacy, ted bundy, henry lee lucas... these monsters were waiting to prey on the unsuspecting, waiting to subject them to unspeakable horrors, before disposing of them in some callous way, leaving families to grieve and a morbid public to wonder who could do such a thing. throughout the 70s, 80s and even part of the 90s, we all lived in fear of the sadistic stranger who wanted to take our lives for no reason other than the fact that he (overwhelmingly, they were male) desired to inflict pain and reel in the power over another.

i had a tangential experience with this when i was living in halifax. when i was in my late teens/ early 20s, there were a series of disappearances of young women who looked a little uncomfortably like me, as a friend once pointed out. some said that those of us claiming a serial killer was on the loose were being paranoid. of course, there are those now who suspect we might have been onto something.

then, all of a sudden,post-jeffrey dahmer, the serial killer faded from view. no longer did we fear the silent predator in the night. oh no. the new fear was the mass murderer, the terrorist, the person who is not content to pick off strangers one by one, but who makes a frightening statement by killing and injuring hundreds, even thousands, at once.

when and why did this shift happen? was it because our fear of seeming like prey as individuals has been replaced by a fear of seeming like a faceless cog in a larger machine? now the monsters who keep us awake at night are the timothy mcveighs, the seemingly endless parade of schoolground killers, the foreign terrorists, who, rather than observing and choosing the individual victim, seeks to kill en masse as many of his kind (they are still overwhelmingly male) as he can.

the serial killer is terrifying to us because he strips away the veneer of humanity we embrace and shows that we can still be the predator, eyes facing forward to allow us to triangulate the distance from our prey all the better, that we are still an animal barely evolved from the jungles that spawned us.

the mass murderer, however, is uniquely human. the capacity to want to destroy not only our prey, but huge groups of people at once is something that only the human being can understand. and perhaps that is what allows them to eclipse the terror of the serial killer.

lonnie david franklin is not merely a slave to baser instincts, likely to spend the remainder of his life rotting in a cell and having people think that because he has access to cable television, he is living a privileged existence. he is an anachronism. and the fact that his case has received so little attention outside of los angeles is evident that we no longer fear the animal that lurks in us. we fear the human that we have become.

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