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What Shall We Do?

Anne Taylor Fleming shares her thoughts on some recent tragic killings.

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    It is one of those stories you wish you'd never heard or read about because once you have, it will stay with you forever. You will think about it, turn it over, ask yourself how it could happen– how an apparently religious, suburban mom could do it, kill not just one of her children, but all five of them, taking them into the bathroom, one after the other, and drowning them, one after the other; carrying their wet bodies into the bedroom and wrapping them in sheets, one after the other, a methodical, maternal serial killer who calmly called her husband after it was over and told him he had better come home.

    You look at the pictures of the husband, rusty, all strong-jawed and short-haired and bereft, burying his entire brood, and you wonder what he knows, what anyone knows about the demons in the heart of this young mother, Andrea Yates. Too many kids, too fast, a complicated case of post-partum psychosis, too many hormones running around complicating a possibly already fragile psyche. A mother on overload, a mother on the edge, a mother in agony, in a rage, in a delusional state– a woman poised at the juncture where illness and evil shake hands.

    Thinking about Andrea Yates, you gyrate between deep empathy and stunned anger, profound sadness and a kind of reaching-out rage, as if you, with your angry arms, could yank those kids back up out of that water before it was too late. Stop. No. Don't. Are you crazy? How crazy are you, really? We don't believe you. We believe you.


    The State versus Susan Smith – two counts of murder.


    We think of Susan Smith, another young mother who, in 1994, drove her two boys into a South Carolina lake and left them there to drown in her car. She led the country a merry chase and then turned out to be the killer. We tried her and locked her up. From time to time, she talks to us from prison– an interview here or there– of her deep, suicidal grief. What will happen with Andrea Yates? Will her hormones quiet down, her psychosis diminish? Will she come to and realize the extent of what she's done? Do we want that for her? What do we want for her? Punishment, treatment? Treatment, punishment?

    A case like this pushes us right up against those moral fine lines at a time when the country is already wrestling with issues of crime and punishment, of trying children as adults, of putting retarded people to death. What does this say about us and do we like it? There is, for the first time in many years, a turning against the death penalty, or at least a profound questioning of it, of its uses and abuses, its essential fairness. Nonetheless, Timothy McVeigh seemed to make it easier for people. He was cool, rational in his anti-government rage, an unrepentant killer to the end, calling the children who died in the bombing "collateral damage." What would our young mother call her five children? She somehow brings stillness to all the arguments. It's useless to compare killers– who is the worst killer, what is the most killer, what is the most tragic? And in a way, obscene.

    Let's just say it's the summer of Timothy McVeigh. It's the summer of Andrea Yates. One is the most impersonal of killers, the other the most profoundly personal. One was put to death. What, oh what, shall we do with the other?

    I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.

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