Photo by Axel Bueckert / EyeEm

What to do about Evil

How was Damien Bendall free to kill?

Artillery Row

In September, Damien Bendall killed his pregnant partner, her two children and her daughter’s friend. With a claw hammer in hand, Bendall smashed the skulls of his victims and also raped one of the children. He was at the time of the murders serving a suspended sentence and wearing an electronic tag. Bendall reportedly had a history of torturing kittens and had boasted of beating a dog to death with a brick. Neither he nor his barrister were able to produce a motive for his actions — this was a senseless drug-fuelled slaughter. The question arises — how could this happen? — but perhaps we ought to ask, how could it not? 

We have become numb to these outrages

There was a time when a massacre of this kind would provoke a wave of public indignation. Where once there would be a great chorus of rage, there is now not much more than a shrug. One idle remark — “dreadful isn’t it” — and we move past it. We have become numb to these and so many other outrages. Je Suis Charlie was an island of resistance which has since sunk beneath a torrent of terrorism. The unstable fury of the English Defence League gave way to that most dismal refrain “Don’t look back in anger”. Today, each fresh revelation that the authorities have been colluding with Islamic grooming gangs provokes the same muted responses as Bendall’s killings. 

Extreme violent and sexual crime has become a sort of ubiquitous ambient phenomenon. We have acclimated to it as we do to the sound of traffic — by simply tuning it out. As individuals we are powerless to prevent it. We have stopped caring not because we are heartless, but as a defence mechanism. Rather than empathise, or ignite our passions in pursuit of justice, we shut down; we stop giving a shit. When the only sure thing is that it will never end, the heartache, the struggle and the fury are smothered. Apathy serves as our anaesthetic. As Sadiq Khan said, it’s all part and parcel now.

It is shocking that Bendall, who was known to police and social services, was permitted to be around children — but it is not surprising. These attacks rarely come out of a clear blue sky. Murderers like this always have a history of sickening abuse. There is a formula as grim as it is familiar. It’s as sure as that epithet which bookends terrorist attacks — “known to the security services”. It is crushing because in every instance we know yet fail to act. Our hands are stayed by our liberal posture, our lofty ideals and high principles standing as pillars to a justice system blind only to reality. Men like Bendall are free to reach the deadly terminus toward which they inexorably travel, our pathetic attempts to intervene — ankle tags, social services meetings — trailing in their wake.

In a sensible society, Damien Bendall would have been committed to an asylum years ago. We used to be sensible. In the early 20th century some one hundred thousand individuals were committed in lunatic asylums. Psychopaths and otherwise mentally ill patients who posed a threat to themselves and others were contained. Society was spared from their malign presence. A hundred years on, our society labours under the delusion that psychopaths can be managed, or even reformed. It’s the same idealistic thinking that sees 43,000 individuals freely roaming our streets who are suspected of being terrorists by MI5. The powers that be are content that civil society should bear the brunt of their myopic philosophy. 

70 per cent of prison inmates have a mental health disorder

Bendall could not be committed because Britain’s last asylum was closed in 2015. That closure marked the end point of Margaret Thatcher’s Care in the Community programme — a large-scale project to relocate asylum patients back into the world. Care in the Community, which mirrored a Reaganite programme in the US, was chiefly intended to cut the costs associated with mental health care. It was, like so much of the Thatcher and subsequent Blair era, a case of cooking the books. The cost of running asylums was cleared from the balance sheets and stealthily loaded onto police forces, councils and prisons. In the 1950s, 0.4 per cent of the population were housed in asylums. Today, nobody is. 

Instead, they live under bridges, in shop doors and tent cities. Rather than be medicated by professionals, they, like Bendall, self-medicate with heroin. The money that was once spent on their upkeep they now take by force, making an occupation out of petty theft to fund their drug dependencies. As a consequence, they have come to fill our prisons. One parliamentary committee reported that as many as 70 per cent of prison inmates have a mental health disorder. In 1940 there were fewer than 10,000 inmates in England and Wales. That number now stands at over 80,000.

In considering how to deal with psychopaths, rapists or terrorists, our society has taken leave of its senses. Our appetite for taking tough choices and meeting evil head on has been suppressed. The correct action, which now might now be termed radical but until five minutes ago was sensible, is just too intemperate. My God — it might even be un-British. The father of Connie Gent, one of Bendall’s victims, had it right when he described the killer as truly evil. It’s time we woke up to the fact that evil will not be defeated by counselling and community allotments.

There may yet be an inquiry into how exactly Bendall was at liberty to kill. If there is, no doubt the relevant authority will pledge that lessons have been learned. There might be calls for better mental healthcare in the NHS, or for social services budgets to increase. Perhaps curfews ought to be stricter, a braver soul could suggest. All of these measures will do nothing, achieve nothing. They all mistake the psychopath for a malleable human, an interchangeable individual with an unfortunate upbringing. If only he could sit his GCSEs, he could be reintroduced to society as a stand-up fixture. That kind of thinking is utterly, catastrophically and tragically wrong. If we ever want to see change, it must be radically disabused. 

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