April 16, 2012

What is a murder?

The content of murder is often debated within our own society. It is not so long ago that suicide was deemed to be a type of murder- we shall discuss that more in the future. Plenty of people see abortion as a type of murder- others do not. Some see contraception as another type of murder. There are definite arguments that euthanasia is a species of murder: whether in the same sense as suicide or the added coercion of relatives keen to see an inheritance. The content of murder shifts generation by generation: is death in war murder? Some people think that Tony Blair and George Bush are murderers- others that they were merely leaders of states that went to war. Murder isn't an obvious concept to us- but one meaning has drifted away from us and its interesting to think about why that's so.

The original meaning of the word murder is not unlawful killing: it is unlawful secret killing. Secrecy really worried medieval society. The secret murder concerned the legal authorities and they took great pains to advertise when a murder or a suicide had been published. This is one reason why, as Alexander Murray documents, suicides were buried at crossroads or on the shores of rivers. They were buried with the instrument they had used to kill themselves- the noose, the knife- to demonstrate that the law knew the manner of their deaths and advertised to all passers by that they had died in this grisly way. You could see this as the basis for public hangings too: the law advertising that this killing had been found unlawful, that it was not one of these murders that would never be detected. The law fixed epistemologically what had happened to a person: uncertainty in this sense allowed a violation of the law, was a challenge to the legal model of knowledge.

Nobody uses murder in this sense today. Despite its uncertain range- our murders are all well murders. We know when someone has been unlawfully killed- and unsolved cases are more often than not unsolved murders, rather than unsolved because noone can be sure about a natural death. There are two reasons for this. The first is the most obvious and will not detain us: we just know a lot more about what a natural death or a murder looks like. From being able to detect DNA on a knife, to being able to register poison in a bloodstream, we know far more than our medieval ancestors did. The second is interesting though and its about the powers of the state. The medieval state had no police force, had no registry of identity, worked through local elites and had no social services. Its infrastructure of knowledge was not inferior neccessarily, but was less statistical and more moulded by a local elite than the modern state.

This is a guess and it would be interesting to know when and how the meaning of murder changed- but my guess is that it has something to do with the changing nature not of science but of the state. Probably that changing nature is what has led us to abandon some of the practices of our ancestors- public execution for one. The impact it has on the way in which the content of the concept of murder has changed is also interesting: thinking about it the only type of murder where we become worried about the boundaries between death and murder today is euthanasia. That may be the exception that proves the rule about our evolving understanding of what the rule means.


James Higham said...

It is not so long ago that suicide was deemed to be a type of murder-

Still very much is - fads and fashions notwthstanding.

Gracchi said...

I disagree- I think suicide is a tragedy and not a crime.