There’s a show in Australia called ‘Sunday Night’. Mostly, it’s sensationalist longer form journalism. In honesty, I tend to avoid it because of that sensationalism, but I do try to watch their crime stories.
I love crime writing, and I tend to consider longer form articles about crimes and the events behind them a form of research. Even on sensationalist shows, you can learn a lot. You can learn about family dynamics, and about the way killers think, act, and speak. You can learn about the impact of cases on the police investigating them. You can learn about the way society thinks about and reacts to violent crimes by studying the way news organisations explore the topic, and you can learn a hell of a lot about positioning audiences to think or feel a certain way.
Beyond that, though, it’s fascinating to look at the way events that shape the collective unconscious of an entire society boil down to small decisions and actions.
This week, they were looking at the alleged first violent crime of serial killer Ivan Milat.
Ivan Milat is one of Australia’s most notorious murderers, a serial killer who picked up at least 7 hitchhikers, before driving them into nearby Belangalo State Forest, torturing and murdering them. His crimes were so sadistic and horrific that they saw a fundamental shift in social norms. Before his crimes and methodology were discovered, hitchhiking was considered safe. Once they were discovered, hitchhiking became rarer, as people realised they couldn’t trust in the goodness of strangers.
The article, First Blood, wasn’t about the backpacker murders, but about a young taxi driver being shot in the spine and crippled. If true, it may be Ivan Milat’s first crime using physical violence, rather than the threat of it. The man making the accusation is Ivan’s older brother, Boris, who claims that Ivan confessed the crime to him the day after he’d committed it. It’s taken 50 odd years for the admission, and another man was jailed for the crime. According to the man convicted, Allan Dillon, he’d gotten the impression that his own baby brother was going to be charged if he didn’t confess. He went to jail believing he was taking the fall for his brother.
Two men, both damning themselves to protect their baby brothers.
It’s interesting to wonder whether Ivan Milat’s victims would be alive if his brother had told the police what he knew. How many lives would be vastly different if only Boris Milat had come forward at the time? So many lives brutally impacted by one simple act of love and loyalty.
And that’s where the story is, in a sense. You can spend chapters talking about the crimes, and the sadism, and you can scare the hell out of people in the name of describing the crime. But in a way, one of the biggest legal stories in Australian history still boils down to two men who had never met, and wouldn’t meet for half a century, both hiding a secret in the name of misplaced family loyalty.
At first, it’s easy to be disgusted. How could anyone let an innocent man go to jail for a crime they knew he didn’t commit? We distance ourselves by saying we’d never, ever do that. We’d let our loved ones be accountable. But would we? If you’ve ever let your kid not do an assignment, and gotten them out of trouble for it, you’ve already stepped into that moral grey area. Ever lied to a parent for a sibling? If you’ve ever felt responsible for the well-being of someone else, if you’ve ever had a parent put a younger sibling under your care, you’ve probably found yourself in that moral grey area. A thousand innocent moments on their own, tiny slips into the moral grey that are all understandable, all justifiable. But a decade or more of protecting someone you love, and those innocent moments can add up. Each step into the grey areas makes it easier to go back there.
And isn’t that a scary thought?
For me at least, that’s the interesting part of crime novels. It’s not so much the horror and otherness of the crimes. It’s how easily people can be corrupted in service of protecting the people they love. It’s about the way love can be made into its own kind of a weapon. It’s not the otherness, it’s the similarities. It’s being able to step away from that instinctive sense of disgust, and figure out how a good person could get themselves into such a horrible situation, or could become something so terrible.
How could a man let an innocent man go to prison when he knew who the real perpetrator was?
Even though I’d put Ivan Milat firmly in the ‘psychopath’ column, most criminals aren’t psychopaths. Most killers aren’t born to it, they’re made. Assuming all murderers are psychopaths or sociopaths is lazy thinking, and if you’re a crime writer, it’s lazy writing. In fiction, psychopaths are overdone, because it’s easier to pretend there’s some terrifying ‘other’ out there than it is to acknowledge that all of us have the capacity for cruelty and violence within us, and for the vast majority, it’s a choice.
I don’t have the stats, but I have the sneaking suspicion that family dynamics and shitty choices are the birthplace of far more killers than psychopathy.
What was fascinating to me was that Boris Milat talked about knowing his brother would be a murderer back when Ivan was ten. So, knowing he ‘wasn’t right’, knowing that was the path his brother was headed down, why give him that chance at redemption? It’s a question the interviewer didn’t really ask, but it bothers me. There’s a story there. It’s one thing to give someone a chance when you believe they’re fundamentally a good person in a bad situation. It’s entirely different to be aware of that darkness and sadism, and give them a chance anyway. When asked about Ivan as a child, there are some disturbing snapshots from Boris. Ivan was “always playing cat and mouse in some way”. Boris knew “he [Ivan] was on a one way trip”. He talks about Ivan boasting of torturing and killing animals. So what makes you give someone like that a second chance?
Fear or love.
Moral high-ground isn’t the ideal environment for a crime writer, I don’t think. How can you explore the darkness that’s a fundamental part of all people while pretending it doesn’t exist within yourself? How do you explore something and thumb your nose at it at the same time? It doesn’t work.
I’d like to think I wouldn’t be able to let someone be jailed when I knew they were innocent. I like to think I’m a good enough, brave enough, person to stand up for truth even at the cost of family. But I’ve never been in that position. All the hopes in the world go out the window the second hypothetical situations become reality.
The question shouldn’t be ‘how could he?’ so much as ‘what would I do to protect someone I loved, and felt responsible for?’ if you knew that someone you loved had shot a man in the spine, what would stop you going to the police? What would they have to do to convince you not to tell? Would they have to do anything at all, or would love be enough?
And doesn’t that make for an interesting story?
For the time being, you can see the video here, though I’m not sure how long it’ll stay online.