Being Dexter Morgan
What's so bad about being a serial killer?
This is an essay I wrote ten years ago for a book about the TV show “Dexter,” which was about a sympathetic serial killer. I was reminded of it by the recent drone-assassination of Ayman al-Zawahri in Afghanistan, so I thought I’d share it here. It explores the question of “justified murder,” which is central to American foreign policy in these days of “over the horizon” drone strikes that kill ten innocent people for every “suspected terrorist” that gets blown to smithereens.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.
— William Butler Yeats, "Meditations in Time of Civil War"
I've watched every episode of "Dexter," but I've yet to tire of the opening title sequence, which won an Emmy in 2007. Like the excellent title sequence of HBO's "Deadwood," it's all about unexpected beauty lurking within the disgusting, horror coiled among the commonplace.
The camera opens with a macro close-up of a mosquito on Dexter's arm, we see it preparing to stab its proboscis into the human skin. Dexter comes into focus and preemptively squashes the bug in self-defense. Thus, the very first thing viewers see is a "just murder." Already, in the first instants of the opening credits, we are behind Dexter's eyes, absorbed into his perspective, convinced of his justice.
And what a perfect victim for drawing us to Dexter's side! Show me a person who doesn't take some pleasure in killing mosquitoes and I'll show you someone who hasn't spent much time in the tropics. I'm not much of an avenger myself, but I've passed many steamy nights in cheap guest-house rooms from Bangkok to Belize stalking the little bitches, finding a kind of grim joy in every fresh blood-stain I left on those moldy walls. Unlike most insects, whose offense is just a by-product of them going about their own business, mosquitoes are coming after us, coming for our blood while we sleep in the malarial night. Exterminate the brutes, I say.
Then the music starts. One critic described it perfectly as "spicy Latin in flavor and creepy Gothic in sensibility . . . like the ‘Addams Family' theme played by a Mexican Day of the Dead band . . ." The melody transmits an uneasy blend of warning and welcome.
The rest of the sequence takes us through Dexter's morning routine-though in his case, we might call it his morning "ritual," in that his obsessive compulsion for control allows for very little variation. He shaves (against the grain, of course); he cooks and chews his meaty, bleeding breakfast-complete with runny yolks and bright red ketchup splats on the plate (or is that Tabasco?); his juice is blood orange (the close focus makes the pulp look like particularly nasty road kill); the dental floss drawn taught around his finger visibly chokes off the blood flow, while the lacing of his boots echoes strangulation.
The sequence ends with Dexter staring straight into our eyes for an overlong moment, as if a confidence has been shared-a gift that might just seal our fate. Then, the locking of a door and a neighborly nod to us as he heads off for work.
Both "Dexter," the program, and Dexter, the character challenge us to join in, if we dare, for a journey along the razor's edge separating the cleansing execution of moral justice from the sticky evil that oozes from numbed slaughter-and, frankly, from the numbing depiction of killing.
But why complain? Dexter is all about cold blood, inside and out. His job is to read the messages violence leaves behind-crimson hieroglyphs splattered on walls or pooling significantly on the carpet. Painstakingly catalogued trophies from his own kills — clinical blood samples on glass microscope slides — are hidden in an air conditioner. What could be more cold-blooded than chilled blood?
Because we are privy to Dexter's darkest secrets, we know what nobody else does. This killer's ruthlessness is leavened by a limited range of authentic feelings, unlike the stereotypical sociopath, who fakes them all. Dexter feels real affection, if not love (for his sister, for Rita and her kids, for Angel) and respect (for FBI Special Agent Lundy, for Arthur). He yearns for connection (with his brother, with Miguel, with Arthur, with the ghost of his father). He wants so desperately to be known that one suspects much of the pleasure he takes in his pre-murder conversations with his victims is just this: he can confide in them in their last moments-they'll take his secret to their watery grave, and soon. He can finally, briefly share the truth about who he really is-even if just for a moment. But of course, these feelings which bring him closest to his humanity represent the greatest threat to his performance and continued success in fulfilling his "heroic" destiny.
And we do want him to fulfill this destiny, don't we? Part of the genius of the program is that by sharing Dexter's secret life with us in all its surface normalcy and profound justifications, we are emotionally — and even intellectually — aligned with this cold-blooded killer's view of the world. Miami is a safer place because of what he's doing — even if an innocent person occasionally gets offed in the process. Knowing what we do, both about the criminal underworld and about Dexter's traumatic past, we accept Dexter's perverse hungers as the price of justice, cheering him on as he battles "real" evil.
Tragically orphaned as a young boy, he was raised by kind-hearted adults who tried, often unsuccessfully, to understand the strange child he was. Gradually, it dawned on him, too, that he was different from everyone else and somehow disconnected from the source of his deepest, essential identity. But with his pain and isolation came unique abilities. His life would be all about learning to use these abilities to defend common, decent folk against those who would do them harm or, failing that, to seek revenge against those who already had harmed the innocent.
This is Dexter's story, of course, but it's a story he shares with Superman, Batman, and Spiderman: the holy trinity of American superheroes.
Spiderman has his webs, Superman his flight, and Batman his high-tech know-how. What's Dexter's superhero ability? Discipline. Obsessive and absolute, Dexter must live by Harry's Code, because he knows that any deviation from the strict moral code Harry taught him can only result in disaster-for himself and the innocent civilians he loves, in his reptilian way.
A surgeon cuts into living human bodies, week after week, until she feels nothing at all any more. It's just work, she's learned to tell herself. It's not a person under her scalpel so much as an object, a thorax, a liver. If she felt the trauma and horror most of us would feel at slicing into a living human being, she would be useless in the O.R. and lives would be lost. An essential part of a surgeon's psychological training involves the cultivation of this ability to not feel what "normal" people would feel deeply and immediately. Ask any doctor about that first experience with cadavers in medical school. She'll tell you about the joking, the nick-names the students give the bodies, the rituals needed to cultivate the necessary numbness.
In their book about post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of recent wars, psychologists Daryl S. Paulson and Stanley Krippner describe PTSD as "a condition that results from experiencing (or witnessing) life-threatening events that extend beyond one's coping capacity, emotional resources, and/or existential world view." Many first-year medical students work hard to extend their coping capacities and world-view in order to accommodate the presence of the dying and the dead. Adults have a fighting chance of finding their way through these sorts of traumas with their psyches intact-maybe even strengthened by their experience. But a child like Dexter was, locked in the bloody container with his mother's body for days, would have no such capacities or existential world view to help him overcome such an experience. But the developing consciousness requires integration, so Dexter embraced his horrific experience, integrating the blood, the death, and the resulting numbness into a more-or-less functional psyche.
Should Dexter ever get caught and face trial, his defense attorney might consider arguing that his client was like a well-intentioned surgeon operating on the social body of Miami, removing malignant tumors, cutting away infected tissue, clearing blocked arteries. Yes, pain was involved, and sometimes unintended death as well. But even the best surgeons lose patients sometimes. And overall, Dexter's was a positive effect on society, right?
No? Why not? Do you object to the illegality of his dark campaign? Do you hold that we need strict, transparent rules regulating those who have the power and authority to kill? Or are you perhaps unwilling to accept the sacrifice of an occasional innocent bystander in this generally-righteous process? If you're waiting for the police to catch the murderers first, remember that by definition, "serial killers" keep getting away with it. The police have had their chances. If Dexter doesn't stop these monsters, who will? And when?
It's not just surgeons and soldiers who turn not-feeling to their professional advantage. We all do, in one way or another. In the mid-1980s, I twice hitch-hiked from my preppy college in upstate New York to Alaska, looking for adventure and work in salmon canneries to finance the trip. I found both. The first summer, I got hired at Kenai Packers, the best place for this sort of work in Kenai, Alaska. Unfortunately, I was assigned the worst job in the whole place: slime-monkies, they called us. At the time, I was, I cringe to admit, an over-sensitive, pedantic, vegetarian poetry student (who else carries a copy of D. H. Lawrence's collected verse while hitch-hiking through the Yukon?).
A couple of weeks earlier, I'd been unable to bash a salmon's head against the rocks when we'd caught one while camping along a remote river somewhere between Carcross and Whitehorse. But after half an hour on that slime-line, gutting, beheading, and slicing fins from entire schools of salmon as they came down the conveyor belt, all feeling had gone from me — from my frozen fingers to my overwhelmed conscience. I went on gutting salmon eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, until there were no more fish to gut. By then (about six weeks later), any random jumble of shapes (a sleeping bag crumpled in the tent, the folds of someone's sweater, clouds converging in the sky) looked like fish guts to me. Whatever was beautiful and sacred in a salmon was lost to me, forever. (Still, almost thirty years later, sushi is out of the question for me.)
But there's nothing evil in that, is there? They're just fish, after all. Similarly, people working in slaughterhouses mechanistically ripping the guts out of pigs, cows, chickens, and lambs occasionally remind themselves that these are — or were — "just" animals. And laboratory workers smearing shampoo into kittens' eyes or studying how much social isolation it takes to kill a baby monkey no doubt murmur the same self-justifying mantra as they search for sleep at night.
Evil is like pornography: impossible to define, but we know it when we see it. Don't we?
A recent text on forensic psychology outlines four motivational systems that inspire serial killers:
Visionary killers have just lost it. They're convinced God, Satan, the neighbor's dog, or The Beatles are telling them to kill. And to be fair, who's gonna argue with The Beatles?
Hedonistic types get off on the killing, normally in one of three ways:
lust (the torture excites them sexually),
thrill (they do it for the adrenaline rush) or,
comfort (they do it for the money).
Power/control types are drawn by the ability to flick the switch from life to death.
Lastly, we have Dexter's motivational type: mission-oriented. Mission-oriented killers see themselves as making the world a better place by eliminating certain types of contaminating people: prostitutes, blacks, savages, heathens, homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, Armenians, Hutus, Tutsis, infidels, terrorists, annoying writers . . . you know, the enemy.
What is Dexter's mission, then? To eliminate those "who deserve it." His code is designed to prevent mistakes, much as the legal system is purportedly designed to avoid the execution of innocent convicts. But our legal system is as fallible as Dexter's code. The Innocence Project, an organization using DNA testing to uncover wrongful convictions, has exonerated hundreds of people since 1989. On average, these innocent people had spent thirteen years in prison before their innocence was proven. At least seventeen of them were on death row.
"Mistakes," as they say, "were made."
But a few hundred innocent men in prison is nothing compared to the so-called "collateral damage" we willingly accept in what we persist in calling "war," though war is rarely formally declared anymore these days.
In Blackwater, his explosive exposé of one of the mercenary armies employed by the United States in Iraq, journalist Jeremy Scahill documents the deaths of scores of innocent Iraqi civilians at the hands of trigger-happy thugs for hire. But these represent just a tiny fraction of the overall civilian death-toll in the latest Iraq war and occupation by U.S. forces, which totals well over 95,000.
And the beat goes on. Drone attacks, coordinated by Blackwater employees (now renamed "Xe"), the Air Force, and the CIA have killed hundreds of innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the latter a country with which the U.S. is not even at war. Let's face it: we're more than willing to accept the sacrifice of innocent civilians in pursuit of our mission.
And what is our mission? Just like Dexter's, it is to eliminate those who deserve it — or seem to.
"But Dexter is a criminal," some will say. Yes, technically he is. But a deeper look suggests that we live in an era in which the relevant legal lines are drawn in shifting sand. For example, what is the legal status of the drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen I mentioned above? We are not at war with these countries or their citizens. These governments have not officially allowed or invited these attacks. In testimony before Congress, David Glazier, a former Navy officer and current law professor argued that the CIA's drone pilots are, "liable to prosecution . . . for any injuries, deaths or property damage they cause." Additionally, Glazier argued that "these CIA officers as well as any higher-level government officials who have authorized or directed their attacks are committing war crimes." U.S. drone and missile attacks taking place on foreign territory are illegal acts of aggression and every victim-innocent or not-has been murdered without trial by Americans.
The Iraqi government expelled Blackwater from the country because of the widespread illegality of their actions there, as documented by Scahill and others. Under the Bush administration, hundreds of men and boys as young as twelve were illegally detained, flown to third countries for interrogation (often including torture), and then warehoused at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with no legal basis ever having been established for any of this. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell during the Bush administration, has stated that top White House officials knew full well that most of those being held at Guantanamo were innocent of any crime. Referring to former Vice-President Cheney, Wilkerson wrote, "He had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent . . . If hundreds of innocent individuals had to suffer in order to detain a handful of hardcore terrorists, so be it."
Even Dexter, a serial killer, holds himself to a higher moral standard than that.
Lest you think I'm being politically partisan, let's not forget to mention that President Obama signed off on plans to assassinate an American citizen living in Yemen, without due process of any kind, and increased the overall frequency of drone attacks dramatically when he entered office.
This is far from an aberration in current American activities around the world. The Obama administration simply continued many of the blatantly illegal practices begun under the previous administration, even as attempts to investigate or prosecute those who authorized them in the first place were obstructed by Obama appointees. Sorry to harsh your buzz, but we are talking about murder, after all.
“Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind," - George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language."
I never made it through an entire episode of "24." A few minutes of Jack Bauer's sneering snarl was enough to break my resolve. (Everyone breaks eventually, you know.) The unabashed celebration of torturing foreign "terrorists" feels too much like brain-washing to me. One of the show's co-creators, Cyrus Nowrasteh, whose father was an advisor to the torture-happy Shah of Iran, explained the show's Cheney-esque rationale to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker: "Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business," he said. "It's a deep, dark ugly world out there. . . . It would be nice to have a secret government that can get the answers and take care of business-even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy."
But of course, this isn't a "fantasy" so much as an irrational, yet emotionally satisfying justification for a reality that was, until very recently, considered criminal by all "civilized" nations. In this, as in so many other parts of American life, the televised fantasy prepares the public to accept radical reconfigurations of reality that have already occurred. Mayer points out that before the attacks of September 11th, "fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year," but that, "now there are more than a hundred." Perhaps even more significant is the fact that pre-9/11, the torturers were almost always the bad guys. But these days, it's the "good guys" who are pulling out fingernails.
Ubiquitous Fox commenter and right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham cites the popularity of "24" as indicating political assent to America's discarding of decades of international law prohibiting torture, noting that "[People] love Jack Bauer. In my mind, that's as close to a national referendum that it's O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level al Qaeda operatives as we're going to get." Personally, she said, she found it "soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists."
What sort of trauma must one have suffered to find it "soothing" to watch someone being tortured?
If Americans are using their TV remotes to cast virtual votes assenting to the torture of suspected terrorists, that's not the only sort of remote action we're taking. This year, for the first time ever, the Air Force is ordering more unmanned drone aircraft than conventional fighters and bombers. Many of the drones flying over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are piloted by men sitting in front of computer screens at Creech Air Force base, ironically located about half-way between Las Vegas and Death Valley. One of these men, Lt. Col. Gough described his bifurcated life to journalist Lara Logan: "To go and work and do bad things to bad people is — and then when I go home and I go to church and try to be a productive member of society, those don't necessarily mesh well."
No, they don't. Unless you're a psychopath, of course. And even then, it can be tricky. Dexter has often found it difficult to juggle picking the kids up at school, remembering to get diapers on the way home from work, and disposing of the body he only had time to partially dismember the night before. There just aren't enough hours in the day!
I have no grand conclusions to offer. I'm not going to be able to wrap this up neatly, like one of Dexter's shrink-wrapped victims. All I know is that the numbness to others' pain, the anti-empathy that allows Dexter to dispassionately kill people-that condemns Dexter to kill other people-is something we all share, to some degree. And it's a numbness that seems to be spreading in us as we progressively disengage from tangible life and death in favor of the virtual. It's not just an issue for those of us guiding drones over distant deserts. Killing and torturing "bad guys"-even when we're not sure we've got the right guys in our sites or cells — is becoming, somehow, ever more soothing to us all.
— Adapted from an essay that originally appeared in The Psychology of Dexter, from the Psychology of Popular Culture series, edited by Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.
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