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Editorial: The trauma of “justified” killing

Is there a "universal human phobia" against killing?

On 5 January, Peter Flanagan, 59, who killed a man who had broken into his house in Salford, Manchester, gave evidence at the trial of the other three burglars. In a witness statement, Flanagan described how the men threatened him with a machete while they ransacked his house. A member of the gang swung the machete at him, and a struggle ensued. In the course of the struggle, Flanagan jabbed John Bennell, 27, with the machete, before the four burglars ran from the house. Bennell collapsed outside and died.

Peter Flanagan told the court that peaceful sleep has been “non-existent” since the incident. Every time he goes to bed, he sees John Bennell’s face.

Despite intensive counselling, Flanagan testified that he has been left with severe trauma that “will live with me for the rest of my life.”

This is only the latest in a series of such incidents. Nick Baungartner, then 53, killed a 22-year-old burglar who had broken into his house and attacked him with a shovel in December 1995. At a press conference later, Baungartner broke down in tears and said: “I will never be a man again.”

While part of the suffering of these men must relate to the terror of being attacked in your home, there is strong evidence that a large part of their trauma derives from the violence they inflicted.

A universal human phobia

This aspect of “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD) was first studied by US sociologist Jane Addams in her work with First World War soldiers.

Rachel McNair writes about police officers in her 2005 book Perpetration-induced tramatic stress: “Those who have shot someone in the line of duty are commonly admitted to have PTSD symptoms that are worse than those of someone who was shot at.”

She notes that US government data on its Vietnam veterans shows that “those who say they killed have more severe PTSD than those who say they did not”.

Strikingly, those who killed in light combat had heavier PTSD scores than those who did not kill even though in heavy combat.

Dave Grossman, a psychologist and formerly a US army ranger, calls this the “universal human phobia”: “the simple and demonstrable fact that there is within most men [and women] an intense resistance to killing their fellow men [and women].” 

When we kill, we kill something precious inside ourselves.