Sympathy for the Devil

When a murderer kills himself, should we mourn? Should we cheer?

BY: Lauren F. Winner

 

On February 6, 2000, every student at Columbia University received an e-mail from the president, George Rupp. It informed members of the university community that Kathleen Roskot, a Columbia sophomore and star lacrosse player, had been found dead in her dorm that Saturday, her throat slit. The murderer, Thomas Nelford, was also dead. A former Columbia student, and Roskot's boyfriend, Nelford threw himself in front of an oncoming subway train at about the time Roskot's body was discovered.

In his e-mail, Rupp wrote: "We mourn the loss of Kathleen Roskot, a beloved daughter, sister, friend, teammate, and mentor, who in two brief years at the university set a standard of dedication, leadership, and caring for others that future generations of Columbians will strive to reach. This is a most difficult time for Kathleen's family and friends, and for thousands of other Columbians who have been profoundly touched by this tragedy." Then, Rupp added, "It is also a difficult time for the family and friends of Thomas Nelford who are struggling to cope with the events of this weekend."

The awkward reference to Nelford's friends and family, buried in the third paragraph of Rupp's e-mail, indicates just how uncomfortable a position Rupp was in: he couldn't very well ignore Nelford entirely--after all, he was once a Columbia student, and he was dead. On the other hand, Rupp couldn't afford the same sympathies to a suicidal murderer as he offered to that murderer's innocent victim.

"Even a murderer's life is still a life. Because human beings were created in the image of God, the loss of any life is to be lamented."

 

Rupp isn't the only one who's unsure of how to respond to Nelford's death. As one student at the Columbia business school puts it, "We all feel sad about Kathleen's death--that's easy, even if we didn't know her. But Nelford's? He's dead, and that seems to add tragedy to tragedy. But how distraught can you be over a suicide when you think the world is probably better off without him anyway? At the end of the day, I say we can't really mourn his death."

But some religious leaders caution against the impulse to say good riddance to Thomas Nelford. "As much as you might be in horror at what someone has done, the Catholic tradition wants to always hold out the possibility that the person could repent," says William McFadden, a theology professor at Georgetown. The church teaches that even a murderer's soul is worth saving, and suicide makes salvation impossible.

Christians also mourn Nelford because of their emphasis on the sanctity of all human life. Al Hsu, an evangelical Protestant writer who has experienced the suicide of a family member, says that "even a murderer's life is still a life--there is intrinsic value of all life regardless of moral behavior. Because human beings were created in the image of God, the loss of any life is to be lamented. That is the basic Christian position."

Richard Hughes Seager, the author of "Buddhism in America," adds that it's not only Christians who would grieve for Nelford. "The overall goal of Buddhism is liberation," he says, and murder is a horrific obstacle to that. Suicide, he adds, would "exacerbate the karmic web that had already been woven" by the murder and "compound the meta implications."

Seager says that Buddhists share Christians' concern for repentance, noting that in the Tibetan tradition some of the greatest saints were once thieves and villains who repented. "That possibility for repentance is there--so with the Buddhist focus on karma, and the consequences of actions in terms of liberation, you end up in the same place as the Christian place ends up through the preciousness of human life."

Continued on page 2: »

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