2016-06-30

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."

But Rabbi Michael Paley, who was the chaplain at Columbia in the early '90s, says that Jews should respond differently to Nelford's death--that, in fact, the differences between a Christian's and a Jew's reaction to this suicide may point to a more fundamental difference between the two religions.

Jews, says Paley, have always valued human life but differ with Christians on what valuing human life means. "One value of life is you don't like the people who take it away from someone," he says. "I have, at best, an ambivalent response to Nelford's death. I feel bad when anybody dies." But, recalling the Midrashic saying "He who is kind to the cruel is cruel to the kind," Paley says: "I don't mourn for him the same way--if I did, I wouldn't be taking Kathleen Roskot's death seriously."

He adds that Una Taneh Tokev--a medieval prayer recited during the high holy days--urges us to repent in order to avoid the severe decree. "Nelford didn't do that," he says. "Not only didn't he end his life with sense of prayer or repentance--he ended it by suicide as a murderer. The real Jewish issue is that he murdered himself in addition to her, and we don't give people the right to do that."

"One value of life is you don't like the people who take it away from someone."

Paley says that the essential issue here is not the sanctity of life, or the possibility of repentance, but forgiveness: "By Jewish law he murdered not one but two people--himself and the girl. He's culpable for both crimes. There's no legal reason to forgive him."

While the New Testament emphasizes the penitent's need to get right with God, Jewish teachings stress getting right with the victim. "Before you ask the forgiveness of God, you have to ask the forgiveness of the person wronged," says Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein, an assistant dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the case of Roskot and Nelford, the problem is not only that Nelford isn't around to ask forgiveness--it's that Roskot isn't around to grant it.

In wrestling with how to respond to the suicide of a murderer, we might do well to recall a violent death recounted in Hebrew Scripture. We learn in the book of Exodus that after the Red Sea parted, the Israelites crossed to the other side, but when the Egyptians tried to chase them, the walls of the sea collapsed and the Egyptians drowned. According to a midrash, the angels in heaven began to cheer, but God silenced them, saying: "You may not cheer. The Israelites are free and my plan for their redemption is unfolding, but some of my other children are dead, so you may not cheer."

God doesn't ask the angels to cry for the Egyptians. But he does remind them that the death of even the vilest of his creations is a somber moment.


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