Acte Gratuit

John Sturrock · Derrick Bird

Overhear that something unusually bad has happened in Whitehaven without at the same time overhearing what it might be, and the alarmist mind (mine) scoots recklessly ahead – knowing as it did nothing about Whitehaven except that it’s a town within easy fallout range of Sellafield – to invent a whole montage of pictures and reports of nuclear devastation. Had all the many newspaper and television reporters who were packed instantly off north to Cumbria to serve as intermediaries between events in Whitehaven and ourselves found in fact that they had some sort of fearsome meltdown to report on, they might also have found it simpler to measure up to than the real events they were faced with.

Few happenings of a criminal kind, other than one of these periodic episodes of multiple and indiscriminate killing, bring us more sharply up against the gap between what has happened and what can usefully be said about it, certainly by news reporters required to file far too many words and pictures within far too few minutes of their arrival at the crime scene. A serial killer like the Whitehaven cab driver, who chooses to murder all his victims and then himself inside three hours is not, you might cruelly say, playing by the media rules, eliminating as he does any element of suspense as to who he might be, whether there could be yet more victims, whether they have something in common, whether the police will ever find him and all the rest of it. What might have been a long story has been horribly abridged in both time and place, forcing those charged with telling it into fairly desperate and predictable exercises in speculation as they circulate among the population of a ‘traumatised’ town.

First question: tell us, what sort of man was this eventually murderous Derrick Bird? We know the answer to that question before it is put: decent enough bloke, quiet, liked walking his dog etc etc. How one almost longs for a local or neighbour to come on camera and tell us she knew all along he was going to do something like this, thoroughly bad egg as she’d long believed him to be.

And then the question you look forward to being raised least of all, unaswerable as it is, not just at the time but equally as much in the future: so why did he do it, why did he ‘flip’ – flipping being necessary if he was ever to pass out of the ranks of the decent blokes and into those of pathological killers. Since random killings like those committed in and around Whitehaven, even if some of the victims were known to the murderer, are indeed random, the assumption must be that the randomness is part of the killer’s ‘motive’, forced as those who report on crimes are to invoke that word.

It’ll never happen but it would be mighty refreshing if, on occasions like this at least, where there’s every reason to decide that the balance of the murderer’s mind was disturbed, in that good old coroner’s phrase used of suicides (and Bird was one), the distance held to exist between the crime and its motive were collapsed and the crime were seen as its own motive. The notion of the acte gratuit may sound rather literary and belong in a foreign language but it’s also sound philosophy so far as many of us are concerned, and its use to categorise if not ‘explain’ such acts as that of Derrick Bird would be a welcome innovation.


  • 4 June 2010 at 4:50pm
    yatima says:
    Not that it detracts from your points, but Bird was technically a spree killer.

  • 4 June 2010 at 11:29pm
    alex says:
    My problem with this article is not the anticipated one, that a French phrase would be inapt in the North West. Its the confusion of intentionality and meaningfulness (or, more broadly, motive and context) that bugs me.
    Telle Larousse defines a.g. as 'acte étranger à toute morale et qui n'est pas fait en fonction d'un but déterminé'. This conflates two issues. Just cos the guy didn't declare an intention doesn't mean he didn't have one, and certainly doesn't make his deed 'étranger à toute morale'. He might have been inarticulate, but he's unlikely to have been an existentialist. Assuming that he was probably suits Sturrock as an alibi not only for not bothering to turn up, but also for not considering it worth bothering to pay much attention to the details. We're on your case!

  • 5 June 2010 at 12:02am
    pinhut says:
    I remain skeptical on why actions such as Bird's are represented as incomprehensible. It's not unreasonable to come to despise certain people, nor, for that matter, humanity in general. And to proceed to kill them, why not? What does the law matter, finally? Aren't the UK and US and Israel,etc, presently killing their enemies, too, in equal violation of the law, and without ever providing a justification that goes beyond the expedient.

    Perhaps the harder thing for a culture such as the UK, is to comprehend the suicide at the end, just as the suicide bomber is continually represented as crazy, a psychopath, etc, and, further, as being something hugely anomalous when they come from a wealthy background and/or are well-educated etc (although with Bird being a mere cabbie perhaps the chattering classes will agree he had little to live for either way).

    The mental hurdle that can't be cleared is our own, that of bourgeois individualism that can't deal with the idea that somebody might 'throw away' their career for a cause, anathema to societies where nothing counts *more* than a good career. There was similar miscomprehension about the fact that the Iraqi middle classes were capable of being politically radical and even of fighting ("My Goodness, Clarissa!") or when Edward Said was seen being a good global citizen and hurling stones at his oppressors. In the UK, what intellectuals have risked anything at all opposing the policies of the last 10 years? They'd rather have a pension.


    What is telling is the media coverage, that goes from one story that says that the victims were essentially asking to be killed, the flotilla, to this story, where, strangely, even though some of the victims had crossed Mr Bird, we're not hearing similar viewpoints expressed by the very same media organs. Clearly, state violence enjoys far more approval than that meted out by the individual.

    For evidence of that, see this stunning disconnect from a recent Guardian website frontpage.

  • 6 June 2010 at 3:37pm
    peterscott says:
    one story that says that the victims were essentially asking to be killed, the flotilla, to this story, where, strangely, even though some of the victims had crossed Mr Bird, we’re not hearing similar viewpoints expressed by the very same media organs. Clearly, state violence enjoys far more approval