On November 28, 1994, notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was murdered in prison by a fellow inmate. Unspeakably heinous though Dahmer’s crimes were, his murder can only be condemned. To be sure, by committing his crimes, Dahmer had forfeited his right to life. By no means can it be said that the injustice he suffered was as grave as what he inflicted upon his victims. But the state alone had the moral authority to execute him, and no private individual can usurp that authority. Vigilantism is itself a grave offense against the moral and social order, and Dahmer’s murderer merited severe punishment.
The recent murder of another notorious serial killer – the late-term abortionist George Tiller – is in most morally relevant respects parallel to the Dahmer case. It is true that Tiller, unlike Dahmer, was not punished by our legal system for his crimes; indeed, most of those crimes, though clearly against the natural moral law, are not against the positive law of either the state or the country in which Tiller resided. That is testimony only to the extreme depravity of contemporary American society, and does not excuse Tiller one iota. Still, as in the Dahmer case, no private citizen has the right to take justice into his own hands, and Tiller’s murderer ought to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
As in the Dahmer case, though, the victim of this crime was himself an evil man and does not deserve our tears.
Do I seriously mean to suggest that Tiller was as bad as Dahmer? No, because Tiller was almost certainly a more evil man than Dahmer was. There are at least five considerations that favor this judgment.
First, Tiller’s victims were more numerous than Dahmer’s.
Second, Dahmer expressed remorse for his crimes. Tiller never did.
Third, and relatedly, Dahmer was apparently fully aware that what he did was evil, while Tiller pretended, to himself and others, that what he did was not evil. Some might think that such self-deception lessens Tiller's moral corruption, but in fact it exacerbates it. A man who knows that what he does is evil but does it anyway is corrupt; a man who has become so desensitized to the evil he does that he can no longer even perceive it as evil is even more corrupt. The sins of the former are likely to be sins of weakness; the sins of the latter, to be willful sins of malice. (Older moralists understood this. The modern cult of “authenticity” and “sincerity” has blinded us to it – and is itself a mark of our own grave moral corruption.)
Fourth, and again relatedly, Dahmer was evidently to some extent acting out of compulsion. This does not exculpate him, and the compulsion was a consequence of his freely indulging his evil for years. Still, his will evidently had become so corrupted that he eventually reached the point where he could barely control himself. The problem was only exacerbated by the fact that his murderous impulses were associated with various sexual perversions – always unruly under even the best circumstances – and that he had learned to indulge his dark desires in secret, free from the fear of exposure and shame that would deter most others afflicted by the same bizarre temptations. Tiller’s murders, by contrast, were committed openly, and resulted from no compulsion at all. It was neither bloodlust, nor sexual perversion, nor any other ungovernable passion that drove him to baby-killing, but the cold and cruel willfulness of the ideologue. If Dahmer was a miniature Caligula, Tiller was a poor man’s Stalin, Hitler, or Pol Pot.
Finally, Tiller added to his already unspeakable crimes the grave sin of blasphemy, insofar as he was (we now know) a churchgoer who evidently regarded his obeisance to Moloch as fully compatible with the religion of Jesus Christ. To my knowledge Dahmer never had the temerity to claim that a good Christian could be a cannibal.
This side of the grave, we are, mercifully, spared the knowledge of who is in Hell. As a Catholic, I pray for Tiller’s soul, as I pray for Dahmer’s. But it would be foolish to think it at all likely that either man died in a state of grace. Still, I’d give Dahmer better odds than the other, greater monster.