The Terror of the Inexplicable

Madness, atrocity and a world without answers

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The hearing was the surreal thing that all post-tragedy hearings are. The family sat in the second row, waiting for the judge to arrive. The news media—the familiar gaggle of camera tripods and cellphones and TV faces—stood 15 feet in front of them in the empty jury box scrutinizing their every move, taking pictures in the awkward silence. The courtroom was so small it forced an intimacy, a direct imposition of the public eye on a confused and traumatic moment.

After 10 minutes, one member of the family extended his middle finger over his face toward a photographer. The bailiff admonished the man for his gesture: “Sir, that’s unacceptable behavior.” Unacceptable, perhaps, but not incomprehensible.

The defendant, 27-year-old Danielle Slaughter, appeared via closed-circuit TV from a room in the Clark County Detention Center. The room was decorated with a red and yellow banner that read, “When you believe in yourself, anything is possible.” I’m not making that up. You look at the TV while you’re sitting in the courtroom next to a row of family members who’ve just lost a 6-year-old girl to scissor-stab wounds in her neck allegedly caused by her mother, and you see that banner: When you believe in yourself, anything is possible. It’s as if the distance between the governing and the governed has become wholly insurmountable.

Slaughter appeared in the front corner of the screen, childlike. When the judge asked her whether she and her attorney had agreed upon a hearing date, she said she was unsure, and punctuated that uncertainty with a small nervous giggle. It was March 16, and so much had changed in such a short time. Two days earlier, she was unable to get out of her cell bed to come to court. Five days ago, she was running down Vegas Drive naked, covered in her daughter’s blood, telling police it was the blood of the “Lamb of God.” Two months ago, she posted on Facebook, “GOD please don’t leave my side. I know you’ve cried out to me but I didn’t hear your words but I’m ready now. JESUS help me to become more strong because the devil is working hard in the world today.”

A hearing date was confirmed and the family poured out of the courtroom, the media in chase. A TV reporter pleaded as they walked away, “What church do you go to? Can you tell me what church?” because this is a story about a little girl who died when her mother felt an “evil presence” in her daughter’s laugh, a story about a mother who Facebooked about God’s love and grace, a story about things going terribly wrong. And when people find themselves in that place, where nothing makes sense—neither the First Amendment nor the justice system nor life nor death—it seems fair to ask something of God.

The same day—March 11—that Danielle Slaughter was found running down the street, another atrocity was taking place halfway around the world. U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slipped away from his base and allegedly killed 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children. Even in the midst of war, it seemed incomprehensible, and we immediately clamored for the causes: He’d been on too many tours of duty, he’d endured a head injury, he’d seen too many awful things, a soldier from his platoon recently had his leg blown off. Under these pressures, who knows where the human mind might go?

We were vaguely able to get our own heads around the idea that the accumulated atrocities of war were somehow responsible for him attacking the very essence of innocence: sleeping children. He’d gone mad.

Similarly, Slaughter’s attorney said she expects an insanity defense for her client. We don’t know the details of Slaughter’s story, either, except that her war was here, in a culture riddled with a sometimes-sickening mixture of messages that can, when combined with whatever biological predispositions a person has, cause a descent into madness.

As Joseph Conrad noted a century ago in Heart of Darkness, when broken minds meet a broken world, restraint disappears. We believe in ourselves at precisely the moments when we should doubt. And the blandest of clichés can ring horribly true.

Anything is possible.