Cannibalism is not a lifestyle choice
Killing and eating somebody is murder - whether the victim wanted it or not.
Armin Meiwes, the German cannibal who killed, dismembered and ate another man, has escaped with a conviction of manslaughter. With good behaviour in prison, this could mean that he is out in a mere four-and-a-half years.
Meiwes has been somewhat indulged outside as well as inside the court. His story has been reported with a macabre curiosity, rather than straight reprobation. We’ve been painted a picture of an intelligent and polite man – a ‘gentleman’ – and reflections on his personal history and motivations have packed the papers. Meiwes is reportedly enjoying the publicity his case has gained, and is writing his memoirs in prison.
Legal experts have said that this case is unprecedented – crucially, because Meiwes’ victim wanted to be eaten. Meiwes advertised on the internet seeking a fit man ‘for slaughter’; he received dozens of replies, but only one – Bernd Juergen Brandes – was serious about going through with it. The two agreed between them the methods by which Brandes would be butchered. As Professor Arthur Kreuzer of the Institute of Criminology at Glessen University said: ‘This will make legal history…. The killer sought out his victim and the victim sought out his killer.’ (1).
The manslaughter verdict seems to have been something of a fudge. The prosecution wanted murder, arguing that Meiwes killed in pursuit of sexual pleasure; they are now appealing. The defence had argued that it was illegal euthanasia, a ‘killing on request’. Manslaughter normally refers to the state of mind of the murderer (the victim’s reluctance to die is assumed) – in this case, it seems to have been chosen as a halfway house.
Lawyers will no doubt debate the legal ins and outs of this case. Yet both the case itself and the response to it present issues of broader relevance. Among other things, the grisly trial of Mr Meiwes has brought to light society’s confusion about social morality and criminal responsibility.
Behind this case lay extreme social dysfunction. Meiwes was a loner, who had few ties aside from his (now deceased) domineering mother. He claims that his desire to eat somebody was born from the younger brother that he never had – ‘I always wanted someone to be part of me’, he said. He described the act as ‘like taking communion’: ‘with every piece of flesh I ate I remembered him.’ (2) For his part, Brandes wanted to be eaten: ‘my nipples look forward to your stomach’, he told Meiwes in an email (3). What should have been an emotional bond between two people apparently became a gruesome one-way meal.
That it can be explained, however, doesn’t mean that this act can’t be tried and condemned. If anything, it perhaps is more important for the law to condemn it all the more strongly. After all, Moors murderer Ian Brady gave piles of existential reasons for killing all those boys and girls. The fact is, Meiwes carefully planned and orchestrated the affair. He says that he knew what he was doing was wrong, and he now regrets it. Consenting to become somebody else’s meal seems to be such a depraved choice as to be meaningless. The knife was in Meiwes’ hands, and it was his own desires that drove him on.
The failure, by a panel of three judges, to find Meiwes guilty of murder looks morally equivocal. The presiding judge, Judge Volker Mütze, concluded that Meiwes had ‘no base motives’ in the crime: ‘There was an agreement between them. This was the killing of a person without murder.’ He emphasised the victim’s motivations – ‘The victim offered up his body because he wanted to get the kick of his life… to be the final act, the high point of his life’. This moral equivocation was also found in some of the coverage of the case. The fact that the victim agreed to be eaten, and that Meiwes has been so calm in his explanation, has meant that it was received with macabre fascination as much as condemnation. ‘It wasn’t murder because the victim fully consented’, said Christian Rath in Die Tageszeitung (4).
Passing the murder verdict is all the harder at a time when there is growing popular – and in some countries, legal – support for assisted suicide. The idea that killing somebody can be in their best interest paves the way for concluding that cannibalism isn’t murder, because it’s what the victim wanted. It was a mutual agreement, goes the reasoning, and the victim got as much out of it as the killer. The fact that one of the pair ended up in the other’s freezer doesn’t seem to undermine this view of it as a consensual deal.
The irony is that today’s society loves petty laws. Everywhere we go, it seems, we are confronted by laws about what we can and cannot do. No smoking in public places, no putting your bags on a seat in the New York subway trains, no foxhunting, no growing your hedges above a certain height. Yet when it comes to the big matters of life and death, there is a disturbing uncertainty about which side to come down on.
(1) Cannibal who fried victim in garlic is cleared of murder, Guardian 31 January 2004
(2) Germany awaits verdict in ‘cannibal’ trial, 28 January 2004
(3) Cannibal who fried victim in garlic is cleared of murder, Guardian, 31 January 2004
(4) German press review, Guardian, 2 February 2004
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