How Oscar Pistorius killed Reeva Steenkamp (innocent)

Perhaps I’ve been unfair to Oscar Pistorius. I thought I sensed emotional deception and—without really thinking—I reached for my Parabellum pen and blasted him with my invective. But what if he’s been telling the truth all along? Here I set out his emotional defence.

A theme of this blog, indeed the course to which it is linked, is that emotions are as much social as they are biochemical and neurological phenomena. The celebrity of the brain takes all the glory, but who we are, where we are and the society in which we live shape our experience of emotions. The brain mediates between the interior of our body and the exterior social world. It’s a social sense organ.

Pistorius is a young, white man living in Pretoria, South Africa. At the time of Reeva Steenkamp’s murder he was a respected and well-to-do celebrity athlete. He was widely admired for his courage and tenacity in overcoming his disability to become a world class athlete.

Post-apartheid South Africa is rife with violent crime, including murder and rape. Most of this crime occurs within and among the poor, and the poor are overwhelmingly black. Rich whites, the most fearful among South Africans, are actually the least endangered.

But that doesn’t stop them being afraid. We learn what to be fearful of and we learn how to react to it. We can be fearful of what is ‘out there’ and also what is ‘in here’, the memories, histories inside our head. Pistorius wasn’t just afraid of ‘an’ intruder, he was afraid of a black intruder.

The laager mentality of long-dead Afrikaners persists among some of these young men; they fear the threat of a nameless, faceless, armed and dangerous black intruder ‘out there’. In the spirit of those with no state to protect them, they feel honour-bound to defend ‘their’ women and family from the perceived threat, for rapes often accompany armed robbery and murder in South Africa. ‘I had to protect Reeva.’ Pistorius wouldn’t be the first white man to shoot family members thinking they were intruders.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

This famous cartoon by Brian Duffy from 1985 helps illustrate how some white South Africans feel.

These are the ingredients of chronic fear and constant vigilance. Every strange noise and unusual movement is regarded with suspicion. Instincts and reflexes are on a knife edge. Surrounded by an unseen but all-seeing enemy and fearing retribution for past wrongs, young men like Pistorius are inclined to get their retaliation in first and to act with an expectation of impunity. Having lost their legal superiority and entitlements, they feel morally entitled to shoot first and ask questions later just the same. This is the subtext to the Pistorius trial.

Presumably it was feelings such as these that led Pistorius to buy a home in the Silver Woods Country Estate, where he killed Reeva Steenkamp: a 90 acre gated community, protected by high walls, electric fencing, laser sensors, biometric locks; all overseen by closed-circuit cameras and security guards. This is where whites with money have taken refuge. The only black people in these gated communities are likely to be servants or security guards.

It might be thought that Pistorius would feel secure here. Crime was a rarity within the estate. But residents of such estates seek shelter there precisely because they are more aware of violent crime than the average South African. The objective risk to Pistorius had changed, reduced to negligible, but the ideas in his head and the twitchiness in his body hadn’t. As every soldier returning from battle knows, feelings of anxiety and fear can exist even though an individual is no longer in danger. Moreover, ‘they’ knew where he lived and that he was vulnerable. Gated communities are like islands. He was surrounded.

The fear defence was cleverly set out in his bail application affidavit: he shot Reeva in error, thinking she was an armed intruder and his life was in danger. It was an honest, though tragic, mistake. Some selected highlights (my emphasis):

I am acutely aware of violent crime being committed by intruders entering homes with a view to commit crime, including violent crime. I have received death threats before.

I heard a noise in the bathroom and realised that someone was in the bathroom.

I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.

I believed that someone had entered my house. I was too scared to switch a light on.

I grabbed my 9mm pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom and I thought Reeva was in bed.

I noticed that the bathroom window was open. I realised that the intruder/s was/were in the toilet because the toilet door was closed and I did not see anyone in the bathroom. I heard movement inside the toilet. The toilet is inside the bathroom and has a separate door.

It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder or intruders being inside the toilet. I thought he or they must have entered through the unprotected window. As I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable, I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself. I believed that when the intruder/s came out of the toilet we would be in grave danger. I felt trapped as my bedroom door was locked and I have limited mobility on my stumps.

I fired shots at the toilet door and shouted to Reeva to phone the police. She did not respond and I moved backwards out of the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the bathroom entrance. Everything was pitch dark in the bedroom and I was still too scared to switch on a light. Reeva was not responding.


He heard a noise, noise of a movement. This filled him with fear, a sense of terror and horror. He felt extremely vulnerable. He had to make some quick moral decisions. Their very lives depended on it. Isn’t this the very essence of Darwin’s position on the evolutionary value of emotions?

Every decision has its counterpart in the brain.  It combines information from different senses to create our perceptions of what is ‘out there’. A sound or a sight is really as much a function of our brains as our ears and eyes. And this brain was afraid, terrified, horrified. Fear makes the senses more sensitive. We don’t just hear a noise, we hear what the noise means, what it foretells. It is not what was objectively true that is paramount, but what he believed to be true. He shot at, not an intruder, but the noise behind the door, at the idea of the intruder.

Who are we to say different? Just as no two noses smell the same, no two people feel fear the same. And we weren’t there. Few of us get to feel that kind of fear.

Reduced to its simplest, his brain did it.  He was powerless to intervene. If he has some good neuroscientists standing by to provide expert testimony, this defence might just work.

[Thanks to Eben van Renen for his insights on life in South Africa today.]

Fear at the margins

Classic examples of fear in psychology typically feature Homo Psychologicus confronted with a wild animal—a bear will do. A grizzly eyeing you with malevolent intent is indeed a frightening experience.

But those of us who live in closer proximity to bears than others know that bears are reasonable creatures who just want to be left alone. While there are bad bears, just as their are bad humans, most bears will avoid you and should your paths accidentally cross, allow you to take your leave with no questions asked.

No, the really gut-wrenching fear occurs when we feel ourselves being pushed to the margins of our human society, for here lie danger and death.

The mere threat of layoff is enough to drain the life out of most of us. How will I support my children? What will I do?

A loved one lays critically ill and we silently promise all we have to a God we never before believed in if only they can be allowed to live.

Horror of horrors, due to what must surely be a misunderstanding—for no one ever does anything wrong—we end up in prison. A human sump. Good luck climbing back after that. Your chances are about the same as a spider at the bottom of a cup.

We avoid being pushed to the margins of society as if our lives depend on it—because it does depend on it. Humans are social mammals. Emotions mediate between what is happening within our bodies and what is happening within our social environment. Our relationships with other people and our internal body states (hormonal, immunal, cardiovascular) are intrinsically connected.

Lose an important emotional connection, to a person, to a group, to a community, by compulsion or by choice, and you will experience intense pain within you. It leaves no visible scars but it’s real pain alright.

You will suffer. So pay attention to your emotional connections, root out the bad, nurture the good.

Fear of emotional pain is one thing, fear of impersonal social forces which hold us in their power is another. Most of us would sooner face a bear. You can reason with a bear, you can’t reason with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.

Consider Kafka’s story, In the Penal Colony, where everyone is guilty simply because they’re there. If they weren’t guilty, they wouldn’t be there. Try and reason your way out of that.

There are many such penal colonies around the world, that at Guantánamo Bay is merely the most infamous. Note you then this:

Rest assured, dear reader, there is no need for you to be afraid. This sort of thing happens only to other people. Terrorists. If they weren’t guilty they wouldn’t be there. Pay no heed to the ever widening definition of terrorism in the United States. It’s probably nothing. America’s right to detain anyone, anywhere, without charge or trial is for the good of us all.

The making of Guantánamo Bay: The Hunger Strikes, The Guardian, 13th October, 2013

Edward Snowden and how to philosophize with a hammer

To pose questions with a hammer, and listen to the sound it makes. That which would like to stay silent becomes audible. The idea is Nietzsche’s (Twilight of the Idols or How to Philosophize with a Hammer). The hammer is Edward Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program. [For the full story see The NSA Files.] And that which would have preferred to stay silent?

  • The craven complicity of Western states with this U.S.-led network of surveillance.
  • The abject submission to U.S. intimidation of all but four of the world’s nation states which turned a blind eye to Snowden’s need for political asylum.
  • The insipid response of the corporate media to this scandal.
  • That there is no political morality left to feel outrage. News media are forced to go back to the 1960s to remind us of how it feels.
  • That if you are any kind of dissident in need of sanctuary or asylum you’re out of luck.
Spheres of influence

Spheres of influence

Any and all digital communication within this surveillance archipelago is monitored. Do not be fooled by reassurances that only metadata, not content, is monitored. (President Obama: ‘No one’s listening to your phone calls.’) It’s metadata they want. From metadata they know who we communicate with, when, where and how. The why? is less important. It is not your guilt or innocence they are interested in—that distinction is gone—it is the risk you pose: to themselves, the state itself.

See The NSA/GCHQ metadata reassurances are breathtakingly cynical

Think this doesn’t effect you? See A Guardian Guide to Your Metadata and think again.

And all in the name of an emotion—extreme fear or terror.

‘We need this to prevent terrorism’.

Not even U.S. Senators believe this. (Senators challenge NSA’s claim to have foiled ‘dozens’ of terror attacks) (NSA surveillance played little role in foiling terror plots, experts say)

No serious enemy of the American state is ignorant of this surveillance. They are not stupid enough to rely on digital communication (even in encrypted form). A simple hand-written letter defeats this billion dollar apparatus. In the Second World War carrier pigeons did the job. There are no limits to human ingenuity. The Romans used carrier eagles.

It’s for those democratic dissenters exercising their rights unaware that they are now susceptible to the highly flexible terrorist label. Explore this line of thought if you want to know why the Occupy Wall Street movement went quiet all of a sudden. The late Michael Hastings revealed how Homeland Security Kept Tabs on Occupy Wall Street (Rolling Stone). Well, he won’t be making anymore revelations. (See TREACHERY WORKS BOTH WAYS: THE LIFE OF EDWARD SNOWDEN AND THE DEATH OF MICHAEL HASTINGS).

See also: Mission Creep: When Everything Is Terrorism

It is also for the young, gullible and foolish. Those who rise to bait, entrapment and provocation. They are sacrificial offerings to keep the terrorism narrative alive. Explore this line of thought if you want to understand the why so many convicted of terrorist offenses are so incompetent and naive.

And all in the name of an emotion—extreme fear or terror.

While you weren’t paying attention the ‘war-on-terror’ dissolved the distinctions between:

  • War and peace. The war-on-terror is permanent.
  • Foreign and domestic battlefields. The WOT is fought everywhere. We are all Iraqis now. These surveillance techniques were first tried on them, specifically in Fallujah.
  • Terrorism and political dissent. ‘Terrorism’ is proving a remarkably flexible category. We are the enemy. Or, at least, the enemy is among us. We may not be under arrest , but we are all under suspicion. ‘If you see something, say something.’
  • Military and political leadership. The name of the game is risk and security and that’s common to both. Their security. Risk to them.
  • Sovereign countries. Once independent Western countries are now so many interconnected theaters in the war-on-terror under the sway of the United States.
  • Guilt and innocence. This distinction is gone. It has been replaced by degrees of risk—to this surveillance state.

All this is made audible by Michael Snowden’s hammer blow. And there is more to come. This is why the United States is out to silence him—and why so few in authority speak in his defence.


Edward Snowden is doomed, and now he knows it. The look on his face, especially his eyes, in Moscow tells us this. That 1,000 yard stare is into his future. If he is not ‘disappeared’ he will find himself ‘renditioned’ en route to solitary confinement for the rest of his days in the Florence Supermax. (‘A clean version of hell’.)

Snowden is just what he seems, a clean-cut American young man. A patriot. Someone who believes in what America stands for.

Only a true believer blows the whistle. You have to really care about the issues. If you don’t care, you don’t bother because you know ahead of time that the cost to your life is just too much.

No one loves whistleblowers until or unless they win support. Until then they’re just trouble-makers. That’s where Edward Snowden is now. Even the head of the United Nations felt obliged to stick the boot in.

If one out of ten whistleblowers ‘make it’ to the other side of purgatory that would be good going. The lives of the rest are ruined by stress, if not prematurely ended. Snowden knew all of this and overcome this fear. That’s what makes him courageous.

Obama sees no hypocrisy in praising Nelson Mandela for his ‘moral courage’ (as if we needed telling this) while overlooking that of Edward Snowden.

It is precisely because Edward Snowden is a true patriot that he is doomed. He made the fatal mistake of believing in what it said in America’s public relations brochure; that it is a democratic, pluralist society; a state regulated by checks and balances. His disclosures were intended to correct an imbalance. He was defending the Constitution ‘against all enemies’, knowing that enemies can be within as well as without.

But just as we judge someone by what he or she does rather than what they say they do, so too with nation-states. If the United States acts as if it is a form of radical, authoritarian nationalism, it’s probably because that’s just what it is. Edward Snowden is just discovering this.

It acts as if by God-given right, with impunity. It gets away with it not simply because of its superior military power, but also because it has leveraged 9/11 for maximum emotional effect. It nurses its pain as if it enjoys it and uses emotional memories of those tragic events as a license to kill, anyone, anywhere. It’s a form of emotional blackmail. The entire world is America’s emotional hostage and so remains silent.

It’s about time it stopped. No one should submit to any form of blackmail.

Finally, let’s consider the advice of William Hague, the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, for whom the word ‘craven’ could have been invented, in response to Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance:

‘If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear.’

Well that would exclude just about every campaigner for human rights, for most of these are won from below, not bestowed from above, by challenging and often breaking existing laws. Anti-semitism took many legal forms in Nazi Germany. So did racism in the United States. The Suffragettes broke laws to win the vote for women. And so on.

The corollary of Hague’s advice is that if you’re an active citizen, pushing the legal envelope so as to achieve social change—you do have something to fear.


The Politics of Fear

Edward Snowden blows the whistle on widespread surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency and its UK equivalent on American citizens, those of other countries and on friendly European governments—and no country will offer him sanctuary.

Are we to conclude that all are afraid of the United States or compromised by it?

Without Edward Snowden we would not know that America’s most senior intelligence official, James Clapper, lied under oath before Congress when he testified in March that the National Security Agency did not collect the telephone records of millions of Americans.

This is what emotional deception or lying looks like:

Snowden spoke the truth and is a fugitive. Clapper lied and faces no consequences.

In the meantime millions of Egyptians—who believe a revolution took place in 2011—took to the streets to demonstrate for and against President Morsi and all await the deadline imposed by …. the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Morsi and the armed forces are advised on a regular basis by the very people now intimidating the world. He is their man.

A bit of an exaggeration but it makes the point.

A bit of an exaggeration but it makes the point.

The moral here is that real change requires real people on the streets organizing themselves into an emotional, moral power. (Staring at a screen doesn’t cut it.) Politicians, bureaucrats and generals fear that more than tanks. Witness events in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil right now.

The politicians in those European countries which bend the knee so readily to American behests on ‘security’ and ‘intelligence’, while their citizens’ lives are surveilled in minute detail, would be well advised to watch their backs.

Much of Europe is a human wasteland. An entire generation faces a life of workless poverty. Most of these, I wager, identify with Edward Snowden, not their political masters. They’ve taken to the streets in most countries, without achieving much. But that can quickly change. Emotions are contagious. A spark from a forest fire can travel miles on the wind to start another. The emotional energy in Egypt, Turkey and even Brazil is quite capable of igniting the passions of those at the wrong end of austerity in Europe.  That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of people to watch—and that’s why they’re being watched so closely by their Anglo-American friends.

Should that happen the ruling class of Europe—’the innocent have nothing to fear’—is going to have to decide what it fears most: America or their own people.

Either way, they are not innocent and they have a lot to fear.

“If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign | Homeland Security

“If You See Something, Say Something” Campaign | Homeland Security.

This reminds me a little of the slogans used in the Second World War (1939-45). ‘Loose ships sink ships’. ‘Stay calm and carry on’.

keep calm

The United States certainly considers itself at war. Its response to those two suspects was most warlike. Storm troopers in the street, an entire city told to stay indoors and its airspace closed. All this, in the end, for a frightened 19 year old boy—innocent until proven otherwise.

I’m not sure which was more terrifying, the bombings or the disproportionate response.

There will be many more Americans ‘seeing something’ and ‘saying something’ after this.

Just to show that there’s a diversity of opinion on terrorism in the United States, here are some playful interpretations of ‘If you see something, say something’.