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.]