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Commentary: Murder in the worst degree

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: Often people become numb to reports of brutal violence
  • He says the murder of entire families is a particularly heinous crime
  • He says it's vital that people retain their sense of shock and outrage
  • Greene: We can't "lose our capacity to be shattered when this happens"
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

Bob Greene says society can't afford to become numb to the killing of entire families.

Bob Greene says society can't afford to become numb to the killing of entire families.

(CNN) -- There are some things we should never allow ourselves to get used to.

Yes, ours is a violent society. We take ghastly acts, and, almost out of exhausted resignation, we categorize them with convenient labels.

The mowing down of people walking along city streets? "Drive-by shootings," as if the carnage is part of some video game. The attacks, sometimes deadly, upon motorists on their way home? "Road rage," as if the brutal assaults are understandable, a traffic-related offense.

We probably shouldn't be blamed for at times letting all of this wash over us. There is only so much cruelty that can be absorbed before a kind of numbness sets in.

Yet there is a certain kind of crime we must not let ourselves become accustomed to. Because if we do, then we are truly adrift.

Twice during the last week, reports of such crimes have been presented to us.

In North Naples, Florida, a woman and her five children were found slain in their townhouse. The throats of Guerline Damas and her sons and daughters, their ages ranging from 11 months to 9 years, had been slashed. Damas' husband, Mesac Damas, faces six counts of first-degree murder.

A family, erased.

And just as that news was sinking in came the report from the tiny town of Beason, Illinois. Raymond Gee, 46, his wife, Ruth, 39, and three of their children were found dead in their home, all five the victims of blunt-force trauma. Logan County Sheriff Steven Nichols said it was "a brutal homicide against an entire family." Police were looking for the killer or killers.

The violent obliteration of families, either by members of those families or by outside intruders, crushes something elemental in us, something sacrosanct. The murder of families is like no other crime, because to carry out such an act speaks of -- there is no other proper phrase for it -- utter soullessness.

We have always been taught: When there is nothing else, there is family. When, in times of the deepest despair, there is no one to lean on, there is family. Family is -- or at least should be -- the synonym for safety. Life's protective barrier against the world's dangers.

For people in families with agonizing problems, this can be tested and can fail. And the concept of family has been trivialized by some who would use it to further their own ends: certain political operatives and entertainment conglomerates and marketing firms, who know that "family" is such an emotionally powerful word that it can be used to sell just about anything.

But the power of the word is based on something profound and real, which is why, when someone decides to eradicate entire families, the implications are not just Shakepearean in their force, but something approaching biblical. This is not supposed to happen. No one has the right.

And although it is not an everyday occurrence, it transpires enough that we begin to forget the names and places.

In Mason, Ohio, last year, police said that Michel Veillette stabbed his wife, Nadya, and then set fire to the family's home, killing their four children, Marguerite, Vincent, Jacob and Mia. Veillette hanged himself in a jail cell while awaiting trial. In a Towson, Maryland, hotel room in April, police said, William Parente killed his wife, Betty, and daughters Catherine and Stephanie, before taking his own life. In Columbia, Illinois, this year, Sheri Coleman and her children Garett and Gavin were found strangled in their home. Coleman's husband, Christopher, has been charged with first-degree murder.

It is not an American phenomenon. In the village of Kabulpura in India this month, seven members of a retired teacher's family were found strangled. A 19-year-old woman and her boyfriend have been arrested; police said that the dead included the young woman's parents and her brother.

In South Africa four years ago, 15 people died in a single weekend when men opened fire on their own family members. Liz Dooley, director of the Family Life Centre in Johannesburg, told the South African Press Association that news reports of such crimes were potentially dangerous, because if people read or hear about them, "it becomes catching."

Meaning: Others may copy the crimes and commit them against their own families. As if such a thought is even comprehensible.

Often a motive, after the fact, is ascribed: jealousy or money problems or alcohol or drugs. Sometimes robbery, with the families selected at random.

All of which, in a law-enforcement sense, may be factual.

But the willful and violent ending of a family's life must never become one more story at which we glance briefly and then turn the newspaper page or zap to another channel on the cable box or click to the next screen on our laptop.

For if we lose our capacity to be shattered when this happens, then we have lost a part of ourselves.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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