Wednesday 9 June 2010

Panorama - The Cumbria Shootings: review

Panorama’s programme on the Cumbria Shootings on Monday evening was short, sharp and horrific. Sensibly, the makers scarcely attempted to answer the many questions surrounding Derrick Bird’s motives for killing twelve people, and then himself in a peaceful wood, but rather focused on following the geographical course he took, just one week ago.

The contrast between the sunlit landscape and the terrible crimes that Bird committed was shocking. Even Conan Doyle, when writing in 'The Copper Beeches' about 'the dreadful record of sin' to be found in the countryside could never have imagined a single man being responsible for such a trail of wanton, pointless destruction. Some of the stories told, albeit briefly, were heartbreaking. Bird started the day by shooting his twin brother, and later he killed – presumably at random – a woman whose twin sister described her own tragic loss. His victims included fellow taxi drivers, many if not all of them perhaps chosen as a result of some grudge, and passers-by who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The chief constable of Cumbria police, Craig Mackey, was grilled by the journalist, but denied that Bird could have been caught more quickly and before killing so many people. We don’t know all the facts, of course, but instinctively I have a great deal of sympathy for Mr Mackey’s points, which he put in a reasonable and by no means unduly defensive manner. There are questions to be asked about whether ambulances were allowed, quickly enough, to attend to the victims, but no doubt the answers will emerge in due course.

Strikingly, at the end of the programme, several people who were deeply affected by the shootings – including one man whom Bird shot in the face – expressed a degree of sympathy for the ‘normal bloke’ who snapped in such a terrible way, and with such appalling consequences. This is an extraordinary case which has made a deep impression on countless people, including me. A good deal has now emerged about the personal misfortunes which Bird suffered and which may help to explain, though not excuse, his conduct. But whether it will ever be fully explained remains far from clear.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Sometimes I think there is no really satisfactory explanation for why people such as Bird snap, and others, who also suffer a great deal of misfortune, do not. That is part of what makes shootings such as these so horrifying; we want answers, and they are not always easy (if there really are answers).

I, too, sympathise with Mackey (although I confess I didn't see this program). He's got a thankless task, and even if the Cumbria police can be shown to have made mistakes, that doesn't diminish the horrible task they have in finding answers and pursuing this investigation.

I continue to wish everyone well as they try to cope with this tragedy...

Unknown said...

What a shocking tale. I know as mystery writers, we are required by our readers to not just write the horror but give reasons behind it, the readers want the motives as they do in real life. Sadly, real life doesn't always give us the answers we seek.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Sometimes I think that in books we have to provide more motive than there actually IS in real life. Frequently, crime is senseless, but in our books it's usually motivated by something.

Paul Beech said...

Martin – I missed the Panorama programme unfortunately but have had contact not only with my father’s care home in Cumbria but with my sister who lives locally too.

She was in work on the day of the shootings, following events as they unfolded via regular police bulletins. She was worried about a friend in Whitehaven and unable to reach her by mobile as the network was down. Colleagues were beside themselves over loved ones caught up in it all.

Speaking to people who were in the area at the time you really feel the shockwaves – the incredulity, horror and grief engendered by this most senseless outrage.

I haven’t heard Chief Constable Mackey’s comments but certainly have every sympathy with his officers having to deal with a rapidly escalating and no doubt confusing situation, seeing things that must have sickened even the most experienced. Horrendous for the paramedics, doctors and witnesses too, of course – they all deserve our sympathy.

I doubt we’ll ever know exactly what went on in Bird’s mind as he isn’t around to tell us. One obvious difference between fictional murder mysteries and the real thing is that authors are in the privileged position of viewing events from the killer’s perspective whereas in life, no matter how close a relationship, no matter how expertly conducted an interview, we can never completely enter another’s mind, feeling what they feel, seeing what they see.

West Cumbria is in mourning and it’ll be a long, long time before the community can come to terms with the tragedy, the name Whitehaven now linked with Hungerford and Dunblane in the public consciousness as synonymous with senseless massacre – so sad.


Martin Edwards said...

I'm very grateful for these comments.
Paul, I do hope that Whitehaven isn't linked permanently in people's minds with the shootings. It's a town I like - with a great second hand bookshop! - and a pleasing harbour area. But I can understand that there is a mood of melancholy there at present.