Serial Killer Ethics

Like the questions discussed today posed to “The Ethicist,” I view the dbate over whether a community should create a public memorial to the victims of a serial killer, in this instance Jeffrey Dahmer, an easy ethics call. Unfortunately, for people who can’t distinguish between emotional reasoning and common sense, determining what is “the right thing’ is remarkably difficult.

Toward the end of the Netflix series “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” the actress portraying a Dahmer neighbor is shown inquiring at a Milwaukee city office regarding a proposed park memorial to be built at the former site of the Oxford Apartments, where Dahmer committed most of his grisly murders. A sober message appears on the screen stating, “No park or memorial to Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims was ever built on the site of the Oxford Apartments.” 

To which the appropriate response is “Good!”

The memorial controversy died out in the Nineties, but the Netflix show has resuscitated it, and now the lobbying for a memorial has begun again. The 49-unit Oxford Apartments were razed in 1992, and the property is now privately owned. Nothing is on it; the space would presumably be the locale of any memorial, should one be approved.

An LGBTQ advocacy group in Milwaukee, Diverse & Resilient supports a memorial to the victims (most of Daumer’s victims were minority gay men and boys) if that is what the victims’ families want. An organization spokesman, Justin Roby, characterized the resistance to a memorial as part of an effort to “move on” from the tragedy, which the group insists must be remembered. “It is infuriating to be reminded that Milwaukee, much like the greater society, devalues Black and Brown LGBTQ+ lives,” Roby said. “While we are sure previous city leadership would love to wipe this stain from our history, its continued attention gives evidence of a true need for healing.”

I suspect that advocacy groups really want to keep using the lack of a memorial as a strategic talking point as they claim that the city “doesn’t care.” They probably know, as anyone who has thought about it does, that a memorial to the work of a serial killer is a spectacularly irresponsible idea. These maniacs usually crave infamy and attention: if the carnage from a serial killer’s rampage through a community could earn perpetual recognition in a public memorial, the motivation for such predators to kill would be even stronger. Cities would be creating a memorial for the victims, but to the serial killer and his fans (yes, they have fans) the memorial would be an honor for the murderer.

Robert Bauman, the Alderman for the area, offers another good reason why a memorial for Dahmer’s victims is a “terrible idea.”

“I don’t know how a memorial process would start or stop, or what criteria would be used unless everyone would get a public, permanent memorial,” he told the press. “I hope the criteria is not incidents which make national news or merit TV shows because that would undervalue all the other victims who also suffered from often horrific violence.

“If there were such a process, I could envision some very angry families and friends whose loved one was denied a memorial,” he said. “I could envision distraught families crying out ‘you approved a memorial for this person, why not for my daughter?’ Since 1991, Milwaukee has experienced over 3,000 homicides….Each homicide was tragic and senseless.”

9 thoughts on “Serial Killer Ethics

  1. Memorializing victims is never as simple as we would like it to be. There’s only so much real estate, so much money, and so many victims really worth remembering. The victims of unique events, like 9/11 or the Holocaust are pretty easy calls. These were shocking historical events and should be remembered. The victims of historic figures are likewise unique and stand in witness to a lesson that hopefully whatever this historic figure did not be repeated.

    However, to memorialize the victims of every bad act risks creating a cult of victimhood. This is still worse when it comes at the expense of eclipsing achievement. I really would prefer that history not become a parade of villains and victims.

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. At this point, the presence or absence of memorials to this or that is a form of political currency to be traded on every few years when there are elections. As often as not, no one is interested in putting up or taking down a memorial. They are interested in ginning up outrage to campaign on.

  2. As it is, makeshift roadside memorials for crash victims are a distraction and sometimes a nuisance.

    I can see memorials for crime victims spiraling out of control.

  3. In my opinion, which I admittedly just now came up with, collective memorials should be for victims of wars and political violence or natural disasters and accidents. For “private” murders, the families can create private shrines to the individual victims, but we should not be spending public funds to build anything with the name of a murderer on it, or which even implies the existence of the murderer indirectly. As you say, that creates terrible incentives.

    A private shrine would (I hope) not say, “this person was killed by So-and-So,” but the mere existence of a public memorial for a serial killer’s victims is tantamount to naming the killer. Creating a public memorial sends the message “remember these otherwise ordinary people, because they were all killed by someone who only matters because he was very violent, and even if we don’t tell you who it is you’ll just look him up anyway, and a true crime documentary is already more recognition than he deserves.”

    I don’t know, maybe there’s some way to make it work. Maybe I just don’t fully understand the point of putting dead people’s names in public places in the first place. I’m open to other perspectives or options.

  4. When faced with questions, I often try to analogize with other instances so that I can try to understand my own reasoning.

    Here, the first thing that popped into my mind was Jack the Ripper. I am pretty sure that London has Jack the Ripper walking tours.

    Why? He was not a great man, though, I suppose that could depend upon your theory as to his identity.

    Yet, we “celebrate” a serial murderer. Yes. But maybe not for the murders, but because his identity is such a mystery, like the identity of the person who wrote Shakespeare’s play, or the identity of the person who killed Nicole Brown Simpson.

    Dahmer’s victim’s? Dahmer has no mystery attached to him. But, the survivors always want the dead to be remembered. The fact that Dahmer has notoriety is the only reason why these survivors are noticed.

    But, there is a greater lesson here and that is one of history. Markers connect us to the past.

    I have stood in the area in which Anne Boleyn died. Yet, somehow, the remains of Richard the Third were lost for centuries under a parking lot.. We revere the Battlefield at Gettysburg. It is a good thing to have a connection to the past.

    Do the Dahmer victims deserve a plaque? Whether they deserve one is not the right word. They do not. They can remember the victims in their own way. Does a memorial serve any better purpose to the general public?

    Probably not.


    • I was thinking about Jack the Ripper as well. There are plaques at the locales of some of the killings, maybe all; I don’t remember. And I’ve taken the walking tour through Whitechapel. I’d say that the Ripper is now firmly in the realm of history, fable and culture. He was the first modern serial killer whose murders were media fodder—I do think his fame (I read somewhere that there are more books about Jack than about Abe Lincoln, which I find hard to credit) still may inspire a serial killer or two, certainly those like Zodiac, who may have aped Jack by taunting the police

  5. Kitty Corner/north side of the street from Dahmer’s…um…doings is the venerable, inimitable Five O’Clock Steak House.

    Dined there any number of times. Kitschy kinda Steak House place, but great…and I mean GREAT steak in a neighborhood where you needed to pay someone to keep an eye on your vehicle.

    Last time I was there was over 27 years ago; you think things have gotten better, stayed the same, or gotten worse?

  6. I think the alderman who was quoted may have stumbled upon the solution, by saying there were more than 3000 homicide victims in the city since 1991. If a community wants to have a “victims of homicide” memorial, I would not consider that to be inappropriate, as it could be done without naming/glorifying the perpetrator, and the number of victims could very likely provide anonymity. Practicality might also dictate not listing victims (as there would be expense involved in keeping it “up to date”), but I’m sure someone smarter than me could work out a way to do that if listing the victims was considered important.

    Come to think of it, there is a memorial park in my community that is dedicated to victims of a single murder incident (mass shooting), the victims names are listed. All done in a tasteful way that memorializes and focuses on the victims. I’ve never even thought about whether it could be inspiring someone to become like the killer, and I struggle, in this specific situation, to think that it would… but I guess it is a possibility.

  7. If we were to build memorials for every victim of every crime committed we would have no place to live. All tragedies are tragic to someone. Victims are not heroes and criminals should never be memorialized.

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