Father of the murdered children Aaron Cockman

The hideous murder of four children and two adults by husband, father and grandfather Peter Miles at Margaret River in Western Australia last week, produced the same disturbing mass media responses as most such rural family annihilations usually do. The event was labelled as a “tragedy” — which it was, but it was a crime that was a tragedy, not a natural accident, and the crime bit was left out — and the murderer was labelled as a “good bloke”.

As several commentators pointed out, the “good bloke” narrative was applied and put up in quotes, even when family friends hadn’t used the phrase. The narrative has by now become so rigid — and tied to certain Australian conceptions of self, masculinity, self-reliance, etc — that it is now wholly projected onto more complex situations.

But this sort of reporting produced an equal and opposite simplification in the reaction to the “good bloke” narrative. Not the dim-witted statements of the West Australian journalist who called people who objected to it “the outrage brigade”, but the argument that all family violence, by a man against women and children, can be assessed as a manifestation of a single process running underneath. (In The Saturday Paper, Martin McKenzie-Murray has an interesting, related piece on “morbid altruism”.)

Thus Van Badham in The Guardian puts the Margaret River killing as all male violence against women, which is usually about control, and concludes:

We do not owe sympathy to perpetrators. We owe it to the abused, dead and living, to condemn their suffering without equivocation. When we personalise tender excuses for male violence, we don’t, actually, minimise the hateful horrors that curdle beneath it. We do, alas, encourage them.

The problem is that family annihilation is a specific form of crime which, where it is not intended to cause pain — killing a woman’s children in front of her, for example — is committed by both men and women. Thus Miles killed his entire family; in 2015, Akon Guode killed three of her four children by driving into a lake. This triple murder was written up by Helen Garner in The Monthly, and titled “Why She Broke: the women, her children and the lake — Akon Guode’s tragic story”. No one objected then to a triple murderer being described thus; nor should we.

As Garner’s story made clear, Guode life’s, in South Sudan and after, was so bloody awful — war, desertion, exhaustion, depression, family illness, debt, community pressure — that even if one concluded that she had planned the killing of her children, and may have done so for the possibility of escape to a free adult life, some form of “understanding” should not be withheld.

Perhaps we will find out some things about Peter Miles, and his killings will be revealed as about control and outrage; but at the moment, the Margaret River killings appear to be closer to the Guode family murders than they are to the controlling or jealous man who kills a partner, an ex-, and/or their children. Women don’t kill men, by and large, but they do kill children: to the age of eight, the person most likely to murder a child is their mother. What evidence is there that family annihilations — these rare events — would be lessened by simply refusing any form of interpretation of events, or differentiation between different types of crime?

There’s nothing remotely progressive or radical about such a refusal. It is the logic of the repressive right, of the carceral state and de Maistre’s executioner: that a social order can only be protected by the refusal of all humanity to the wrongdoer. Yes, the “good bloke” myth has to go; but the programmatic refusal of any capacity to think and judge between events is the very opposite of the wisdom it purports to be.

You can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.