Best of 2010: The dignity of Carl Williams


Carl Williams

First published in Eureka Street on 21 April 2010

The death of Carl Williams has predictably been covered as if it were an episode of Underbelly. It comes complete with reminders of past episodes, pictures of the central characters, enticement by future developments of the plot, and a heavy voice-over reinforcing the moral message that what goes around comes around.

What has been lacking is even a moment in which we are invited to pause in solidarity with one of our fellow human beings who died unprovided for in what should have been a safe place.

Carl Williams certainly killed without remorse, causing grief to people who had not hurt him, and was rightly jailed to protect society and to assert the fragile rule of law. But he was a human being like ourselves, with a humanity whose essential dignity, like our own, could not be erased by any of his misdeeds.

A few years ago a banner outside a Melbourne Cathedral bore the message: 'God loves Saddam Hussein'. It caused offence, but for Christians the message was non-negotiable. So is it non-negotiable to claim that God loves Carl Williams.

This sense that we all share with criminals the heart of what makes us human, and that the death of every human being diminishes us, is difficult to sustain in a culture which regards celebrity as a desirable commodity and then turns criminals into celebrities.

Celebrity privileges plot over character. Celebrities are what they do, whether what they do involves making money on a grand scale, showing great skill at kicking large leather balls, acting for film or telly, accompanying people who do any of the above, or being photographed by the right photographers. The core of their humanity is obscured, indeed is of no interest. It cannot be commodified.

The same is true of people who are made celebrities for doing dark deeds. Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Stalin, Jack the Ripper and modern serial killers are identified with the terrible things they have done. They are seen as monsters because of the monstrous effects their actions have had on others. Their real self is not seen.

The same is true of Williams and the other criminals who are portrayed in Underbelly and similar series. They exist for the plot; are the colour of their black hats.

The difficulty with viewing people as celebrities is that we shall see what happens to them only in terms of the plot. The famous tennis player who contracts cancer will be reduced to the exemplary one who fights her illness as she once fought her opponents. When celebrities who have treated other people violently suffer themselves from violence, their suffering is approved because it is an expected part of the plot. It shows crime does not pay.

This focus on externals, on what people do rather than on who they are, is ultimately demeaning. It reduces them to comic strip characters, and ourselves to readers of comics. Williams deserves better than this, not simply in recognition of his humanity, but also for our sake. The quality of our society is at stake.

If we see Williams' death simply as the just or aesthetically satisfying end of his public story, we effectively accept that jails are properly places where righteous punishment for crimes can be meted out, even outside the law. They are defined in terms of retribution. They will not be seen as safe places where it could be possible for prisoners to reflect on their lives and learn better ways of living. The scandal of a prisoner who was known to be at risk being killed in a place to which he was sent against his will in the name of public safety will be overlooked.

We ought to expect more of jails than this, because human beings are more than what they have done, because their destiny is not scripted by their story, and because Carl Williams and his life matter.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: andrew hamilton, carl williams, underbelly, celebrity death



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Existing comments

Thank you for such a beautiful and profound article. Plenty of comments have already been provided but the most important one is that this death ought to be fully investigated as it shows the prison system in a dreadful light. Was Williams left exposed in jail so that he could be conveniently murdered before he had the time to say more about tricky matters, such as police corruption? This question should be answered. The government must be held responsible;they had a duty of care towards Carl Williams; and they failed to deliver. We should know why.

Eveline Goy | 06 January 2011  

Christ's message of love and forgiveness has not penetrated into our very being. We, as Christians, have a lot to do in changing attitudes.

H | 06 January 2011  

I agree with Father Hamilton's piece in general and always enjoy reading what he has to say. But when Father says: "This focus on externals, on what people do rather than on who they are, is ultimately demeaning. It reduces them to comic strip characters, and ourselves to readers of comics" I do not agree. We constitute our character, who we are and what we are, through our own free choices. But of course it does not follow from that fact that one is entitled to treat another human being, no matter how wicked, as less than a person with inherent dignity.

Fr John Fleming | 06 January 2011  

I agree with Eveline, we have a right to know what went wrong with his safety management. Regardless of what sort of life he led, at the end of the day he was someone's son.

rhonda | 06 January 2011  


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