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Ten Years After...
Written by Socreus   
Sunday, 02 April 2006 04:43

Port Arthur is a major historic tourist site in Tasmania, Australia. The main attraction is the colonial jail where neatly dressed guides tell gruesome tales of convict life in the 1800s. But for the past ten years, the historic violence of the site has been in the shadow of the worst massacre by a single gunman in modern times.

 

On the morning of April 28th, 1996, 29yr old Martin Bryant took three guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition in his car, drove to a local guesthouse called Seascape, and killed the owners. He then drove to the tourist facilities at the jail site. He bought a meal in the cafe, finished it on the veranda, then went back inside, took a semi-automatic rifle from the bag he was carrying, and shot twenty people dead in ninety seconds.

Bryant then went outside again and killed four more people in the car park. He got back in his car and drove away, stopping to kill a mother and her two young daughters walking along the short road between the car park and exit of the historic site. When he reached the exit he stopped behind a BMW with four occupants. He shot them dead and stole their car. At this point it had been under fifteen minutes since he arrived at the cafe, and he had killed thirty-one people in that time. At a local shop, he forced a man into the trunk of the BMW, killed the mans female companion, and drove back to Seascape, shooting at vehicles on the way. When he got there he took the man from the trunk hostage and burned the car.

A reporter for local ABC Radio telephoned the guesthouse and asked the person who answered what was happening. Although that person identified himself as Jamie, it was in fact Martin Bryant who answered: "Whats happening is Im having lots of fun!" Police negotiated into the night, during which Bryant fired over 150 shots from the house, largely into the air. At about 7.45am he set fire to the building. He ran out, suffering burns to his back and buttocks, and was arrested. Three bodies were found in the charred ruins of Seascape: the owners and the man from the trunk of the BMW.

Bryant didnt rampage. He didnt run or spray bullets around. Although he was described by witnesses as laughing maniacally, they said he walked slowly and shot most victims once or twice at close range. Several victims in the cafe had powder burns, indicating the muzzle of the gun was at most a few feet away when it was fired. He did shoot somewhat indiscriminately at more distant targets in the car park and as he drove back to Seascape. He murdered a total of thirty-five, and was also initially charged with attempting to murder a further twenty, and with aggravated assault, causing grievous bodily harm or wounding of another seventeen.

In conversation with his lawyer, Bryant described this as "the most exciting thing Id ever done in my life". He likened it to the thrill of driving a speedboat. The lawyer reported that Bryants "...only regret afterwards was that he didnt shoot more people". With vast evidence against him, Bryant was persuaded to plead guilty. He is now incarcerated in Tasmanias Risdon Prison, sentenced to life without parole.

According to psychiatrists and teachers reports, as a child Martin Bryant was intellectually retarded, socially inept, disruptive in class, and sometimes violent. He tortured animals and shot at tourists with an air rifle. He was bullied and shunned by his peers, in turn he bullied and sometimes brutally teased other children, and even urinated on them. Teachers sent him out of classes because nothing else worked. He saw his first psychiatrist at the age of six, and was given a variety of diagnoses from then on, but psychosis was never reported. Shortly after his arrest he was assessed as having an IQ in the lowest 2% of the population for his age group. He never seems to have understood that his own violent behaviour might have contributed to his tribulations.

When he left school, many in Bryants community expected hed be in and out of jail or institutions most of his life, but he did odd-jobs and was given a disability benefit because of his intellectual incapacity. He became a local fixture. Everyone knew he was a bit odd, and mostly left him alone. But he harboured resentments about social rejection and being picked on at school. He developed vendettas against some locals, including the guesthouse owners who became his first victims.

One woman took pity on him. She gave him work tending her garden, he moved in with her, and when she passed away she left him her entire estate in trust. It turned out she was an heiress to a substantial fortune, so from that time Bryant had easy money but no work or other structure to his life.

His father committed suicide less than a year after this benefactor died. Freed of the main restraining influences in his life and independently wealthy, Bryant began indulging himself. He travelled internationally thirty times in three years, often disliking a foreign city he arrived in and thus leaving it within a few days for another. More worryingly, he began buying gun magazines, weapons and ammunition, even though he never had a gun license. A doctor who saw him when he was twenty-four noted "Martin tells me he would like to go round shooting people". The fantasy existed at least five years before the reality.

Although his vendetta against the guesthouse owners gives some motive to their murder, Bryant never came up with a better reason for killing thirty-three complete strangers than that he wanted to. It was not impulsive - he had fantasised about it for years, and he told his lawyer that he had been thinking about it and planning it for several weeks - nor was it specifically motivated. Of course, lack of motive has encouraged conspiracy theories, although when checked most have suffered from factual errors.

To his lawyer Bryant was open about his crimes, but otherwise he has been largely evasive or self-contradictory. Commonly he denied them altogether, even in the face of video evidence, dozens of eyewitnesses, his car registration being taken at the scenes, arrest at Seascape, DNA evidence, and previous confession. He has apparently had trouble understanding the idea that at some point there is simply too much evidence to make denial credible. His pathetic attempts to lie his way out of responsibility strongly suggest he knew his actions were wrong, but prison staff reported that at the start of his incarceration he clearly didnt understand how wrong. Perhaps hes starting to get the idea - now he hasnt spoken for two years, and seems withdrawn and depressed.

Is it enough to think Martin Bryant was socially isolated, angry and dim-witted, and circumstances gave him the money with which to realise a fantasy of murderous revenge on the world? Maybe, but there are plenty of socially isolated, angry, dim young men who could shoot up a town. Its hard to argue theyd do so if they just had a few thousand dollars to spare.

Bryants mental state wasnt the same as simply being isolated, dim and angry. He also congenitally enjoyed hurting people and animals. He was narcissistic, bore grudges for decades, perceived small slights as gross insults, and felt entitled to friendship on the basis of minimal interaction. We have an unusual amount of information on his mental state over the years, enough to conclude that using the reasoning of normal psychology isnt appropriate to him.

Most in Port Arthur and Tasmania want to forget about Martin Bryant, and the victims families dont want attention. Like many such killers, Bryant might see a recounting such as this as a sort of fan-mail - although he has very limited access to media of any sort. But we must take what we can from the evidence available. Again like many such killers, Bryant was not judged insane, but its hard to judge him as sane - he could not or would not accept some of the most ordinary social standards, a limit which his intellectual incapacity did not explain. Ten years after the Port Arthur massacre, let us at least remember that in such cases we arent dealing with ordinary minds.

 

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