Why I Punted on Andrea Yates

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What do you do when you're faced with a story that's so horrific, so disturbing, so unthinkable, that you want only to look away?

I'm talking, of course, about the Houston mother, Andrea Yates, who methodically drowned her five children last week.

As a journalist, I know I'm supposed to look at even the most grisly of human events with an unblinking eye.

As an editor, I know I'm supposed to give our readers TIME's signature brand of analysis and perspective.

But as a father, I know that this story makes me ill.

So what did I do? I punted. I decided not to run a news story about it. Why? Not only because I was a father, but because I didn't think we could bring any particular insight to a story that was singularly gruesome. Sometimes there's just no point in piling on.

Yes, I knew that people were fascinated by the story in the slightly prurient way that we all can't help but look at the slow-motion video of a car crash. And, yes, I knew that as an editor I could fashion some journalistic angle that would justify dwelling on the morbid tick-tock of the killings. We could look at post-partum depression or why she "snapped", or the role of the father or her doctor or any number of possible explanations.

And, yes, by now I've read the stories by mothers confessing that in the dark night of the soul they can somehow understand what Andrea Yates did. But they don't kill their kids, do they?

The irony is that the very singularity of the event makes it both more of a story, and less, at the same time. More because it's the man who bites the dog, it fits our modern definition of news as something that departs from the ordinary. Less because in something so singular there's very often no lessons to be learned, no larger meaning to be gleaned. It stands on its own, uniquely horrifying but strangely and reassuringly unique.

Sometimes there's just no point in trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Much of the television coverage of the event and its aftermath verged on the morbidly obscene. The father's excruciating press conference; the pastor's nauseating one; the obligatory mindless interviews with friends and neighbors. Americans have so internalized the grammar and vocabulary of modern media that when something happens to them that's newsworthy, even if it's a tragedy beyond one's ken, the first thing they do is call a press conference.

We all seem so concerned about privacy these days, but then no one seems to actually want it. Why is it that at the dawn of the 21st century, emotional pain seems to make people more voluble and want to share it with 100 million of their closest friends?

The glimpses I've gotten of Rusty and Andrea Yates make me think of Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil." Arendt's personification of such evil was Adolph Eichmann, the orderly and seemingly mild-mannered Nazi bureaucrat who helped orchestrate the killing of millions. The Yates's, too, in their own way, seemed somehow deeply and disturbingly ordinary.

But Arendt was talking about how the relentless push-and-pull of organizations and bureaucracies can create a way to blame the system rather than oneself. "I was just following orders" — that was the mantra of the German officers at the Nuremberg Trials. It's not a completely illegitimate defense. But I don't think Andrea Yates will say she was "just following orders."

I'm glad she's going to plead insanity. Because I've never heard a better definition of insanity than a woman who drowns her five children.