Sunday, March 4, 2018

Accidental Killers and Cities of Refuge

“The Torah was talking about me

I was driving in an unfamiliar part of the city, trying to find an address, when I missed the stop sign.

Fortunately, the driver who had the right of way at the three-way stop saw me coming. He put on the brakes.

Since it was too late for me to stop, I mouthed the word “sorry!” as I sailed through the intersection.

The near-accident stayed with me for many days. I imagined hitting the other car broadside, probably injuring or even killing the other driver.

Each time I silently thanked God nothing bad happened.

That experience came back to me when I learned of the tragic death of the eight year-old boy who was killed a few weeks ago while crossing a street in St. Vital.

My heart went out immediately to the family, and also to the driver.

From media reports, it appears to have been an accident. At this time of writing, the driver has not been charged, although police say charges could be laid.

And even if there are charges, it’s safe to say he or she never intended to kill a child.

Why do I feel for the driver? He or she has become what’s known as an “accidental killer,” a group none of us wants to belong to.

Not only does the driver now have to live with guilt and remorse, but maybe also the condemnation and opprobrium from society—and possibly without much in the way of help in dealing with the experience.

As author Alice Gregory put it in a riveting article in the New Yorker titled “The Sorrow and the Shame of the Accidental Killer,” there are self-help books written for almost every human failing, challenge or inadequacy.

But there’s nothing for “anyone who has accidentally killed another person. An exhaustive search yielded no research on such people, and nothing in the way of therapeutic protocols, publicly listed support groups, or therapists who specialize in their treatment.”

Dr. Jason Ediger, a Winnipeg psychologist who has worked with people who have accidentally killed or injured others, says it isn’t a major subject in his profession.

“This isn't a specific topic frequently under discussion at present that I'm aware of,” he says.

“The low numbers of people in one place would make researching a therapy designed specifically for these people quite difficult,” he adds.

I asked him: How do these people cope with what they’ve done?

“They may construct narratives where they were less responsible, they may attempt some effort at penance, they may punish themselves, abuse substances to forget, attempt or complete suicide, withdraw from society and isolate themselves,” he says.

Some also “try and find meaning in it somehow,” but “it is unlikely though that they ever get to a place where they don't regret the outcome or their involvement.”

As it turns out, Manitoba Public Insurance does offers financial support so people who cause accidents can get counseling. But the support is not well known.

If the person who caused the accident was injured, a case manager would let them know about the service, says MPI spokesperson Brian Smiley.

But if they weren’t, “they would have to contact” MPI on their own, he says, adding that MPI “relies on brokers” to tell people about various services.

This is not a new issue. In the Old Testament, or what Jews call the Torah, the people of Israel were instructed by God to designate cities of refuge “so that anyone who kills someone inadvertently may flee there.” (Numbers 35:11)

In these cities, accidental murderers were to be protected from the wrath of family members of the deceased. 

While in the city of refuge, the accidental killer could not be harmed. A tribunal would rule if he or she was eligible for ongoing sanctuary.

According to Talmudic commentary, the roads leading to these cities of refuge were to be well marked so those who needed such refuge could find them easily.

In the New Yorker article, Maryann Gray, a secular Jew who accidentally killed a child in a car accident, remembers how she felt when she first learned about the cities of refuge.

“The Torah was talking about me,” she is quoted as saying. “I love that there was a way of recognizing the true devastation that’s been wrought, the harm that’s been done, without condemning the individual.”

I suspect that’s what other accidental killers are looking for—a way live in the world with acceptance, but also with the acknowledgment that something terrible occurred.

A place of refuge, in other words.

From the March 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo from Gerald J. Noonan website.


  1. An interesting article. Many people have done things they regret for the remainder of their lives, and I’m certain they just attempt to bury the memories and try to live the rest of their lives in silences

    There is a group of people, quite likely more than a few for certain in Winnipeg who would be worthy of talking to about the subject and that’s railroaders. For the profession of being on the head-end of an object that is so heavy that to stop in time requires miles ensures that it’s not a question of if their train takes a life but when...and they get to become unwilling witnesses to someone’s demise.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts on this topic, John. I went back to your column in view of last weekend's horrific accident in Tisdale, Sask. in which a semi hit the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos. Your words are particularly relevant for those of us who are thinking of the truck driver and his state of mind.