It's a straightforward documentary and consists of period photos, accounts from witnesses and survivors, narrated by Janet Suzman. There are virtually no reenactments, no gruesome shots of dead bodies, and not much about Peter Sutcliffe, who murdered some fourteen women with a hammer and knife in the north of England at the end of the 1970s.
Instead we follow the municipal police as they gradually come to terms with the fact that a serial murderer is in their midst. The first four victims, prostitutes, don't get that much attention but when a pretty, young, middle-class girl is offed, interest rises and, among the general public, almost to the point of hysteria.
As the number of victims mounts, the number of police officers is increased, the higher-order personnel recalled from holidays, and all together several million man hours are expended on the search, most of them wasted on a hoaxer who writes the police letters imitating those of Jack the Ripper.
The letters -- and one phone call -- are taken so seriously that those suspects whose local dialects don't match those of the caller are shunted down to the bottom of the list, among them, Peter Sutcliffe.
The narration continually refers to this decision, and to minor clerical errors and erroneous judgments, as "mistakes", and indeed they are. But the mistakes look inevitable with hindsight. A vast uncoordinated bureaucracy receiving more than 200,000 reports on suspects and clues simply were overwhelmed by data. Without computers, all the evidence on all the suspects was filed and managed manually -- on index cards in drawers like those in a library's card catalog. Sutcliffe left few clues, but those that were found might be indexed under different categories. His known shoe size might be in one drawer, his past police record in another. And no official had before him all of the data available on Sutcliffe -- or on any other suspect.
The narration seems to me at time too critical of a police force that was giving the crimes its every effort. The public response was hardly better. Worse, the endangered citizens began blaming "men" in general, calling for a curfew on men because they victimize women, and so forth. Of course serial murderers concentrate on women and young children. Who can expect them to attack a man who might turn out to be the image of Mike Tyson? They don't necessarily hate women and children. They may just need the joy of killing and pick the weakest victims, like a lioness pruning an antelope herd.
At one point in the investigation, with panic setting in, a television broadcast was made in the area, involving ministers, policemen, and a psychiatrist. Fortunately, no psychiatrist is featured among the talking heads, nor is any explanation given for Sutcliffe's killing spree. I say "fortunately" because no one knows why these people do what they do. I sighed with relief when the narrator described Sutcliffe's childhood as "unremarkable." It would have been so EASY to slip in as an explanation that he'd been beaten as a child. (My mother used a wooden cooking spoon called a Kochloeffel. What did your mother use?) My guess is that the answer lies chiefly, but not entirely, with biology. When we know more about the function of subcortical structures like the limbic system, we'll have a better picture of what prompts this socially pointless savagery. We don't have the technology now, any more than the police had computers in 1975.
It's a good thing they do now, when they may be needed more than ever in uncovering some of the mysteries associated with terrorist attacks.
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