Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

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Violence is not random, it is not mysterious, it is not so different from other human behaviors.

Richard Rhodes

Reviewed by Jeremy Russell

Friday, December 8 2000, 4:56 PM


True story, names changed: A few weeks ago Marjoram returned Brenda to her small home in a very poor part of Oakland to discover that Brenda's eldest daughter, who is sixteen, had been assaulted by the neighbor. He'd been chasing his daughter down the street while she screamed for someone to call the police because he'd beaten her mom. When he saw Brenda's girl move towards the front door, he caught her, slapped her at least once and warned her not to interfere.

Hearing the story, Brenda instantly dropped her groceries and stormed to the neighbor's apartment, flanked by her six children. They got him to come out and then, everyone from mom to the six year old acting together, they beat him to the ground.

The next day Marjoram, who lives in a very rich part of Berkeley and never has problems of this kind, asked Brenda if she understood how her violent actions were related to her children's troubles in school. She did. But, Brenda argued, it was what had to be done. Could she call the police? No. That would bring nothing but trouble. By taking him on herself, she won respect of a sort.

Although they live less than twenty-five miles apart, for Marjoram violence is an anomaly, something that the police "clean up," and for Brenda violence is just another part of the daily struggle. Criminologist Lonnie Athens might describe Brenda's dilemma this way: "The prevailing norm [in her community] is that physical violence is the most effective means of settling dominance disputes."

In his new book, Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes, the eclectic writer whose past books have covered everything from mad cow disease to the nuclear bomb, takes on Athens's revelatory work, which has literally revolutionized criminology. Athens mapped an interpersonal politics that suggests a firm and highly sensitive understanding of basic human psychology without a lot of the psychobabble and Rhodes succeeds brilliantly in elucidating his ideas.

Athens's work is academic research at its best, challenging ideologies old and new, Left and Right, trite and smart. Before Athens, criminologists were apt to argue that the violent acts of the lower classes were more impulsive than those of the middle and upper classes, based on their own position in society. In effect, if they could not imagine themselves committing the acts they examined, then they felt they could not ascribe reason to those acts. And psychologists often explained violent acts as "unconscious" behavior. Athens dispelled these myth by working with actual violent criminals, as versus statistics. His work explains 'violentization,' the methods by which a person can be taught to act out violent impulses.

The process in short is this: A person is brutalized until they feel weak and self-hating and they are coached to take violent action. And it works. Like a clockwork sponge, we absorb the very behavior that is inflicted upon us. If the first violent actions are successful, they are most likely repeated. The more violent a person is willing to be, the more others fear them; it becomes a feedback loop.

Violence is not random, it is not mysterious, it is not so different from other human behaviors. In many contexts, such as the military or Brenda's community, more or less, it is not even necessarily deviant. Athens described the equation like this: "People who have a greater commitment to a violent social world than to a nonviolent one perceive they have less to lose and more to gain by engaging in violence than do those who have a greater commitment to a nonviolent social world."

Whether you chose to believe his conclusions or not, I recommend Why They Kill. It is a challenging and frightening examination of violence, and it makes a damn enlightening read.

Why They Kill is available from Alfred A. Knopf 

Copyright © 2000 by Jeremy Russell. All rights reserved.
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