Books of the Times
'Why They Kill': A Frightening New Look at the Roots of Violence
The news that Richard Rhodes brings in his fascinating new book, "Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," does not seem particularly arresting at first. "Not poverty or genetic inheritance or psychopathology ... is the cause of criminal violence," Rhodes sums up midway through his book. It is instead conditioning that trains people to maim and kill.
Ho-hum, you respond. So it is back to nurture prevailing over nature, and all the tiresome arguments over the death penalty and society's responsibility for producing killers. Moreover, you suspect Rhodes of special pleading. Because both he and Dr. Lonnie H. Athens, the sociologist he writes about, were victims of violent abuse as children, you suspect the two of generalizing from their own experiences. You even smell over-identification when Rhodes writes of President John F. Kennedy's assassin: "We are culpable for these killers. A hand extended to that happy, bright, observant, pleasant child might have spared us Lee Harvey Oswald's terrible swift sword."
Yet once you get into the details of "Why They Kill," you find yourself both surprised by some of its conclusions and mesmerized by its narrative. The book is not so much a summing up of the theories of Athens as maverick criminologist as an account of his stormy voyage of discovery.
The story begins with Athens' own violent childhood in Richmond: how he was beaten and terrorized by his brawling Greek-peasant father until he learned to fight back and menace his own contemporaries. But he was bright and inquisitive. He began to think about violence, and he took up the study of sociology when against all odds, considering his unstable background and crude demeanor, he got to college and went on to graduate school.
At first he was enamored of statistics and the quantitative school of sociology. But with a teaching assistantship at the University of Wisconsin he fell under the influence of the qualitatively oriented Chicago School, which held that people, unlike atoms and molecules, found meaning in their experiences and that social phenomena could not be measured.
He was led to go beyond statistics, to interview violent criminals and ask them what they thought about and experienced when they committed their violent acts. Surprisingly, he learned that they invariably made plans to commit violence, decided consciously to act and felt wholly responsible for what they had done. This was consistent with his childhood observations that violent people rarely seemed crazy (on the contrary, crazy people were nonviolent), and contradicted the prevailing theories that murderers killed in bursts of unconsciously motivated passion and in spite of themselves. These discoveries went into his first book, "Violent Criminal Acts and Actors."
His next project was to work out how violent people got that way, in particular why so many of his subjects seemed once to have been frightened children. Through further interviews with hard-core criminals, he defined a process he called "violentization." He theorized that this broke down into stages he named "brutalization," "belligerency," "violent performances" and "virulency," the last of which was often highly satisfying to the individual committing violence. This formed the material for his second book, "The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals."
Athens' work apparently won him few rewards, writes Rhodes, whose best-known books are "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun." The dissonance of his ideas combined with his unpolished conduct cost him tenure on his first teaching job. His academic career then foundered and wallowed for years until he eventually washed up at Seton Hall University, where Rhodes discovered him.
"Why They Kill" details his theories in compelling detail, applies them to well-known figures like Mike Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald, among others, examines them in the perspective of history, and asks how the process they describe might be reversed.
You find yourself skeptical at moments. Athens' theory is over-schematic in places, particularly for a description of emotions. Its terminology can be clunky: "violentization"; "frustrative-malefic" (the fourth and most extreme type of criminal orientation to reality), and "personal horrification" ("the second component of brutalization"). You wonder about the variety of his evidence, whether his theory really embraces a complete enough range of criminal types. And you find it depressing to learn that the process of violentization, once completed, seems irreversible, an argument in favor of capital punishment.
Yet in Rhodes' summary the theory offers a commanding perspective on human violence. It provides a coherent explanation of human development, one that can be seen to dovetail with both psychoanalysis and anthropology. Wherever you look, it explains things. It surprises you not unpleasantly with its promise that "violentization has nothing to do with race -- or with poverty, for that matter." And it makes a lot of useful if scary sense.
As Rhodes concludes: "One prejudice that has comforted us is that violent criminals are categorically different from the rest of us -- mentally ill, or brain damaged, or monstrous, or anomic, or genetically or subculturally determined. Lonnie Athens demonstrates to the contrary that violent people come to their violence by the same universal processes ... that carry the rest of us to conformity, pacifism, greatness, eccentricity or sainthood -- and bear equal responsibility for their choices."
The way Rhodes has combined biography, theory and intellectual history makes his presentation irresistible.
Return to the Books Home Page
Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel