Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 101 (March 2000): 84-88.
Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. By Richard Rhodes. Knopf. 372 pp. $26.95.
Reviewed by John J. DiIulio, Jr.
Lonnie Athens, a little–known criminologist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, has written two books about violent criminals, the first pub lished in 1992, the second in 1997. Based on in–depth interviews with over a hundred prisoners convicted of extreme acts of violence, he argues that, without exception, peo ple who commit vicious crimes first undergo a four–stage process he awkwardly terms "violentization." It begins with "brutalization": a parent or other authority figure batters a child, allows the child to witness him physically subjugate others, and then taunts the child into settling violently even minor playground disputes. Next comes "belligerency": the scared youth placates the mentor–menace by threatening peers who give the slightest provocation. "Vio lent performances" follow: the terror–in–training wins bloody fights, smells fear in others, and likes the smell. Finally, there is "virulency": the child–predator preaches to himself about the virtues of violence, and bonds socially only with others who share, or can be brutalized into sharing, his savage–or–be–savaged worldview.
Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, thinks Lonnie Athens is an undiscovered genius. In the prologue to Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, Rhodes writes that he himself was tortured and starved by his step mother. "As a result of my extended personal encounter with evil," he reflects, "most of my books have examined human violence in one form or another, always for the purpose of discovering what causes such violence and how it might be prevented, mitigated, or at least survived." Intrigued by Athens’ first book, Rhodes sought him out and learned that Athens, too, had been brutalized as a child. "Athens’ personal experience of violence," he concludes, "prepared him to find what previous investigators have missed."
In Athens’ own words, other re searchers overlooked what heinous criminals "thought about when they killed, raped, and assaulted." His graphic prisoner case histories—the hammer–wielding cop killer, the droll double–rapist, the murderer who said he "righteously couldn’t wait to see the look" on his victim’s face as he "charged right up to him, rammed the barrel in his chest, and pulled the trigger," and dozens more—plainly indicate that extremely violent peo ple "consciously construct violent plans of action before they commit violent criminal acts." Of course, not every maltreated child becomes a cold–blooded killer (Rhodes and Athens, for example). Those who would become truly vicious felons must first develop "unmitigated vio lent" self–understandings (or "phantom communities" in Athens’ jargon) that provide them with "pro nounced and categorical moral sup port for acting violently toward other people."
As Rhodes observes, the "violent criminals Athens interviewed were extreme examples of a barbaric individualism antagonistic to society, which is one reason why so many people romanticize violent crime." Many researchers do define criminality down, pretending that even callous chronic offenders can be rehabilitated. If liberal ideology does not blind them, quantitative methodology often does. Not only have many number–crunching criminologists never met a prisoner they didn’t like, they have never met a prisoner, period.
Rhodes’ maverick criminologist will have none of it. Even the most brutalized and degraded souls, argues Athens, "can always exercise some degree of control over their conduct." He finds that even kids as young as fourteen can complete vio lentization and behave self–consciously as ruthless, remorseless predators. Indeed, Athens explicitly interprets certain violent criminal acts as "malefic" (from the Latin word for evil, maleficium). "The predatory violent actions of ultraviolent criminals," he avers, place them "outside the reach of any presently devisable long–term rehabilitation programs."
I confess that before reading Why They Kill, I had never heard of Athens. There are many first–rate ethnographies of violent felons behind bars and on the streets, but Rhodes has a done a service by bringing Athens’ work to light. The book crashes, however, when Rhodes stops quoting Athens and starts flying solo, beginning in the second half of the book in which he applies the violentization thesis to the careers of celebrity killers and rapists (Lee Harvey Oswald, Mike Tyson, and others). Mercy.
Worse, Rhodes lectures us about a "support for violence against children" not discussed by Athens, namely, "conservative Christianity." You see, "the old dogma that the child is inherently evil and requires violent subjugation to chasten" remains "a tenet of fundamentalist and evangelical belief." After all, "the Bible was written in a barbaric era." First cousin to the white religious rabble is "the African American community," which, "once violently enslaved, has depended for its survival partly on conservative Christian values that encourage physical punishment." Double mercy.
Such antipathy toward "conservative Christian values" would be comical were it not so commonplace. As Louis Bolce and Gerald De Maio report in the Spring 1999 Public Opinion Quarterly, 37 percent of highly educated white Americans are "intensely antagonistic" toward orthodox Christians. For the record, recent empirical studies of child–rearing practices indicate that, if anything, Christian fundamentalists make exceptionally loving, capable parents. Also, several social scientists have completed superb statistical studies suggesting that transmitting Christian religious values reduces the rates at which poor young urban males commit or suffer serious violence.
Still, concentrations and fluctuations in rates of violent victimization are very difficult to explain. In the mid–1990s, for example, black males aged fourteen to twenty–four constituted 1 percent of the population, 17 percent of homicide victims, and 30 percent of homicide perpetrators. From 1991 to 1993, the black homicide rate peaked. Between 1993 and 1997, the black homicide rate suddenly fell by 40 percent. About four thousand fewer blacks of all ages were killed in 1997 than would have been killed had the peak homicide rates proved to be a decade–long plateau. But nobody really understands why blacks still kill and get killed at higher rates than whites, and nobody has an adequate explanation either for variations in black homicide rates, or for the fact that black–on–black violence has afflicted some otherwise comparable big–city neighborhoods more than others.
Athens advised Rhodes that "peo ple who commit heinous violent crimes always have some violence–related experiences in their backgrounds," although such experiences "may sometimes be deeply hidden." Always? I myself have never encountered a predatory offender who had not himself suffered extreme violence before doing unto others what had been done to him. But I have not studied a representative sample of such offenders, and neither has Athens.
We know from the best longitudinal data that child maltreatment increases by about 40 percent the chances that a person will at some point get into trouble with the law. But we also know that 80 percent of all prisoners, like over 80 percent of the rest of us, report no history of abuse or neglect. We know that boys raised in mother–only homes are about twice as likely as otherwise comparable boys to commit crimes that lead to imprisonment. But we also know that not even most mother–only, maltreated boys end up committing heinous violent crimes. Even taking Athens’ no–exceptions violentization thesis at face value, one strains to imagine how it could explain, say, the post–1990 data on black homicide rates outlined above. The all–encompassing violentization thesis would be more far persuasive as a falsifiable, exceptions–are–possible theory.
Rhodes ends the book with recommendations: have schools serve as "centers for community crime prevention"; roll back family preservation policies that give "violent caretakers a second chance"; listen to liberals who call for "anger management" programs; heed conservatives who call for selectively incarcerating violent criminals; and read Athens. Not all bad, but first we need schools to teach poor inner–city minority children how to read. As for public policies that put protecting children first, that battle has so far been lost in the attack by secular elites and social welfare bureaucrats on "conservative Christian values," since it is often the people who hold such values who monitor, mentor, and minister to at–risk urban youth.
But let’s make a covenant, Mr. Rhodes: I study and tout Athens’ work, and you study the Bible. Begin with "In the beginning" and meditate to Genesis 4. Cain, angry that God had favored Abel’s offering but not his own, started thinking about murder. "Why are you so resentful and crestfallen?" the Lord asked Cain. "If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master." As noted in my annotated Catholic Bible: "Genesis 4:7: ‘demon lurking’: in Hebrew, robes, literally ‘croucher,’ like the similar Akkadian term rabisu, to designate a certain kind of evil spirit."
That spirit of evil is "why they kill." It is what hardens them to act as if (but only as if) they are deaf to natural law. In Isaiah 42:2, the Lord reminds us that "a bruised reed He shall not break, and a smoldering wick He shall not quench." Even the young "bruised reed" who becomes a violent "smoldering wick" is still a child of God. Orthodox Christians believe that even a man imprisoned for murder most malefic yet gains God’s mercy should he ever truly repent. He cannot be rehabilitated, but he can be saved. How "barbaric."
John J. DiIulio, Jr. is Frederick Fox Leadership Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the Brookings Institution, and a board member of Prison Fellowship Ministries.