Wednesday, August 25, 2004

When an individual commits a shocking or bizarre crime, we try to understand what went wrong in the perpetrator’s life, impelling him to act as he did. What environmental and psychological adversities shaped him?

For more than a half-century, explanations of crime causation have cited factors outside the individual’s control. We continue hearing this conventional wisdom from those who aim to help us understand something that seems to elude comprehension. We’ve heard it during analyses of infamous serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. We heard it after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado. The perpetrators’ parents were neglectful. Something was dreadfully wrong within the school’s peer culture. Violence saturating the media and video games took its toll on the boys. The warped values of a sick society figured in the tragedy.

In the recent case of Washington area sniper Lee Malvo, the defense and its mental health team pointed to the defendant’s absent father, a harsh and erratic mother, being shuffled among different caretakers, frequent changes of schools and, finally, the sinister influence of an older man, John Muhammad.

It is noteworthy, however, that in recent convictions of so-called “white collar criminals,” there is no such hunt for causal explanations. The attributed motivation is purely internal and willful — greed, a lust for power, a desire to build oneself up by outsmarting the system. The psychologizing usually indulged in is strangely absent in attorneys’ arguments of and media reporting on the legal proceedings.

A bank robber and an executive perpetrating fraud have similar mentalities, though their backgrounds may differ. Their means of obtaining power, control or large sums of money may also differ, but the thought patterns are the same. They know right from wrong. They shut off conscience and consideration of consequences long enough to do what they want. Both operate as if the world were their personal chessboard.

In the last 30 years, I assembled a huge file of articles, each focusing on an alleged cause of criminal behavior. This compilation includes the expected — poverty, abuse or neglect as a child, uncaring parents, poor nutrition, peer pressure and violence in the media. Among the collection are unusual items in an ever-growing list, including physical unattractiveness, low cholesterol, premenstrual syndrome, and global warming (said to inflame tempers).

When viewed in historical perspective, the “disadvantage” excuse for crime is a relatively recent phenomenon. Disadvantages that seem to explain criminality also have been cited as explanatory of responsible and honorable conduct. At other times in our society, a core belief was that adversity builds character. In the late 19th century Horatio Alger stories, horrendous social conditions, including child slavery, gave rise to noble character and good deeds.

I could interview anyone reading this column, and if he or she had engaged in a life of crime, I could unearth some adversity in that person’s life that would provide a persuasive explanation. (Who has not experienced adversity of one sort or another?)

I interviewed a young woman who grew up in an impoverished home in Southeast D.C. For 15 years, she enjoyed and advanced in her career with the Red Cross. Though her father and brother were incarcerated, her life was stable. While drugs were as easy to obtain as cigarettes, she never used them.

Had this woman become a junkie, prostitute or thief, others would have asserted this was not only understandable but expected given her poor role models, peer pressure and impoverished surroundings. Does one invoke an adverse environment to explain both poor and good moral character?

After the fact, psychologists can explain anything. In doing so, we are more cleaver than correct. Identifying reasons “why” may be intellectually and emotionally satisfying. But does a bad childhood really explain why someone massacred his classmates or shot innocent people going about their daily routines?

What is more critical — the conditions in which a person grows up or how he chooses to deal with those conditions? Most poor people are not criminals. Most children who suffer abuse do not abuse others. Millions of viewers of television violence would not think of enacting what they see.

It is perilous to acknowledge that for offenders who suffered identifiable adversities as well for offenders who grew up relatively privileged, no factor or set of factors can explain their deeds. That admission compels us to consider the unthinkable: Some people choose to do evil. From childhood, they reject everything responsible and positive. Their self-esteem depends upon overcoming others by deceit or force.

These folks come from all segments of society — poor and rich, illiterate and highly educated, and all races and ethnicities.

Until science tells us more, we have no satisfactory explanation for evil. Sociological and psychological determinism offers only more excuses to criminals who have enough of their own.

Stanton E. Samenow is is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Va., and author of the newly published 2004 edition of “Inside the Criminal Mind” (Crown Publishing).

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