On Divergence


Hotchner: You were just responding to what you learned, Vincent. When you grow up in an environment like that, an abusive and violent household.. it’s not surprising that some people grow up to become killers.
Vincent: Some people?
Hotchner: What’s that?
Vincent: You said some people grow up to become killers.
Hotchner: …And some people grow up to catch them.

(Criminal Minds – 1×08)


I’ve always been fascinated by criminology. So much effort and national resources are put into apprehending criminals, and so little into preventative measures. This disproportion seems irrational to me.

What interests me is the distinction between criminality and potential criminality. In theory they are somewhat indistinguishable, but in practice their difference can span a lifetime. By “criminals”, let me exclude the lesser crimes – petty theft, lesser assault, and misdemeanors. It would also be useful to exclude motivations which are more or less universally understood: monetary gain, simple vengeance, or passion. What is left is what our society currently labels motiveless and sadistic; not understood and therefore abominable.

Suppose a pair of siblings are reared in such a way as to closely match the FBI checklist of environmental/behavioral risk factors for serial murder: abusive father, domineering mother, separation from primary caregiver before age 5, dysfunctional/abusive and often violent home environment, emotionally invalidating parents, chronic low self-esteem, social isolation, previous suicidal ideation, repressed rage, pyromania, extreme cruelty to small animals during childhood/adolescence, lack of empathy, emotional callousness, record of substance abuse or pathological psychiatric history. Let us further suppose that these siblings also happen to fall into a certain subset of the general demographic into which organized serial murderers often fall: male, above-average intelligence, employed in a white-collar occupation, owns a vehicle, married with children.

Given the environmental factors and behavioral signs, it is also highly likely that these siblings may show early signs of psychopathy during early childhood. Suppose no intervention is made, and their personalities are firmly cemented in adult life.

The question of fault, then, begins to emerge. The current understanding of the criminal mind in western legal courts is that while traumatic upbringing may lessen punishment, it does not excuse guilt. It is interesting that while a modern day jury will be more sympathetic once presented with abusive family/life histories of a convicted criminal, they will still not allow this information to excuse guilt. This seems to be an inherent contradiction in that while it is acknowledged that upbringing unwillingly shaped a child into a sadistic, cruel murderer, this child is still not excused from responsibility.

And suppose that while one sibling went on to lead a (relatively) ordinary life, the other went on to torture, eviscerate, decapitate, and murder scores and scores of couples who reminded him of his parents. Does the law-abiding nature of the first sibling mean that an abusive upbringing cannot garner sympathy for the second sibling in a court of law? This follows the rationale that, of course, since the first sibling experienced the same abuse and did not become a murderer, upbringing had no bearing on the choices of the second.

It seems clear, but the simplicity of this conclusion must be tested further.

A common response to this dilemna is as follows: “It doesn’t matter what he’s been through, he made a conscious decision to break the law and therefore must be held responsible”.

Care must be taken when deciphering the concept of “conscious decision”. While I certainly agree that the criminal is aware of right and wrong, I disagree in that he may be completely coherent in his moral ability to choose compared to another individual. I do not excuse his guilt, but one must sympathize with his compromised moral compass.

The decision to commit serial murder is not a single decision. As Douglas wrote very succinctly: “The creation of a serial murderer begins in childhood.” The human child is programmed to adapt to its environment; its very existence is honed to acquire knowledge and change itself so as to best survive in that environment. As such, a child who is reared in a household where it is taught compassion, honesty, integrity, and self-worth will align its morals and later its world-perception to these values. A child who is exposed to abusive parenting, emotional invalidation, inconsistent punishment, and cruelty will “endure, endure, and endure whereupon he will curl into himself. He will learn that people are mere objects; he will be incapable of empathy or conscience, and at the very deep-sated core will be a child of intense, repressed inner rage.” (D., 2001).

Is it the child’s fault if he grows into a remorseless, sadistic adult? Should he be punished for any action he takes on its behalf?

Or perhaps the interesting question still remains: how different, really, is the first sibling from the second? If both share fundamentally the same personality and experiential characteristics, what difference does it make that one acted upon it and the other did not? Is the first sibling merely more competent at repressing his sadistic, homicidal urges? Will it emerge later in life? How much fault should be placed on the criminal if his “conscious decision” was indeed conscious, but shaped by other factors and variables beyond his conscious control?

Western individuals are quick to place the blame solely upon their “monsters”, but perhaps only because they are afraid to admit that it is because they created these monsters. They are so quick to create an abomination out of phenomenon they cannot understand; so quick to shift the blame from themselves. A child raised in a compassionate, moral environment does not grow into a moral wasteland of an adult.

Afterall, as Carl Jung once wrote: “The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.”

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