Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

By Richard Rhodes. New York: Vintage Books, 2000. 371 pp.

By Robin Collins (reviewer) | 2020-10-01 12:00:00

In Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes takes us through the life’s work of Lonnie Athens, an American criminologist who discovered a four-stage psychological process leading to what he called “violentization”. In 1989, with little academic support, Athens published an analysis of his fifty-eight comprehensive personal interviews with perpetrators of violent crimes, mostly homicides. Those stages he defined as: brutalization, belligerency, violent performance and virulency. Each reinforcing stage led into, and enabled the next, and (most significantly) all stages are necessary to create dangerous violent criminals.

Rhodes—known to many peace activists for his earlier book The Making of the Atomic Bomb —went on to look at several additional famous cases (including Lee Harvey Oswald; boxer Mike Tyson; and Perry Smith, the key murderer in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood) to see if they confirmed Athens’ predictions. They did.

Most know that males commit 95% of the homicides worldwide, and the bulk of the male perpetrators and victims are in the 15-29 age group.1,2 Testosterone is a superficial explanation, although most males in modern society don’t kill. Guns exacerbate the problem many-fold (even if acquired as protection they also imply a willingness to use) but they are not the primary cause. Violence in films and on television does not correlate as a significant determinant.

A better explanation, according to Rhodes, is that “the patriarchal preference for subjecting males to ‘violentization’, and their physical advantage in achieving early successful violent performances, explains why men are much more likely than women to be seriously violent.”

Training to Kill

While Athens primarily studied violent civilian homicide, there is significant overlap with data on violence related to war. Returning American veterans are about five times more likely than the civilian population to commit more than one violent act a month. This is due to traumatic experiences on the battlefield, but also is a consequence of soldiers violating their personal ethics. They had to be trained to kill, and even then it was common not to fire one’s weapons and to intentionally aim to miss.

Without the minimum justification of self-defence, killing was for most an unnatural act. When this was discovered, military training methods changed in order to trigger different learned mental responses.

That meant, in Vietnam for instance, the U.S. military implemented violence coaching to improve enemy body count numbers. North Vietnamese civilians were then killed as “payback” for fallen American comrades. This was the same process Athens understood as the transition between the “virulency stage of violentization and the final development of malevolency.” The entire process could be completed in a period as short as a few months, Athens found, as with the infamous 1968 incidents at My Lai and Co Luy in Vietnam when US soldiers began by torturing, mutilating, and executing captured prisoners; and then they raped, scalped, and beheaded—eventually massacring six hundred Vietnamese civilians, including babies and the elderly.

When they came back to the USA, Rhodes writes, many soldiers “descended from physically defensive violence into full malefic virulency, with violent self-images, unmitigated violent phantom communities and excruciating, conflicted memories of the taste of ecstatic slaughter.” Welcome home, soldier.

Short of preventing war itself, at minimum restricting violent conflict to combatants may limit the malevolence of the quagmire that comes post-war, Rhodes suggests. But what can be done within society more generally to stop dangerous violent criminality?

Athens believed that starting with good schools is the best approach. “A good school can go a long way in making up for a bad family.” Family violence, gang violence, single parenthood, problems of foster care and group homes also need attention. But an effective broad-based community education program would include instruction about rules of conduct and law “to counteract the ideas circulating in the community [justifying a right] to act violently toward one another.” The spare the rod-spoil-the-child and break-the-child’s-will, kind of “fundamentalist Protestant childrearing” with its authoritarian and traditional punishment strategy is wholly unhelpful and destructive.

When rehabilitation is still possible, “belligerent students” should be directed towards rehabilitation programs, rather than expelling them. This means a focus on anti-violence, negotiation, anger management and conflict resolution training. Catching them early is critical to preventing full passage through violentization. This principle applies regardless of social class, race, sex, age or intelligence, and the project needs to include community support for gun control and attention to dissolution of street gangs.

If early intervention fails, then violentization will occur, and neither prevention nor rehabilitation will be effective. Then society has little choice but to respond with law enforcement measures. “Community members will have little faith,” wrote Athens, “when they and their neighbours are daily subjected to the threat of murder, rape, robbery and assault.” Rehabilitation program support also means selective removal of “ultraviolent criminals from the community.”

Rhodes suggests that the statistically high level of violence among minorities segregated by racial prejudice has some of its origin in community dependence on “conservative Christian values that encourage physical punishment.” Now isolated within these “impoverished turbulent and malignant minor communities where policing has been both sporadic and more punitive,” violentization proceeds, and guns, drugs, crime and violence flourish.

Rhodes concludes that protecting society from violence means spending more money on informed programming, protecting children from brutalization, and making schools the community “social and moral centers”. Emphasize therefore: broader social supports, including (a shock to ‘defunding’ activists) police protection in minority communities, “rather than building more prisons”. The trend has been to blame poverty, mental illness, racial difference, diversity, masculinity, guns, cities, and other factors for violent crime.

But as Rhodes shows, referring to Athens’s ground-breaking work, because “violentization subsumes all those categories” that’s where our attention should be directed.

_Reviewed by Robin Collins, an Ottawa-based peace activist.


1 www.heuni.fi/material/attachments/heuni/projects/wd2vDSKcZ/Homicide_and_Gender.pdf

2 www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/cv.action?pid=3510007001


Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2020

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