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Why They Kill
The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist
By Richard Rhodes
Knopf. 372 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by James Q. Wilson, the author of "The Moral Sense," "Thinking About Crime" and other books.

Sunday, September 19, 1999

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Every scholar who has difficulty reaching a larger audience should have a writer as gifted as Richard Rhodes for his storyteller, especially if the story to be told is one with which Rhodes has had personal experience. He was severely abused as a young boy and then rescued by the courts and a decent private boys' home. The question he wants to answer is: Why do people assault, batter, rape and kill? He thinks he has found the answer in the work of Lonnie H. Athens, a criminologist at Seton Hall University.

Athens offers an explanation for why a few people are relentlessly violent, an answer derived from his lengthy interviews with murderous prisoners. He rejects the view that violent people act impulsively or out of momentary passion; on the contrary, they consciously construct violent plans of action long before the desire to carry out such plans arises. These constructions lead them to resist physical attack, overcome frustration or reject the scornful or contemptuous attitudes of other people. When they believe that someone may attack them, resist their demands or hold them in contempt, they are ready to act violently.

Many men will get into an argument in a bar or spot a woman with whom they want to have sex. Many women will be called a bitch and treated contemptuously. Most men and women shrug off the insult or forget a denied sexual opportunity; they walk away. Violent people do not walk away; they reach for guns, knives or hammers and lash out.

According to Athens, this readiness to attack arises out of earlier brutalization at the hands of parents, husbands or gang leaders. Athens himself was regularly beaten by his father, as Rhodes was beaten by his stepmother. But Athens is not resting his argument on child abuse, because brutalization can also occur at the hands of gangs, fellow prisoners or military leaders. And brutalization may take the form of ridicule or glorifying violence rather than physical attacks.

Violent people are the product, in Athens's term, of "violentization." They are initially brutalized; they then become belligerent and decide to act violently themselves; they commit their first violent act and discover that it is rewarding. They take pleasure in overcoming obstacles with force and look for more opportunities to do so. By now they have become ruthless aggressors, ready with a violent view of life and a violent plan to set matters right. All they need is an opportunity. In short, people who commit heinous, violent crimes always have experienced violence in their backgrounds.

Always? At this point the reader must wonder how far Rhodes's (and presumably Athens's) generalizations can reach. Cathy Widom has studied child abuse and concluded that it does increase the risk of later criminality -- but not always. The "intergenerational transmission of violence is not inevitable," she has written. Only a fraction of abused children are later arrested for a violent crime. People differ in how they handle violence: Some may repeat it, others may internalize it in the form of withdrawal or self-destruction. When the Bureau of Justice Statistics interviewed state prison inmates, they found that three-quarters of those incarcerated for violent offenses had been abused by someone -- but nearly a quarter had not been.

The countless studies of child abuse suggest that it makes a child worse off but that children differ in their reactions to it. One reason they differ is that their personalities are different, and many -- but not all -- of these differences have a genetic basis. Many studies show this, but there is little need to read the studies because the effect can be shown by one common fact: Men are vastly more aggressive and violently criminal than are women. Part of this difference may be that boys are more likely to be abused than girls, but it is not likely that this difference can explain why men are at least 10 times as likely as females to be arrested for a violent crime. There is no evidence that they are 10 times as likely to be brutalized. Indeed, in state prisons, women report having been abused more often than do men.

In his splendid presentation of Athens's work, Rhodes tries to apply it to several violent offenders, such as Mike Tyson, Perry Smith and Lee Harvey Oswald. But since he knows too little about these people, his accounts are ultimately unconvincing. Oswald, for example, was rarely physically brutalized; instead, he was the object of his mother's haranguing. Haranguing can be a form of brutalization. But if so, why were Lee's brothers, John and Robert, not criminals despite getting the same harangues?

The same problem of over-generalization affects Rhodes's explanation of why cultures differ in their level of violence. Some cultures -- the Yanomama of Brazil, for example -- are, indeed, both violent and homicidal. But the Gebusi of New Guinea and the Kung San of Africa, though not violent, are still homicidal. Why? Rhodes's explanation is that, though peaceful, these cultures brutalize children because the children watch adults kill other adults. This hardly seems to square with Athens's theory that aggression occurs only when a child goes through "the full process of violentization."

As Rhodes argues, familial and village violence undoubtedly helps explain why murder was so much more common in the middle ages than in modern times. But do these tendencies explain why the United States is so much more homicidal than England? Rhodes assumes that transplanted, ethnically diverse peasant cultures brought with them a pattern of violent behavior that explains why the United States is more lethal than England. But as Eric Monkkonen has shown, New York City has had a homicide rate at least five times higher than London's for the last two hundred years. In 1795 there was very little non-English migration that might have brought violent peasant cultures here.

Athens's scholarship has, I think, brought a useful corrective to those writings that assume that any crime the middle class cannot understand -- immediate rage, a love of fights, an eagerness to attack -- must be the result of inexplicable impulses or mental diseases. They are usually nothing of the kind. They are the expression of people who have acquired, probably in ways much more complex than Rhodes describes, a violent personality. There are many routes to violence; we can no more have one decisive theory of it than one medical explanation of disease.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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