Well, readers, we’ve just made it through another false doomsday together – meaning, of course, that I will have to continue blogging. In light of this past week’s shocking tragedy in Scandinavia, I thought I would write about a topic that so deeply captivates a large number of Americans: serial killers and mass murderers. For my part, any time I have to spend the night in a less-developed part of Pennsylvania, I secretly fear that some maniac with a machete will send me off into that good night. But the probability of that happening is really very low. It’s one of those distracting black swans. In Norway this weekend, at least one resident seemed comforted to discover that a crazed right-winger was behind the attacks, commenting “I think a lot of people are happy it’s just one crazy guy, not a terrorist group or al-Qaeda or something like that.” Many had initially speculated (assumed?) that a radical Islamic group was behind the attacks. They could not have been more wrong, though Jennifer Rubin at the Post was quick to note that radical Jihadists remain the primary security concern of the modern era. Still, these uncommon events, even if targeted, make us feel that much less safe because of their unpredictability.
But beyond fears for one’s own safety, there’s something truly fascinating about serial killers and mass murderers. Perhaps there’s something about their brutality, ritual, or thought process that we don’t fully understand and want to. Further, thanks to various media, a mythology has grown up around serial killers over time. Some are driven by deep urges, while others are messianic; some are antisocial types with few friends or acquaintances, while others couldn’t seem more charming or well-adjusted. The only serious stab at the subject I’ve seen in the criminological literature is Fox’s and Levin’s.
Above, I referred to instances of serial and mass murder as black swans. Yet, the FBI once estimated that serial killers kill between 3000-5000 people per year. That number is hilarious. It includes all murders classified as “unknown circumstance.” Serial murder is defined as a crime without motive. But “no motive” is not synonymous with “unknown motive.” I have it on good authority that the real number is somewhere between 50 and 100 per year, if that. When Fox’s and Levin’s paper was published in 1998, this means that serial murders would have accounted for up to 30% of all murders (according to the FBI) or 0.5% (according to more rational estimates).
So, serial murder is uncommon. I think we can all be pretty comfortable with that. But what about the FBI’s techniques for catching serial killers? It’s difficult to find a lead without a motive. Even more so, because serial killers tend to target strangers, typically accessible targets like prostitutes, vagrants, and the homeless. Yet, serial killers are typically white men in their 20s or 30s and seem ordinary to just about any casual observer. A number collect sadistic pornography, secretly. Known-serial-killer demographics match those of the general population, and some have suggested that this means that environment does not heavily influence whether or not some one becomes a serial killer. Further, most known killers do not have a clearly diagnosable mental disorder (sociopaths have social, rather than psychiatric, problems). Most do know the difference between right and wrong (hence their often elaborate attempts to avoid detection), though they do not feel remorse and may even blame victims for their actions. But all too often, they are entirely normal, even pillars of their communities, like Dennis Rader.
So, how does the FBI ever end up catching serial killers. Silence of the Lambs popularized the idea of serial killer profilers. Popular TV shows have imprinted the image of a well-dressed man or woman standing on the scene of the crime and pronouncing, “The killer is a white man, in his late 20’s. He has probably has few friends and a slight limp. When you find him, he’ll be wearing suspenders.” There’s little evidence that such profiles help and plenty that they might actually hurt investigations, sending investigators down entirely the wrong path. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent expose on the whole profiling business, demonstrating that past profilers’ memoirs often left out what they got wrong. This is probably because there is really no basis for profiling. Studies trying to categorize serial killers have used samples that are skewed and far too small to make generalizations. Consequently, a character profile doesn’t help. Though there is some promise for geographic profiles. Serial killers often work within a comfort zone — often close to where they work or live. The pushpin-on-map approach is far more promising than our traditional concept of profiling.
Much of the above applies to mass murderers as well. More commonly, however, mass murderers know their victims or have clearer motives. They may be executing witnesses to a crime, minorities against whom they’re prejudiced, or their boss and coworkers (i.e.: “going postal”). But mass murder hasn’t (until the homeland security era) received as much attention from law enforcement. This is because the offender is often found on the scene, and his or her (though typically his) actions are typically one-time. Even though the public is horrified, these factors typically keep people from becoming anxious. Massacres are more likely to occur in small towns than cities, 78% involve a firearm (as opposed to 65% of single-murders), and in about 80% of incidents, the killers know their victims.
Fox and Levin argue that mass murderers generally experience long-term frustration and blame those around them for their difficulties. There’s typically some sort of catalyst (e.g.: being laid off from work, a spouse filing divorce papers) that turns that frustration into an action plan. Finally, mass murderers often have no source of support and now way to “let off the steam,” except for what is often their final act: mass murder followed by suicide. Mass murderers may feel powerless and ineffective, and killing allows them to exert their dominance over others through decisive (if terrible) action. Interestingly, Fox and Levin suggested that some offenders might have a biological predisposition, a proposition that Adrian Raine at Penn is increasingly strengthening.
So that’s mass murderers and serial killers in a nutshell. But even these statements might be overconfident, given the low incidence of serial and mass murder, as well as detection problems. Criminologists don’t focus much on serial killers, though every time I mention I’m a criminology major, people imagine I either want to become David Caruso or Jodi Foster. Criminology professors still usually include one class on serial killers in their classes (to, I would imagine, attract more students). I’ve always been fascinated by serial killer profiles; people seem to take a breath of relief once they hear that the FBI has created a profile of a killer. Yet, the inefficacy of profilers is one of those things that’s so shocking the moment you learn it and that seems so sensible and obvious just a moment later.
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