domenica 8 novembre 2009

Serial Killers

Gilles de Rais, H.H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Juan Corona, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez. These are some of the “hunters of humans” – responsible for approximately 1 to 2 percent of all U.S. homicides –, who are conventionally designated as “serial killers”, a term which entered general use in the mid-1970s. Charles Manson is often mistakenly included in this list, although he was condemned for ordering the death of nine persons. Serial murderers, unlike multiple murderers, kill serially, cyclically, and compulsively for psychological gratification, that is to say, for pleasure and as a way to release mounting tension after a prior build-up of pressure. Their stated motivations may, however vary considerably. Andrej R. Čikatilo, the “Butcher of Rostov”, claimed that he did not kill for sexual pleasure but to “bring some peace of mind.” John R. Christie was pursuing “a strange and peaceful thrill,” whereas Ted Bundy simply admitted that human emotions were alien to him: “I didn’t know what made things tick. I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.” The media tend to portray serial killers as manifestations of the “beast within”, the incarnation of ruthlessness and unrestraint, of pure evil. They are Dostoevskean demons, monsters to whom nothing is forbidden, extremely intelligent and with an inborn amorality and bloodlust. In a way, such depictions resume the nineteenth-century, pseudo-scientific discourse of “atavism” – biologic throwback or retrogression, namely the re-emergence of the historical and evolutionary past in the present – first popularized by Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso to account for a seemingly incorrigible criminal residuum. Then, as now, highly inflated statistics served to counter liberal approaches to crime and to prove that a growing proportion of the population was out of control, posing a continuing threat to society with their random and senseless actions, and that the only viable solution would be their segregation.
This interpretation is misleading. One only has to consider the empirical evidence that a disproportionate number of serial murderers are American or British citizens. In other words, different socio-cultural contexts and personal experiences produce varying pressures, different responses and, as a result, variations in the amount of violence. A deterministic and mechanistic view of human nature, rooted in deep-seated pessimism or in the notion of metaphysical evil, denies human agency, and yet we do know that serial killers are not mechanical apparatuses devoid of real choice. They do exercise some measure of control over their “hunting activities” and are actually doing what they want to do.
They are not all white males. In the USA, the percentage of apprehended Afro-American serial killers is proportionate to their numbers in the population, and between 10 and 20 per cent of known American serial killers are women. What most of these criminals have in common is a tormented childhood of domestic abuse and instability, an appetite for graphic depiction of violence, gore and sadism, and the ceaseless dedication of a true hunter. They are indeed different from most human beings, and see things in ways that, for most of us, are simply unthinkable. For them killing, torturing, cannibalism, necrophilia, rape are not wrong, because their psyche is not feelings-oriented but data- and goal-oriented. Their inner life is impoverished, they are emotionally desensitized, they cannot feel or relate, and cannot experience empathy, which is the main underpinning of a universalistic ethic. This is why they can do wrong without feeling remorse or guilt and there appears to be no restraining force on their behavior: they merely respond in an automated fashion to their own cravings, and their lack of a sense of bonding and empathy causes them to see other people as manipulable and easily disposable objects. Having said that, I once again urge readers not to speak of serial murderers in dehumanizing terms, as more of machines than of people, even though they often seem to act like ones. This phenomenon can be explained through the normal dynamics of human moral development under aberrant circumstances of domestic violence and child abuse in early infancy, and in a society where brutal force and violence are not always sufficiently stigmatized. The social and cultural origins of their behaviour cannot be wished away. As pointed out by Dutch anthropologist Anton Block “violence often has the character of theatre and performance in which things are ‘said’ as much as they are ‘done’.” But then, what is society actually saying through its serial murderers? Perhaps that it deplores a deficit of care, stability, and of an intuitive, profound respect for human life. Most serial killers suffered from child abuse or displayed a peculiar fascination with death, dying and dissection, but these are risk factors, not predictors of future behaviour. If anything, the only excess involved appears to be a hard-hearted rigor, placed above human life, and a thoughtless and reckless embrace of violence and aggression, reducing some to the degrading status of nonpersons and pushing others to give in to their violent impulses, only to call them monsters afterwards. As Mark Seltzer puts it: “Serial killing has its place in a culture in which addictive violence has become a collective spectacle, one of the crucial sites where private desire and public fantasy cross.” Now, because violence is undeniably one of the most intensely lived experiences – and, for some, true pleasures –, and psychopaths’ inner and outward lives tend to be exceedingly boring and deadened, so that violence becomes a means to wake oneself up, building a genuine culture of non-violence might prove to be the most important factor in preventing and reducing serial killing. This is all the more important when one understands that a fixation with serial murderers diverts attention from far more tragic and endemic social ills such as ordinary cruelty, social exclusion, massively unfair power relations, dehumanization, and depersonalization, which could also be mitigated in a less aggressive and more mature society.
Ultimately, public opinion should be encouraged to break free from the spell of serial killers as mesmerizing, charismatic, vampire-like predators, whose flagrant disregard of the laws and moral restrictions of society some may find secretly attractive.

Block, Anton. Honour and violence. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.
Seltzer, Mark. Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Tithecott, Richard. Of men and monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the construction of the serial killer. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997

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