When criminals get ideology – and defy our stereotypes

Criminals can defy our intuition.  I’ve been told that criminals care only about money, they only target people who stand in their way, and so forth.
It’s easy to demonstrate that this is wrong. Take Amedy Coulibaly, who started out as a petty criminal, and ended up killing a policeman and four Jews in a supermarket in France for ‘Allah’. Obviously he was capable of believing in something beyond money.

The criminal may not be physically impressive, but his life-trajectory can put him into a place of absolute power over you, or over others. Take this little boy:


According to the book by Asne Seierstad about the boy, who grew up to be a killer of teenagers:

He had no friends. His childhood hobbies included snapping the heads off roses, throwing stones through windows, and killing ants.
He kept pet rats, and liked to poke them with pencils. As he grew up, he took pleasure in bullying younger children.
‘If he could make someone cry, he would gloat and his eyes would sparkle,’ recalls a contemporary.
…A child psychiatrist noted that he took no joy in life, with no spontaneity, and no capacity for empathy.

I notice that he was a criminal as can be seen by this passage in Asne’s book:

Breivik may have been unlovable, but he wasn’t stupid; before long, he was making quite a bit of money printing and selling false certificates – doctorates, medical diplomas, and so forth.

He became world-famous after he deliberately killed many young people on an island in Norway. The teens Breivik killed were at a Norwegian Labour Party youth camp, and he saw Labour as traitors responsible for Muslim immigration which in turn he saw as an existential threat.
Asne’s book One Of Us: The Story Of Anders Breivik begins with a group of children running away from gunfire.

‘Let’s lie down and pretend we’re dead,’ says one of the boys.
‘Lie down in strange positions so they think we’re dead!’
But there is only one gunman: he knows who he has already shot, and who he has not.
So far, he has killed 22 people on the island, at a rate of roughly one a minute.
Seeing the children pretending to be dead, he starts to shoot them through the head, one by one.

Breivik was also pro-Israel.

To me, this is interesting. I support Israel’s right to exist myself, and like Breivik, I believe that Islam is too often a threat. 

So should I sympathize with this mass murderer of children?

Whatever his cause, and it may have some elements of truth in it, an ideological criminal is capable of acts that the rest of us feel are monstrous. The inhibitions we have are simply not present in him. 

Why do people break laws? A substantial number of Americans, including two of our presidents, took illegal drugs in their youth. Why didn’t respect for the law stop them? Millions of people have crossed into this country illegally, and have jobs that are “off the books”. Why didn’t they respect the law? Do they see the law as a pesky hindrance with no validity? I’m not saying all our laws are just, in fact I disagree with several of them myself. But once you say the law doesn’t apply to you, or you are driven by a cause, or a sense of “justice” that leads you to ignore the law, then we can ask, why we have laws at all?

Anders Breivik became an all-powerful figure of terror for a while on Utoya island. It is not rare that a misfit and a person who might seem to us to be a failure in his youth can become a very powerful and frightening figure. There are terrifying members of ISIS, some of whom might have seemed to be failures back home in Europe, but now in the caliphate can be in a position to kill many victims, to enslave women, and in general inflict horror.  I should say though, that some of the people streaming to join ISIS are successful back home, and it has said of terrorists that they are often quite normal.

Dylann Roof, a young man who shot several black men and women in their church for racist reasons, had a troubled youth. He floated in and out of jobs, took drugs and drank, had run-ins with the police, began reading white supremacist websites and, in the months before the massacre, boasted of wanting to start a race war. A driven, ruthless person.

And yet, like Dylann Roof, I also believe there is disproportionate black crime in America.

So should I sympathize with his shooting of good people in a church?

There is an interesting book about the biological differences between liberals and (social) conservatives.  I would rather believe that my various beliefs are rooted in pure rationality but the authors say this:

those with predispositions counter to yours do not see what you see, fear what you fear, love what you love, smell what you smell, remember what you remember, taste what you taste, want what you want, or think how you think.

They actually claim that liberals perceive the world differently than conservatives.  All sorts of odd tests – brain scans, physiology, games and more are presented to back up their assertions.

Yu Gao
Yu Gao

We could speculate that criminals also perceive the world differently. One study by Yu Gao (currently teaching at Brooklyn College) showed that babies who lack a fear response (to ‘fear conditioning’) inevitably grow up to be criminals.

Certainly, born-criminals would have experiences that gradually would take them on a different trajectory than the ordinary person.  As teens they might hang out with gangs, they might have experience of bullying others, experience of human weak points, and they might have more sexual exposure than the average teenager – anything that inhibitions might prevent in somebody else.

Myself, I was targeted by a group of men and women of all races. Their methods were illegal, and they are most likely part of organized crime. One revealing remark directed by me was “he must be kept DOWN!”  by a very self-righteous woman.  I obviously could not interview my tormentors, but by their words, their expressions, and their actions, I learned some things about their attitudes. They were in some ways like a vigilante group that shrugs off the law like you would shrug off a mosquito. They are fully capable of the emotion of contempt (in this case it was directed towards me), which might seem strange, because their actions are contemptible.

Even though some of them might be physically weaker than I (for instance the woman who I quoted was physically very short) in practice they are much stronger.  Apart from access to weapons that any law-abiding person can get in the US, they have access to chemical sprays that can put you to sleep, or just put you in a temporary daze, or cause physical damage. They have access to drugs that affect your limbic system, assuming that that is the part of your brain where your urges originate. I’ve talked about this in a few posts scattered in this blog, and there is no point in repeating it. But the little woman who explained to her lady-companion on the train that I should be kept down (after they had discussed why I was standing with a mountain bike in the vestibule) had much more power to inflict harm on people she did not like than I ever will. She got that power in part because she lacked inhibitions that the rest of us have.

The kind of power criminals obtain could also have survival value. If society breaks down, perhaps with an economic collapse, or war, or terrorist sabotage of our power supplies, the people who survive may be those who have criminal contacts, a criminal arsenal and the ruthlessness to use it.

In the times of war or persecution, moral compromises can be advantageous:

During her time at the Hessisch-Lichtenau work camp, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, Trude Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was asked to become a work leader.

Trude said: “It was tempting, but work leaders also had duties. To push around their mates, to spy on them, denounce them.”

She, therefore, refused to cooperate with the Nazis:

“I wanted to survive but not at any price – I had a choice about how to behave. She said that: “most girls would have been overjoyed to obtain such a privileged position, as it meant extra rations and other perquisites.” “I did not want to live without my integrity.”

It may well be that some people survived that period because they were not like Trude, and were willing to live without integrity.

So we should avoid getting an oversimplified picture of criminals from fictional Hollywood movies.  Criminal motivations are not just about money, the world would be a better place if it was that simple..

1. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/17/us/charleston-shooting-dylann-roof-troubled-past.html

2. http://www.theholocaustexplained.org/ks3/the-camps/how-were-the-camps-run/kapos/#.VexEBflViko

2. Breivik’s childhood.

4. Yu Gao: The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime  by Adrian Raine (2013)

5. Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences
by John R. Hibbing and Kevin B. Smith (2013)


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