Saturday, March 03, 2007

Insights on the Increased Incidence of Aberrant Crimes (via Roy Hazelwood)

After a relatively brief hiatus, I have returned to the dark stories of crime and mayhem that have made up much of my recent reading history. The lastest book was Roy Hazelwood's (with Stephen Michaud of Death Row Interviews With Ted Bundy) Dark Dreams (2001). Hazelwood was one of the founders of the Behavorial Crimes Unit of the FBI at Quantico, VA. Along with John Douglas, he did pioneering work in criminal profiling. In a very literal sense, he wrote the book on the study of serial killers.

Dark Dreams focuses primarily on sexual crimes and the psychosexuality of serial killers. As one might expect, this trade paperback is a real page-turner. Hazelwood documents much of the theory behind understanding these perpetrators of perversity. The reader encounters a smattering of autoerotic asphyxiation, a bit of sadism, and a whole lot of bondage/abduction. The case studies he examines are among the oddest, most disturbing accounts of criminality in American history. It's quite amazing to learn the patterns and trends that underlie such behavior.

Particularly fascinating were Hazelwood's musings on the reasons for the increase in aberrant crimes (this examination is the focus of the brief epilogue of Dark Dreams). He identifies three social trends that he believes partially account for this rise:

1. "(...) a gradual relaxation of what was once a fairly strict behavioral code in this country".

-At face value this theory struck me as an echo of the claims made by the growing Christian Conservative movement. Countless times I have heard such pundits use this explanation to explain such diverse phenomena as underage sexuality, drug use, the Katrina disaster, and even the attacks on 9-11. Ultimately they seeem to be an evasion of social responsibility.

Yet in the context of the escalation of sexual crimes, this observation makes some sense. Hazelwood points out that sexual acts previously considered to be deviant are now largely accepted as part of a normal sex life. He tosses out examples such as fellatio, anal sex, bondage play, and foreign object penetration. As society comes to a gradual acceptance of these activities, those on the margins seek further extremes... and push the boundaries to the very limits of the imagination. Even something as severe as causing pain for sexual gratification is now referred to as "rough sex" when practiced by consensual partners. I do believe that the blame resides with the perpetrator of the crime (i.e. non-consensual actor) , but I'd be a fool to overlook Hazelwood's intuitively resonant point.

2. "We can now capture in color and sound those acts that could once only be imagined."

-The crux of this point rests in the increasing advances in technology from the 20th century onward. As Hazelwood notes, "The knowledge that one is 'performing' for a microphone or camera tends to intensify the action". Yet conversely, the presence of recording technology also tends to demystify these acts. Increasingly, authorities are discovering that the most extreme offenders are making a visual record of their crimes. The technologies used to do so (digital cameras, video) have allowed these representations to be made anonymously. The ability to record anything desired is now within the hands of all social classes. The rush of excitement that accompanies reliving the deviant behavior can now be easily accessed, with convenience and portability. And of course, the increasing number of such recordings can encourage copycat behavior. The Internet has compounded these factors logarithmically.

3. "The ability to quickly travel long distances provides the criminal with a distinct advantage in avoiding detection, and the fact that we are now thoroughly accustomed to dealing with strangers in our lives gives these offenders an added cloak of anonymity."

-The American love affair with the automobile is widely accepted and well-documented. For Americans, their cars represent a freedom and escape unachievable through any other conveyance. It would be naive to believe that this same perception wouldn't apply to people intent on doing others harm. In a very practical sense, cars allow people to quickly cover long expanses of space in very little time. Cars now make up a large portion of the background noise of our sensory experience. Our perception of them tends to blend into the landscape. Without a very keen sense of alertness, it is difficult to distinguish one automobile from another. The sheer volume of vehicles on the road makes the task nearly impossible. And as Hazelwood points out, they bring large numbers of unidentifiable humans into our close proximity at all times.


Technological progress has enabled humanity to actualize its every thought and desire. I am grateful to have been born into a time and place to take advantage of this immense capability. Technology is a tool that allows us to manifest change in our external environment. But the internal motivations and drives of humanity have remained consistent over thousands of years. Human beings have simply increased their ability to cause great harm, as well as great good. Surely there's a growing complexity to the form of our actions... but it's mainly a response to the conditions of a quickly changing environment. We possess evolving brains capable of expanding analysis and rationalization. Our adaptation to the complicated shifts in our experiences is not going to be a smooth transition. As people strive to cope with chaotic conditions, many are going to short circuit and act out in perverse and extreme ways. This is an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of the almost endless range of possibility that defines us.

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