Sunday, November 09, 2008

Jonathan Pincus, "Base Instincts" (2001).

There are numerous theories as to why certain individuals commit terrible deeds, and through my extensive reading in the true crime genre, I've encountered many of them. As you are probably aware, Americans are particularly drawn to the idea that "evil" causes the unwary to strike out against their fellow humans. According to this perspective, the devil makes them do it. This explanation reinforces their belief that man is best served by seeking guidance in the Lord. It also appears to justify a general societal orientation toward punishment, rather than treatment or prevention. There are "victims" and "perpetrators" and it is easy to determine who is who. People are endowed by their Creator with "free will" and are solely responsible for the consequences of their actions.

I'm not totally unsympathetic to this characterization. I sympathize with those who have a fully developed sense of justice. While I shy away from descriptors like "good" and "evil", it is often quite clear that some of the people in our midst wish to do us harm. I have no desire to see the death penalty eliminated. I think the ultimate focus should be on identifying the ne'er-do-wells and applying every strategy to minimize their ability to cause social discord. There should be no tolerance for any individual that seeks to force their will on another by violence. That role belongs to society as a whole, and is determined by a process involving "consensus" and "democracy". In other words, it's appropriate for public debate- not private action.

Still I have no doubt that prevention is the most effective way of decreasing the incidence of violent crime. Unfortunately we've entered an era more interested in reactionary responses than proactive measures. Cries for retribution surround us as the complexity and chaos of our environment increases. Anti-intellectualism is a growing force in the United States, and people seem less willing to participate in objective analysis. The results are rampant inefficiency in the criminal justice system and social regression. Because of these threats, I wish more professionals involved in law enforcement (and especially those working in the court system) would read Jonathan Pincus' Base Instincts.

The central idea behind Pincus' study is that violent crime is the result of a coincidence of factors that includes neurological damage to the brain, abuse during childhood, and mental illness (such as paranoia, mood disorders, etc.). This may sound like common sense, but it is surprising how many people refuse to consider the ramifications of NOT taking into account these factors. So many are looking for the magic bullet, or the unifying theory that can explain every criminal action. I understand that temptation, but it is at its root simplistic and naive. The suggestion that one must decide between "nature" or "nurture" components does more harm than good. They are quite obviously not mutually exclusive.

Jonathan Pincus is no "mere" social philosopher, but rather a practicing neurologist at the Georgetown University Hospital. He has conducted in-depth research with a diverse range of murderers. He has experience with serial killers, mass murderers, and those violent individuals we have been fortunate enough to arrest before they could graduate into one of those first two categories. Throughout his book, he covers the importance of social histories, neurological examination, and psychiatric testing. There are sections throughout that present terribly disturbing firsthand accounts of violent actions. Gradually he focuses the reader on the importance of confronting child abuse, as he identifies that strategy as the one containing the most possibilities for success.

I recommend Base Instincts for any serious reader with a strong stomach and an unflinching commitment to confronting dark realities.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you read 'In Cold Blood' by Truman Capote?
I was twelve years old when a convict planting flowers told me how he "kilt his cheatin wife". JM

10:40 PM  

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