Why They Kill. – Review

Why They Kill. – Review – book reviews

Paul Chance

Why They Kill Richard Rhodes (Knopf, 1999)

Most people believe the biblical saying: We reap what we sow. So since the United States has more violent criminals in prison and on the street than any other industrialized country, we have to wonder: What are we doing wrong? Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, tries to answer this question in Why They Kill (Knopf, 1999).

In this 350-page book, Rhodes relies on the research of a little-known Seton Hall University criminologist, Lonnie Athens. Athens eschews the statistical analysis of traditional criminology, which holds that violence is more common in certain races or income brackets, but which fails to explain why some people turn savage while others do not. So Athens talked at length with violent criminals to find common experiences that would unearth the root of the behavior.

People become violent, Athens concluded, through a long, slow process he calls violentization, an awkward term that means simply that people learn to be violent. Violentization includes four kinds of experiences: brutalization, subjugation, violent coaching and criminal activity. To become violent, according to this theory, a person must be the victim of repeated violence, be powerless to avoid it, be taught by models and through instruction how and when to be violent, and profit from brutal acts. In other words, their world teaches them to be violent.

Then why do some people from violent worlds turn out well? Because in those cases, Athens reasons, some part of the violentization process is missing. Victims of child abuse are brutalized, for example, but they may not undergo violent coaching.

Rhodes characterizes Athens as an original theorist, but if he seems original, it is partly because Rhodes (and presumably Athens) ignores related research by psychologists. There is no mention, for example, of “Adolescent Aggression,” the classic study by psychologist Albert Bandura and anthropologist Richard Walters, which, like Athens’ work, was based on interviews and clearly showed that violent behavior is learned. There is no mention of the famous experiment by psychologist Philip Zimbardo in which ordinary college students who played the part of “guards” became so abusive toward student “prisoners” that Zimbardo had to terminate the experiment. Athens’ work may be very different from traditional thinking in criminology and psychiatry, but it will hardly surprise anyone familiar with research in child development or social psychology.

This is not to say that Athens has contributed nothing. His case studies provide a rich demonstration of the violentization process. And his work may lead us, at long last, to take effective steps toward preventing violence. If homes and neighborhoods teach violence, he argues, then our schools must teach civility Children who are disruptive shouldn’t be expelled from school–to the street, where their violent education often continues–but offered special help in learning to interact with others. If their own private world is dangerous, Athens suggests, the least we can do is provide children with a public world that is safe.

Rhodes makes clear that this is easier said than done. Yet who can disagree with his conclusion that “to tolerate the brutalization of children–as we continue to do–is evil, and we reap what we sow.”

Paul Chance is editor of “Beyond the Data,” a column on the Web site of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (behavior.org).

COPYRIGHT 1999 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group