chapter  16
22 Pages

Evil and the common life: towards a wider perspective on serial killing and atrocities


There is a plethora of ways to explain the motives and methods of serial killers, but individual analysts tend to focus on their favorites. To get a sense of this, a sampling of the literature is instructive. Here we can find a pulp journalist who emphasizes the killers’ enjoyment of horror, a Freudian psychiatrist who emphasizes obsession with the mother, a forensic specialist who emphasizes brain injury and drug abuse, a learning theorist who emphasizes conditioning, an FBI agent who emphasizes criminal profiling, a literary critic who emphasizes the role of the imagination, a critical sociologist who emphasizes social causality, an anthropologist who emphasizes cultural frameworks, and an evolutionary psychologist who emphasizes men’s violent propensities (Mitchell 2003; Abrahamsen 1975; Norris 1988; Buss 2005). This wide variety of emphases, and there are of course others, has also led to a special literature just to interpret the interpretations (Mitchell 1997). In this chapter, our aim is not to discredit other researchers or their per-

spectives. While we consider a number of ways of characterizing and describing serial killers, this is not meant to be a standard literature review (for those, see Fox and Levin 2005; Holmes and Holmes 2010; Vronsky 2004). Neither is it meant to be a critique of theoretical or methodological lapses (for these, see Canter 1994; Hickey 2002; Sears 1991). Rather, our aim is to develop a synthesis of a variety of perspectives, one that can be greater than the sum of its parts. We also want to make the case that it is important to consider serial homicide in terms of more general concerns about what ultimately motivates our actions. Some very big questions stand out particularly when it comes to explaining

serial killing. Philosophers wonder about such things as the role of the will and the extent to which the killer is a free moral agent. They also may wonder if the actions of serial killers reveal something fundamental about the nature of evil (Waller 2010). Of course, one can be more specific. How much is the serial killer a victim of child abuse? Might he have some kind of chemically based addiction? Is he a cold-blooded killer without remorse? Clearly, while everyone wants to lay out the precise variables that make a serial killer,

no one wants to do so with the implication that serial killers are not free moral agents who are responsible for their own actions. Recently, the case of Richard ‘The Iceman’ Kuklinski (1935-2006) has

received considerable attention. Kuklinksi was a professional hit man who seemed to be totally without emotional response to the suffering of others. He apparently killed transients simply for practice, and once shot a random passerby in the head with a crossbow just to see how effective it would be as a killing tool. In support of a biological model, one can point out that Kuklinski’s brother was also a convicted murderer, as well as a child molester. Yet, Kuklinski was also the son of an alcoholic who had witnessed and personally suffered through innumerable beatings as a child. Even such a callous murderer may be as much made as born. Clearly, then, there are no simple answers as to what makes a serial murderer, making micro-macro analyses of ‘webs of violence’ essential (Turpin and Kurtz 1997) and popular tactics such as profiling and creating typologies of different types of killers inadvisable (Pino 2005). We do want, however, to stress the usefulness of seeing serial killing in

terms of the ‘normal aberrations’ of depersonalization, violence, and fragmented identity that can occur both in times of peace and war. In this regard, we believe the serial killing literature is not just of relevance to criminologists or specialists in homicide; it should be a central part of a more general analysis of all killing. This is because the serial killer often functions in terms of widely shared cultural and psychological processes, processes that may become particularly manifest during conditions of warfare or political terror. As we will discuss, killing in war involves some of the same learned behavioral patterns we find with serial offending (Castle and Hensley 2002). This is a radical suggestion in that its acceptance would break the taken-for-granted divide between serial killing as individual crime and the serial murders and genocides of professional and military forces. Such a divide is evident in the FBI-derived typologies of serial killers that exclude hit men and soldiers from consideration. Another item on our agenda is the advocacy of the life-course history

method. We favor this method especially because it is very conducive to consideration of issues of determinism, individual will, social learning, and choice in the development of a violent criminal persona. While findings from a few detailed life histories may not always be generalizable to a population at large, the life-course history method helps one get a deeper sense of how a person understands his or her identity and place in the world. Here we will use the life-course history method in describing two convicted serial killers. We are interested in comparing and contrasting these two individual accounts because they seem to represent a particular type of serial killer – one who is highly intelligent, articulate, and able to lead an effective double-life – yet who are very distinctive as individuals. Examination of the very different personalities and self-presentations of the killers also requires us to consider ways in which their self-discourse functioned to distance themselves from

their own violent agency. Indeed, while their self-presentation and rationalizations are quite distinctive, their ability to express themselves well on paper does seem to be a shared characteristic that appears to be rare among serial killers.