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Bad Words of Criminal Behavior: The Bombastic Problem

We’ve all seen it, heard it, read it from sources touting their expertise, outrage, or their simple indignation regarding some criminal offenses and selected criminal offenders. The most commonly used bombastic words used to describe the crimes of some offenders and the offenders themselves has been “evil”, “malevolence”, “inhuman”, and “monster”, “fiend” and
the variations of those themes within the consistencies of professed moral outrage of denying human evidences to the situations.

The terms and their variations appear weekly in newspapers, tabloids, or novel popularized fiction and non-fiction books and finally the periodic appearance of fairly salacious books and articles by scholars offering a presentation of offense and offender facts. These materials appeal
and promote to our all-too-human fascination with the macabre, morbid, and the frightful. It also sells. However, it additionally allows the vast majority of persons (general public) to disconnect from the issues/facts surrounding bad behavior, provides excuses for poor investigative
performance, and renders the study of violence as prurient rather than as an instructive informed inquiry. Brief sample list of books and articles using the terms evil and monster:

  1. The Anatomy of Evil Nov 7, 2017 by Michael H. Stone MD
  2. Talking with Serial Killers: The Most Evil People in the World Tell Their Own Stories May 1,
    2003 by Christopher Berry-Dee
  3. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. Oct 5, 2004.by Peter Vronsky
  4. Criminal Shadows, Inner Narratives of Evil 1st Edition. by David Canter (Author), Ph.D.
    David Canter (Author), Robert D. Keppel (Foreword)
  5. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing By James E.
    Waller
  6. A Situationist Perspective on the Psychology of Evil: Understanding How Good People Are Transformed into Perpetrators. Philip G. Zimbardo, Ph. D. ; Chapter in Arthur Miller (Ed.). The social psychology of good and evil: Understanding our capacity for kindness and cruelty. New York: Guilford. (Publication date: 2004).

The problem with the use of such pejorative terms to describe offenders (serial killers or otherwise) is that for the reader it is disingenuous, deceitful, and fictitious. That is particularly problematic for the criminal investigator. If one is or wishes to become a criminal investigator
the investment in, following of, and adhering to disingenuous, deceitful, and fictitious associations can and will lead to disastrous investigative processes, e.g. “the real bad guy gets away” because of poorly conducted investigations or poorly presented evidence and proofs in a court of law”. Neither end is a good in to any criminal investigation story.

The use of pejorative terminology in texts or instruction in investigative process or practice should be considered suspect. A reader might want to ask about the intention of the author(s), is it: entertainment, supported by evidence, supported by evidence-based-best practices, etc.), to ensure that the practices and processes endorsed in the materials have the best interests of justice, law, the community, the victim(s), and criminal prosecution procedure in mind. If the book or article is written for mere entertainment purposes, then, facts may not necessarily apply and if the author is not a scholar or academic, they may not necessarily adhere to the rigor required in such endeavors. This is not meant to denigrate entertainment, not in the least. But a reader should want to be able to discern entertainment when that is what is being presented. A student of criminal investigation and investigative best practices will need a discerning eye.

To be fair, there are some researchers in criminal justice and its associated fields that do in fact explore the problem of the salacious and tabloid-like phrases that appear in the aforementioned articles, books, and yellow-journalism. A few examples are…

  1. Haggerty, K.D., Modern serial killers Crime, Media, Culture,
    http://cmc.sagepub.com/content/5/2/168; DOI: 10.1177/1741659009335714, 2009 5: 168

2. Knight, Z. G., Sexually motivated serial killers and the psychology of aggression and “evil” within a contemporary psychoanalytical perspective (p. 21-35). Published online: 11 May 2007. https://doi.org/10.1080/13552600701365597 Journal of Sexual Aggression , Volume 13, 2007 – Issue 1

3. Vargas, M. Are Psychopathic Serial Killers Evil? Are they Blameworthy for What They Do? in Serial Killers and Philosophy, ed. Sarah Waller (2010).

A considerable body of scholarly materials in criminal justice psychology, psychopathology, forensic psychology, and violent homicide investigative literature has been published regarding empathic dysfunction in psychopathic individuals, defense mechanism of projection, and pathologic narcissism. However, the puzzle and question of what is evil (other than perhaps as an archaic religious relic) remains veiled to scrutiny beyond its pejorative and debasing construct. The connection between the failure of a person to emphasize with the situation or predicament of another versus whether or not that inability is evil or merely the product of a different mental or emotional conditioning (to include trauma, injury, religious or other ethical community nurturing, etc.) and evil is not in the least clear or certain.

The failure to regard the persons or lives of others as similar to or equal to the importance we ascribe to our own lives is not merely the domain of persons who commit genocide, mass slaughter, other violent offenses or other horrific-gruesome crimes. We can see and read on a daily basis those conflicts of interest and empathy playing out, most recently in the political environment of the United States. It is perhaps that our abilities and competencies of having empathy are limited in scope and our individual aptitude.

Our individuality and identified group belonging has sustained the ancient small group, community, rival, and tribal identification of human beings over vast centuries and may have assisted in guaranteeing our individual and group survival. Although, what has helped and sustained humans in their distant or more recent past may ultimately prove to be a hindrance in a more complex contemporary world. It is nevertheless unavoidable that our needs and desires might/can/will collide with the needs and desires of others.

It is the underlying physiological, psychological, pathological, and sociological foundations either aid or hinder us in our appropriateness of response and empathy towards ‘the other’ we encounter in our lives. And, if we are hindered by unrecognized biases and prejudices then our investigative practices will reflect those biases and prejudices and allow the criminal offenders, murderers, and serial murderers remain far from the reach of justice.

Read more by Janet McClellan: A Study of African American Serial Killers, by Janet McClellan, Ph.D. at Barnes & Noble ISBN 9781987015003 (paperback) ) and e-book (2940161249994). 

Janet McClellan’s Blog: Serial Murder Mayhem

Can you identify the man who is a Eugene serial killer?

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