Follow the trial of James Holmes – charged with killing 12 people at a Batman screening in Colorado – and inevitable questions come up. What makes a seemingly ‘normal’ young man turn violent? Was he ill? Or born bad?
And does knowing what makes killers kill do anything to prevent murder? Globe columnist Margaret Wente leads a discussion with U.S. author and criminologist James Fox and Canadian lawyer and journalist Paula Todd, who has just published a book about Karla Homolka, about making sense of senseless tragedy.
MW: Even talking about killers is controversial right now. Should we pay attention to people like James Holmes? Or are we pushing them into the spotlight, making them famous?
JF: It’s okay to shed light on crime, but not to spotlight criminals. It makes them larger than life, and humanizes a people who have committed tremendously inhumane acts.
MW: Is your concern that criminals like Mr. Holmes might be bad examples?
JF: Possibly. Murderers have uttered the names of their predecessors. But I also think it debases our society when we know murderers so well. In one of my classes at Northeastern University I ask students to write down the names of five serial killers, then the names of five vice-presidents. They can’t do the vice-presidents. They’re much more interested in bloody gore than Al Gore.
MW: What about you, Paula? When your book Finding Karla, about Karla Homolka, came out, many people wondered why you didn’t just let her rot in obscurity?
PT: I saw fairly knowledgeable reports that she was teaching children in another country and I was concerned about them. I know when she disappeared in 2007 some Canadians gave a sigh of relief – she’s gone and that’s good. But it felt odd to me. And in some ways she hasn’t left here, either. When it comes to sentencing, criminal courts will say, “Well, don’t let her get away with it. Don’t let it be Karla Homolka.” We’ve made her into this mythic figure – a cunning, genius psychopath, or malignant narcissist, who will kill again.
MW: What about the argument that we need to talk about killers, and the details of their lives, to understand the root causes of evil?
JF: I hear stories about killers’ favourite ice cream. Often we hear excessive details that have absolutely nothing to do with motivation, with identifying evil. Then we do biographies about killers and put them on A&E or the History channel. Or we make a movie, like Monster, with Charlize Theron as a serial killer. It blurs the distinction between a murderer and a celebrity.
And I think we’re fooling ourselves that we can actually create an instruction manual for identifying future killers. There are tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians who fit the profile of someone like the shooter in Colorado. We can see them, they’re depressed, they’re angry, they’re always complaining that someone else is taking credit for their achievements, that the government is corrupt and they’re isolated. It doesn’t mean they’ll go on a rampage.
MW: And yet Dave Cullen, who wrote a bestselling book on the Columbine school murders, has argued that, in the case of Dylan Klebold – who was cleary depressed and morose – better mental health services could have forestalled his crime.
JF: The ones that are truly dangerous, who will go after other people, aren’t likely to take up offers of help. They’ll say, “I’m not a problem, you’re the problem.”
PT: But Mr. Holmes apparently mailed a local psychiatrist a notebook – complete with stick figures and diagrams – about how he was going to carry out his mass murder. Does that not sound like somebody who wanted help? And yet he went on to kill.
JF: There are people who send out warning signs, for sure. But even those people may never commit murder. There’s nothing we’ve learned that helps us recognize which troubled people will go on a rampage. Hindsight is 20/20: We look back at all these warning signs and say, “Gee, yeah, obviously these things were missed.” But no one, even a psychiatrist, can really anticipate events like this.