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Wired to kill: Are we innate murderers?

Each of us has contemplated the necessity of responding to a threat with deadly force

In the song “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash’s central character contemplates his crimes as he sits in prison listening to the sounds of a passing train and sings about how he “shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.” Is this convicted killer a truly evil man, or simply a victim of his genetic makeup and his environmental conditioning? Rather than choosing one of the two ends of that spectrum, perhaps a “somewhere in between” is the most plausible explanation.

Each of us has contemplated the necessity of responding to a threat with deadly force. We have rehearsed it in our minds so that we can be best prepared. We physically practice the skills should it become necessary to defend our lives or the life of another. We do this from a position of altruism, believing that our actions may be essential in order to halt the evil acts of another.

At the same time, I know many who harbor resentments against those whom they feel have done them harm. Many of us are not immune from the hope that negative consequences will befall those nemeses of ours. Some want revenge; others just wish for “karmic closure.”

Recently a very good friend of mine suddenly passed away. Upon hearing the news, my mind wondered: “Why him rather than one of the thoughtless and selfish individuals that I know? Why, indeed, do the good die young?”

Do these thoughts make us abnormal, or undeniably very normal? Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “How is it they live in such harmony the billions of stars — when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their minds about someone they know?”

Aquinas would certainly absolve us of our sins, illuminating that we are merely in possession of our humanity.

Rise of the Lawless
While thoughts can lead to behavior, it is the actions one takes that lead to outcomes. It appears obvious to many that an upswing in antisocial behavior is occurring. Lawless and unruly conduct is happening at work, in the public place, on the internet, and in our schools. In fact, this decade could go down as the period in which anti-bullying laws take prominence among state legislative actions. In January of this year, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey signed into law what many believe to be the toughest law against bullying and harassment in schools. The law went into effect within months of a Rutgers University student’s suicide, owing to the harassment he sustained from his roommates (Perez-Pena, 2011). The website describes the anti-bullying efforts and laws of each state and assigns them a letter grade based upon a thirteen-part metric (High, 2011). At this time, 47 of the 50 states have some type of anti-bullying law on the books.

A natural extrapolation may be to believe that a number of those who were childhood bullies will one day rise to the status of a murderer. Although it is very unlikely for any one child to reach this level, some argue that due to natural selection, the human species is actually hardwired for killing. According to Phillips (2005), natural selection has imprinted the capacity to commit murder on the human psyche because killing has conferred such powerful advantages in terms of the overall fitness of our species. Slaying a rival could give an individual better access to mates or heighten their status. In the lawless Pleistocene epoch, when modern human minds were forged, a capacity to kill represented a useful behavioral gambit.

Before we define all of humanity as malevolent beasts, we are cautioned to consider that civilization has evolved into a semblance of order and control, and while humans may possess the genetic characteristics for violence, researchers believe that we are also hardwired for compassion and empathy, especially with regards to children. Researchers at the University of Chicago tested the empathic qualities of 17 typically developed children and discovered that neural networks trigger the ability to comprehend and understand self, others and the role of empathy: “ the age of 39 months, healthy individuals distinguish, in their judgments, moral transgression and conventional transgressions” (Decety, Michalska, & Akitsiki, Y. 2008).

So if natural selection has provided humans the capacity for both violence and empathy, what conditions influence which direction one takes? There are several specific factors that strongly affect the brain and influence behaviors. According to Simon (2008), antisocial behaviors often manifest in those who suffer from organic disorders of “hyperactivity, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and mild signs of neurologic deficit.” Simon goes on to state that “the most plausible model for causation involves many factors, with a combination of genetic, developmental, and environmental factors all interacting to produce an antisocial personality.”

Is Kindness Passé?
There are those who believe that fundamental human kindness is becoming passé. Therapist Douglas LaBier regularly sees what he calls empathy deficit disorder - the lack of one’s ability to “step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience” (LaBier, 2007). According to LaBier:

EDD develops when people focus too much on acquiring power, status and money for themselves at the expense of developing those healthy relationships. Nearly every day we hear or read about people who have been derailed by the pursuit of money and recognition…They have become alienated from their own hearts and equate what they have with who they are… The net result is that we don’t recognize that we’re all one, bound together. We only see ourselves.

While theoretical philosophies and neuropsychological research are critical, many of us live in a world that is “live and in color, and is happening now.” The truth as I see it is that evil does exist (whether due to nature or nurture) and there are those of us who have to meet it head-on in the dark recesses of both the mean streets and alleys, and in the minds of the psychopathic predators. While crisis intervention training (CIT) is critical for police officers and often helpful with negotiations, successfully intervening with mass murderers - such as Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez (the “nightstalker”), or Dennis Rader the BTK (bind-torture-kill) killer - using therapeutic processes is unlikely. As reported by Simon (2008), Robert E. Hare, Ph.D., a prominent researcher and expert on psychopaths, does not recommend treatment.

“Don’t waste your time. Nothing you can do can make a difference at all.” Furthermore, Dr. Hare suggests that psychotherapy for psychopaths is an oxymoron. “What do you treat? They have no subjective distress, they don’t have low self-esteem, they are not dissatisfied with their behavior. Do you treat personality traits that they don’t want to change?” In fact, a number of studies have found that psychotherapy is likely to make psychopaths worse.

As reported by Raine (2008), Professor Terrie E. Moffitt of the University of London makes the claim that:

Despite strong resistance in many quarters, there is now little scientific doubt that genes play a significant role in antisocial behavior. The question of whether there is a genetic basis is no longer interesting, and it has been replaced by the second generation question of ‘‘How much of antisocial behavior is influenced by genes?’’ While not all studies show significant effects, reviews of over 100 twin and adoption analyses provide clear evidence that about 50 percent of the variance in antisocial behavior is attributable to genetic influences.

“Sadism and power motives are common to all human beings” (Simon, 2008).

Angels of our nature
It has been opined that the difference between criminal psychopaths and the rest of us is in degree, rather than in kind. Two recent and somewhat similar experiences, both caught on video, may serve to demonstrate whether the unpromising or the “better angels of our nature” prevail. On September 13th, a motorcyclist in Utah was involved in a collision with a BMW and became trapped under the car. The vehicle caught fire. The heroic efforts of a group of bystanders saved the life of the cyclist when they acted as a team and lifted the car, thus freeing the trapped rider (Dobner, 2011). On September 1st in Brooklyn, New York, another motorcyclist was trapped beneath a Ford Taurus after a collision (Rappleye & Bain, 2011). In this case, a large group of bystanders stood by and videotaped the ensnared biker with their cell phones rather than coming to his aid as did the group in Utah. Although the individuals in New York may not have felt the same sense of urgency since there was no fire, a bystander could clearly be heard on the tape suggesting that the group try to lift the car. No one followed his lead and the rider remained trapped until the arrival of emergency personnel.

It is not unusual to encounter individuals with antisocial tendencies, including in the emergency services field. However, not all those with psychopathologies are the criminals. As reported by Seabrook (2008), Doctor Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, states that, “Among the professions likely to attract psychopaths…are law enforcement, the military, politics, and medicine, although he notes that these have norms and are self-policing. The most agreeable vocation for psychopaths... is business.” I have encountered several law enforcement professionals who exhibit antisocial personality tendencies. Most are intelligent and high-functioning. While Dr. Hare has developed an elaborate testing and evaluation methodology, the Mayo Clinic lists some of the symptoms of antisocial personality disorder: Persistent lying or deceit, the manipulation of others, violating the rights of others, intimidation of others, aggressive or violent behavior, lack of remorse about harming others, agitation, and poor or abusive relationships (Mayo Clinic, n.d.).

As litigation against law enforcement continues to evolve, some believe that the plaintiff attorney’s next frontier is the arena of police use of force upon the mentally disturbed. In fact, the 9th circuit has seemingly presented arguments demonstrating this direction (Bryan, 2009):

Although we have refused to create two tracks of excessive force analysis, one for the mentally ill and one for serious criminals, we have found that even “when an emotionally disturbed individual is ‘acting out’ and inviting officers to use deadly force to subdue him, the governmental interest in using such force is diminished by the fact that the officers are confronted... with a mentally ill individual.

The protagonist in Johnny Cash’s refrain referenced earlier sang, “When I was just a baby/ my momma told me son/ always be a good boy/ don’t ever play with guns.” Although apparently having a responsible parent, he murdered a man simply to satisfy some insatiable curiosity. While the answer is not yet known, one day we may discern whether his psychopathy was genetic, environmental, developmental, or some combination thereof, and thus develop empirically supported diagnostic and therapeutic treatments.

Bryan v. McPherson, F.3d, 2009 WL 5064477 (9th Cir. 2009)
Decety, J., Michalska, K., Akitsiki, Y. (2008). Who caused the pain? An fMRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuorpsychologia.
Dobner, J. (2011, September 14). Students lift car off Utah motorcyclist after fiery crash. Associated Press.
High, B. (2011). Making the grade. Bully Police, USA.
LaBier, D. (2007, December 25). Empathy: Could it be what you’re missing. The Washington Post.
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Antisocial personality disorder.
Perez-Pena, R. (2011, January 9). Christie signs tougher law on bullying in schools. The New York Times.
Phillips, S. (2005). Hardwired to kill. Times higher education.
Raine, A. (2008). From genes to brain to antisocial behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, (5).
Rappleye, H., Bain, J. (2011, September 3). Motorcyclist dies after rescue workers drop car on him. New York Post.
Seabrook, J. (2008, November 10). Suffering Souls. The search for the roots of psychopathy. The New Yorker.
Simon, R. (2008). Bad men do what good men dream: a forensic psychiatrist illuminates the darker side of human behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc.

Steve “Pappy” Papenfuhs is the CEO of Battalion Defense which distributes premier armor, armor carriers, ballistic helmets and shields, and other tactical kit. Pappy retired as a sergeant after serving 29 years with the San Jose, California Police Department. During his career he worked Patrol, Field Training (FTO), Street Crimes, SWAT, Auto Theft, Sexual Assaults, Narcotics, Family Violence, and supervised the department’s in-service Training Division. He holds a Force Analysis certification from the Force Science Research Center, and is a certified instructor with the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) in several disciplines including: Firearms, Defensive Tactics, Baton, Force Options, and Emergency Vehicle Operations (EVOC). In addition to running Battalion Defense and teaching both academy recruits and in-service officers, Pappy provides expert witness consultation in police practices, use of force, and training issues.

Contact Steve Papenfuhs.