Criminologists Say the Craziest Things, Part 2: Man Bites Dog. Dow Jones Implicated.

Yesterday, I wrote about some media reactions to the Binghamton mass killer.   Today, I want to take a closer look at the ways expert opinions play out in one article about recent mass killings from The Christian Science Monitor.  

In “Shootings, Murder-Suicide Raise Broader Question: Is Violence Linked to Recession?”, writer Patrik Jonsson posits the theory that the recent economic downturn may be responsible for the following crimes:

Four Oakland, Calif., police officers shot down. An Alabama man strolling a small town with a rifle, looking for victims. Seven elderly people shot dead at a North Carolina nursing home. And on Sunday, six people, including four kids, died in an apparent murder-suicide in an upscale neighborhood in Santa Clara, Calif.

What do these disparate crimes allegedly have in common?  Jonsson suggests the economy, and he quotes Jack Levin, a much-quoted criminologist from Northwestern University, who enthusiastically endorse the association of these crimes with the economic crisis:

“Most of these mass killings are precipitated by some catastrophic loss, and when the economy goes south, there are simply more of these losses,” says Jack Levin, a noted criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. . . 

The recession in the early 1990s “saw a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47,” . . . 

“Social isolation is a huge factor” in a country as large and transient as America, which places big emphasis on personal results, Levin says. “If you look at where many of these mass killings have occurred lately, they’re in states that have lots of strangers, transients, and drifters, who don’t have support systems to get them through tough times.”

Or maybe none of these things are true.  

The murders in Oakland were precipitated, by all accounts, by felon Lovell Mixon’s desire to avoid returning to jail (the only “loss” Mixon was facing was the loss of his freedom to rape children in his neighborhood with impunity).  The well-off shooter in Santa Clara was reportedly not experiencing financial troubles when he killed his own children and other family members visiting from India.  The gunman in North Carolina was hunting down his estranged wife, who had recently left him and was working in the nursing home where he killed eight people.  The man who killed ten in southern Alabama, Michael McLendon, had spoken to friends about his disappointment at not being able to stay in the Marines or the police academy, but it was personal failings, not economic trends, that caused his dismissals from both, and these events, like Jiverly Wong’s much commented-upon departure from a computer industry job, happened years before the current recession. 

Of all the men mentioned in the article, only Michael McClendon seems to fit the profile of somebody feeling job-related resentments. He kept lists of people whom he felt had wronged him at work.  But when he began killing, he targeted family members, starting with his mother, grandmother and other relatives.  He did not kill former co-workers or employers.     

Nor were any of these men “strangers, transients, [or] drifters” lacking “support systems,” as Levin claims. Precisely the opposite seems true: they all appear to have been deeply entrenched in insular communities and extended families.  Lovelle Mixon was no stranger in a strange land; instead, he was sheltered from authorities by community and family members alike, at great danger to those who helped him.  Even after destroying four innocent lives and being identified as a child-rapist, he retains the unconditional support of his family and some in his community.  The Santa Clara killer opened fire during a housewarming party, surrounded by family members.  The nursing home shooter was trying to kill his wife; the number of “transients” or “drifters” in the small town where he lived is irrelevant.  And Kinson, Alabama, where Michael McLendon lived and killed, can hardly be characterized as a highly mobile environment where people live lives disconnected from each other.

What is the point of saying such things, if they fly in the face of every available fact?  

What is to be gained, or obscured, by claiming that social alienation and the economy drove these men to kill, when the reality appears to have far more to do with the fact that they were entrenched in, not detached from, social and family relationships — and the economy played no role at all?

The main thing being downplayed by blaming the economy is the fact that these men (except Mixon, who was not a spree killer at all, but a common criminal eluding arrest) harbored murderous rage towards their own families.  All of their crimes began as domestic violence.  Pointing to factors beyond “He hated his mother/wife/brother-in-law enough to kill them” is therefore difficult, and blaming the economic downturn is simply propaganda of a sort designed to lift some blame from the murderers’ shoulders and place it on us all.  

By now, it should not surprise that criminologists automatically default to blame-spreading when confronted with any violent (or non-violent) crime.  Seeking the “root causes” of crime anywhere but in the hearts and minds of criminals has been the common currency of criminology for fifty years now.  

So is it even really true, as Jack Levin puts it (in oddly emotional language), that there was “a dramatic increase in workplace violence committed by vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss and their co-workers through the barrel of an AK-47” during the 1990-1991 recession?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the percentage of murders involving multiple victims remained steady from the late 1980’s to well beyond the time of economic recovery around 1993.  

In sharp contrast, the percentage of murders involving multiple offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 shot up dramatically during the same time.      

Did these 14 to 17 year old gang members possess special insight into the market conditions of 1991?  Of course not.  14 to 17-year old gang members were killing each other, and others, in record numbers through the early 1990’s, but they weren’t walking into former workplaces and blowing their former co-workers away because they got laid off and couldn’t pay the mortgage.  They kept killing each other so long as we let them keep killing each other, through lenient sentencing, and when we finally got around to imposing mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes, many fewer young people died from the consequences of living at one of the two wrong ends of a gun.  The problem was the illegal drug trade, and the solution was minimum mandatory sentencing.  But you won’t hear criminologist saying that, especially as they collude with the current administration to decriminalize the actions of younger offenders and overturn minimum sentences for recidivists. 

All crimes peaked in the early 1990’s.  But it was urban gang activity that accounted for the vast majority of the carnage that coincided with the last recession. The vengeful loner, armed with a pink slip and an AK-47, is merely a type cherished by criminologists and journalists.  

Such men do exist, as do “alienated school shooters,” but with the exception of crimes which are more accurately defined as pure cases of domestic violence (Patrik Jonsson does address domestic violence at length in his article), they are so rare that we can remember the incidents by name and place — perhaps fewer than one hundred spree killers in the past quarter-century, among nearly 500,000 murders and millions of violent gun crimes.  Spree killings are exceedingly rare: they tell us nothing about the economy, and they tell us nothing about American society, save that we need to stop denying the fact that some mentally ill people do turn violent because they are mentally ill, and we must never be less than vigilant in cases of domestic violence.

Yet criminologists are far more likely to appeal to overseas audiences by depicting American society as some explosive inbred offspring of the Wild West, where “going postal” is an everyday occurrence.  They cherry-pick rare cases of mass murder and find in them a convenient narrative for blaming “us all” and a subtle shorthand to impugn things they find suspect — rural men, gun-owners, blue-collar laborers.  Blood lust, they claim, lies at the heart of every American.  

Such generalized (yet selective) contempt is barely concealed — “vengeful ex-workers who decided to come back and get even with their boss . . . through the barrel of an AK-47” is hardly academic argot.  But the deeper you look into academia, the less surprising this type of language seems.


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