I realize I beat this like a dead horse the other day, but the experts are beating it like two dead horses, as evinced by this article in the Washington Post: “Some Link Economy With Spate of Killings.” The “some” mentioned here is the same “some” mentioned in the Christian Science Monitor, noted criminologist Jack Levin, along with fellow noted Northwestern criminologist James Alan Fox. But being noted doesn’t mean that you can’t be wrong. It’s utterly risible to lump together these 57 murders and attribute them to the economic crash. In fairness, it’s the journalist here who makes this claim, but Levin and Fox eagerly embroider on it:
Comparative statistics are difficult to come by, but during the past month alone, at least eight mass homicides in this country have claimed the lives of 57 people. Just yesterday, four people were discovered shot to death in a modest wood-frame home in a remote Alabama town.
The factor underlying the violence, some experts think, is the dismal state of the nation’s economy. Criminologists theorize that the epidemic of layoffs, the meltdown of storied American corporations and the uncertainty of recovery have stoked fear, anxiety and desperation across society and unnerved its most vulnerable and dangerous. . .
The simple fact, criminologist James Alan Fox said, is that more Americans are struggling.
“The American dream to them is a nightmare, and the land of opportunity is but a cruel joke,” said Fox . . . “The economic pie is shrinking to the point where it looks more like a Pop Tart and some feel all they’re getting is the crumbs. There’s a combination of feeling despair and hopelessness at the same time as a certain degree of anger and blame.”
Or, maybe not. Lovelle Mixon wasn’t searching for the economic Pop Tart in his sister’s closet, from where he slaughtered four police officers: he was trying to abscond from multiple crimes. And regarding those multiple crimes — to imply that he was forced to rape a little girl because he felt his career horizons weren’t overly broad and GM is tanking — well, that’s beyond contempt. It’s also just untrue.
But imagine how the conversation would go if a journalist were truly attempting to get to the truth of a situation:
Journalist: I’m doing a story on the link between the economy and recent mass killings.
Criminologist: Well, there’s definitely a link between the recent mass killings and the economy.
Journalist: Can I quote you?
Criminologist: Sure. The economic pie is shrinking to the point where it looks more like a cupcake. That makes people kill their estranged wives.
Journalist: Great. One more question. My editor says I have to count every multiple killing that happened this month to make the death toll look newsworthy. But I don’t understand how killing four cops as you’re trying to evade the police is related to the economy.
Criminologist: Read my new book.
OK, I admit it: this is an imaginary conversation. But is it really so different from the types of analysis that pass for news? Jiverly Wong, the Binghamton killer, has already been transformed in print into a “Vietnamese immigrant upset about losing his job.” Richard Poplawski, who gunned down three police officers in Pittsburgh, was a weapons nut who got himself kicked out of the Marines for assaulting an officer, but in the Washington Post he is merely “a gun enthusiast recently discharged from the Marine Corps.”
These people didn’t just watch their 401-K’s go up in smoke. And picking up a career-track job wouldn’t have made them any less psychologically unstable. Fighting with family members or ex-wives seems to have — in reality — triggered nearly all of these acts of violence.
Once you start fudging details to promote an ideology, however, it’s hard to stop. In Jack Levin’s case, that ideology is evident in books of his like Hate Crimes: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Bloodshed, which made the argument, in 1993, that a “tide” of organized hate groups were “taking our alienated youth by storm.” That didn’t happen: what was happening in 1993 was a rising tide of internecine street crime tied to the drug trade, which claimed many thousands of young lives. Nevertheless, thanks to efforts by Levin and others, the government began funneling vast amounts of money into the hate crimes movement, an expenditure that continues today, fifteen years after the “tidal wave” of such crimes failed to appear. What criminologists say matters. It costs money and steers crime policy — too often away from real problems, for one reason or another.
Saying that hate groups are threatening to take over society, or that enraged, laid-off employees are killing their bosses, is good for a headline: pointing out that four out of five workplace murders are the result of armed robbery just isn’t exciting (“Trends in Workplace Homicides in the U.S.,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine). Saying that the current economic crisis is awakening the innate rage that lies in the heart of every American will get you press: reminding people that the vast majority of the victims of workplace shootings are employees like cab drivers and convenience store clerks held up at gunpoint is yesterday’s news. Saying that the government must intervene now to prevent ordinary Americans from going postal will get you a place at the table: saying that this isn’t the time to start rolling back sentencing for robberies and burglaries, or the presence of cops who protect the predictable targets of workplace violence, will get you shown the door.
So-called ideological crime is sexy, at least to many criminologists and journalists. Acknowledging the continuing, weighty prevalence of “ordinary” street crime just offends sensibilities. Thus the hundreds of articles being churned out now making utterly insupportable claims about people stealing designer jeans or killing their family members because of the economy. It’s more bread and circuses than toaster treats.
Reading James Alan Fox’s Pop Tart postulation, I can’t help but to think of the infamous “Twinkie Defense” used by Dan White, the man who murdered San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk (I wonder if Fox, unconsciously, was remembering it too). White’s defense lawyer argued that he was driven to kill by the sugar-laden, processed foods he had taken to eating since quitting his job. His workplace crime bears some similarity to some of the real details of the 57 murders being attributed to the economy in the Washington Post today, except for this: people in 1979 didn’t buy the idea that Twinkies were responsible for Harvey Milk’s death.
The best rule of thumb may be to simply ignore the excuses and justifications made by homicidal maniacs who go on killing sprees. Everyone is mad about the economic collapse. But unless you have Bernie Madoff in your sights, something else is probably going on in your head.