Of human bondage: Humboldt’s underworld

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 (or 33) times with daggers.

Hoopa mother-of-three Dorothy Evelyn Ulrich died from about 60 slashing strokes with a samurai sword.

NewsAnalysisFrom the Ides of March to the present, from political murder to homegrown slayings, civilization asks why human beings take each other’s lives.

The millennial puzzle will capture public attention again in January when the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office issues its annual report on the number of local homicides and suicides. At the current rate, 2015 threatens to set a homicide record for the second year running. The public and the press will search for answers. Frustration will result. “No question has so stubbornly resisted explanation,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes in Why They Kill. “Religions, ideologies and every discipline or science that touches on human behavior have offered answers – theories invoking moral, supernatural, behavioral, social, neurological or genetic causes. None of these well-known theories credibly and authoritatively explains the violent crimes you and I follow in the news every day.”FacebookLikeButton.THISONE

The ultimate existential act between two people eludes explanation despite the popular notion that murderers are abnormal, deranged, dysfunctional or maladjusted individuals, misfits, outliers and outcasts. Very different from innocent us, in other words.

Thus we find the fictional deviant Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s box office hit, Psycho. The Bates character was portrayed as a victim of severe emotional abuse at the hands of a mother who was sexually neurotic.

University of Texas researcher David Buss begs to differ. Most murderers, he claims, are everyday people like you and me. “Though we may like to think that murderers are either pathological misfits or hardened criminals, the vast majority of murders are committed by people who, until the day they kill, seem perfectly normal.”

This echoes Freud’s famous dictum, “The normal person has yet to be found and when found, cured.”

Buss collected data on the prevalence of murder fantasies in a study with 5,000 respondents, data that appear to bear Freud out. The results were decisive: 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had entertained “at least one clear fantasy about committing murder.”

Yet it strains common sense, Rhodes argues, to imagine that people are born to violence when rates of violence differ from group to group, nation to nation, culture to culture and age to age.FacebookLikeButton.THISONE

Blaming brain damage explains little “when most people with damaged brains are not violent.”

There are so many exceptions to the presumed understanding of murderous behavior, says Rhodes, that in fact we rely heavily on supposition in the midst of voluminous science.

He stands four-square against the received wisdom of psychiatry, psychology and sociology, spread everywhere by the mass media, that violent behavior is explained by stock phrases like “senseless murder,” “explosive outburst” or “s(he) just snapped.”

In a chapter titled “Conscious Constructions,” Rhodes offers an alternative line of reasoning that Special Prosecutor Paul D. Sequeira underscored in his successful case against convicted murderer Jason Anthony Warren: that killers devise their acts fully cognizant of what they do. They make a conscious decision to act violently.

Rhodes agrees. “Murders are never senseless from the murderer’s point of view.”

Although psychologists attribute murders to trivial or unimportant motives, they are still motives that inform criminal acts, Rhodes contends. “Violent criminals do not ‘snap’ but make decisions and act on them.”

Those decisions may take only a few seconds, as Sequeira explained to the Warren jury. But the violence is still a deliberative, premeditated act, even if it appears instantaneous. The brain functions at light speed or faster.

Rhodes cites extensive research showing that violent criminals go through a series of mental steps before their attacks. The perpetrator first assesses his victim’s attitude and what that attitude “means.” He “chats” with himself momentarily, comparing the attitudes of important people in his life that he previously internalized with the attitude of his putative victim. He then decides if hostile action is warranted and if it is (in his view), he kills.

At first glance, this analysis supports the classical conservative principle of  personal responsibility.

Yet Rhodes maintains that civic communities and their dark subcultures, like Humboldt’s drug-crime-poverty underworld, are directly complicit in social breakdown.

“Criminal violence emerges from social experience, most commonly brutal social experience visited upon vulnerable children, who suffer for our neglect of their welfare and return in vengeful wrath to plague us.

“If violence is a choice they make and therefore their personal responsibility,” Rhodes concludes, “our failure to protect them from having to make such a choice is a choice we make, just as a disease epidemic would be implicitly our choice if we failed to provide vaccines and antibiotics.

“Such a choice – to tolerate the brutalization of children as we continue to do – is equally violent and equally evil, and we reap what we sow.”

What does hardscrabble Humboldt County sow? Close to 27 percent of its children (to age 17) live below the poverty line (2009-2013), an indeterminate number of them in appalling housing conditions with a single parent who is a hardened addict.

In some pockets at sub-county level, the prevalence of poverty among children under five is a staggering 54 percent.

Humboldt’s countywide poverty rate (20.4 percent) is worse than all of California’s (15.9 percent), 2009-2013.

The figures point to human bondage and its trans-generational consequences, as foretold in the Old Testament. The Lord “will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

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One Comment;

  1. setnaffa said:

    Maybe the “wisdom” of allowing drug gangs to flourish and blocking or driving larger employers from Humboldt County can be reexamined in this light. maybe if the folks were employed, they’d have the money to take care of their kids and the self-respect that comes from NOT being a ward of the State? Maybe the kids of single-parents would have both parents if there was more value placed on both marriage, abstinence, and less on leisure, comfort, and abortion of “inconvenient” kids.

    I’m no one to judge anyone else. I’m as guilty a sinner as anyone I know (and more than most); but sometimes after stepping in something smelly you just want to warn others to get back off the grass onto the sidewalk… some things you can’t fix with a mumbled apology and a monthly check.

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