Why Do We Kill?

A former Baltimore homicide detective and a reporter discussed their book Why Do We Kill? on a C-SPAN program.

It’s not clear to me that the authors ever answer the question that is posed in the title of their book: why do we kill? And if they do it’s the smaller pragmatic why’s of commonly known negative social factors of single-parent homes, bad schools, barriers to upward mobility, etc. But perhaps the point is precisely that there is no answer, that violence is as absurd as the murder of the Arab in Camus’s The Stranger. People kill for nothing:

“People kill because they’re angry over a slight. Frustrated over a hard look. Pissed off because somebody talked with their girl. They kill and will kill for nothing.”

Many of the brutal murders described are committed by teenagers, in a matter of fact way. It’s not a fearless anger or revenge that drives these murders. It’s much less dramatic than that. These are kids, stupid ignorant kids, who have no understanding of (and thus no value for) human life. They carry the ultimate responsibility for failing under the immense hopelessness of their environment. But once that is clear, ideas for solutions have to start flowing (along with funding). That’s a tough thing to ask for in this climate of budget ceiling debates.

0 thoughts on “Why Do We Kill?

  1. Jooyoung Lee

    This is one of my favorite research questions of all-time. While previously the intellectual terrain of psychologists (who argued about personality deficits and neurological imbalances as causes) and criminologists (who argued that a person’s social context would offer clues about why murder and other violence becomes normalized), sociologists have started to show why it’s absolutely necessary to understand how killing and other forms of violence unfolds in interaction.

    My dissertation chair in grad school, Jack Katz, wrote a book called “Seductions of Crime” that begins to unpack the question of “why people kill.” In a nutshell, he argues that when you examine murder, assaults, rapes, and other kinds of violent interpersonal crimes, you begin to see patterned ways that people are emotionally compelled to do violence. More recently, Randall Collins wrote a book entitled “Violence: A Microsociological Theory,” that builds on Katz’s work and looks at the interactional patterns that lead into, sustain, escalate, and defuse violence that occurs at multiple levels (e.g. schoolyard fights to civil wars).

    Neither are quick reads, and both are heavy on sociological jargon, but Katz and Collins provide a more systematic analyses of how murders happen. Many of the trade books on this topic tend to be sensational and analytically sloppy.


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