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The Process of Violentization

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Created: May 11, 2001
Latest update: May 13, 2001

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

by Richard Rhodes

Review and Teaching Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2001. Fair use "encouraged."

This essay is based on Richard Rhodes' Why They Kill. Vintage Books, Division of Random House, 1999. ISBN: 0-375-70248-2

Lonnie Athens suggests that it is no easier to become a violent perpetrator than it is to become a hero. It takes courage. At p. 127-8 of Why They Kill we find:

"But it takes more than a violent resolution to become violent, Athens cautions at the beginning of his discussion of the third stage of violentization: violent performances. 'Intentionally injuring another human being gravely for the first time in one's life is not as casual a matter as those who have not seriously contemplated, much less performed, such action might believe.' . . . Athens concludes from personal experience as well as extensive investigation, it takes courage to cross that portentous barrier, because attaching someone with potentially deadly force puts the subject's own 'physical safety, freedom and psychological well-being' at risk. So the question the brutalized and newly belligerent subject now asks himself, Athens writes, is 'When the time finally comes, will I be able to hurt somebody bad or not?' "

Lonnie Athens has worked for many years on understanding how some people become violent while others do not. He describes this process as one of violentization, in which people are first brutalized into learning that they will not be protected by the system responsible for them, that they must brutalize others or be brutalized themselves, and finally, through the performance of such brutalization they become violent perpetrators themselves. In the following section, I have summarized the process of violentization as Richard Rhodes describes it in Why They Kill, the biography of Lonnie Athens, whom Richard Rhodes calls "a maverick criminologist."

Lonnie Athens is a product of the violent underclass, but many of his university professors considered him one of their brightest students. He suffered violence and knows it at first hand. Thus, Athens was not satisfied by empirical studies that reported statistical results over categories. He wanted qualitative data; he wanted the stories of those who had committed violent crimes; he wanted to know what they felt; what they had experienced. He wanted to know why they became violent, when he did not.

In this excerpt we have outlined briefly the violentization process as Lonnie Athens discerned it from interviews conducted with violent convicted prisoners who were incarcerated.

Lonnie Athens sees the social process of violentization as occurring in four stages: (at pp. 112 - 140 of Rhodes, Why They Kill.)

  1. Brutalization Stage:
  2. This is the stage in which the subject is first forced into subjugation by a member of his/her primary group. We would like you to consider, at this stage, the extent to which the subject has

    1. Violent subjugation: the subject must comply with an order or face physcial or verbal force, up to and including violence. (at p. 112) In coercion, the violence ends upon submission. In retaliation, the violence does not end upon submission, the authority figure continues with the violence to gain long-term submission and/or respect. Athens speaks of this as denying the "precious luxury" of "choosing when to end the assault by submitting."

    2. Personal horrification: the subject must experience the violent subjugation of a member of his/her primary group --- "mother, sister or brother or a very close friend." Builds conflict in that the subject begins to feel guilt behind the helplessness.

    3. Violent coaching: someone appoints himself/herself as the coach who insists that the subject must defend himself/herself, depend only on himself/herself, and that it is their "personal responsibility which they cannot evade, but must discharge regardless of whether they are a man or a woman, young or old, large or small, or what their prior beliefs . . . about hurting others may have been.

      Means of coaching vary, and there may be more than one coach at a time.

      Methods include:

      1. Vainglorification, which "glorifies violence through storytelling
      2. Ridicule, which "promotes violence through belittling and derision."
      3. Coercion. "Some coaches threaten novices not with psychological punishment, as in ridicule, but with physical punishment." "Stand up and fight, or I'll beat you myself."

    4. Belligerency Stage:
    5. (at pp. 125-128, Why They Kill)

      1. Takes personal responsibility for stopping the brutalization.

        "Why have I not done anything to stop my own and my intimates' violent subjugation?"

        "His problem finally becomes fully crystallized in his mind, " Athens comments. The subject understands clearly for the first time that he must find a way to stop people from brutalizing him. . . .It is as if the subject . . . has only now heard what his coach had been telling him all along: Resorting to violence is sometimes necessary in this world."

      2. Emotionally-laden step.

        "For the brutalized subject to determine for the first time in his life 'to attack other people physically who unduly provoke him, with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them,' Athens writes, is a "deeply emotion-laden resolution."

      3. First step is mitigated by provocation and precaution.

        "The brutalized subject resolves to . . . use serious violence---but with an important qualification: he resolves to use serious violence only if he is seriously provoked and only if he thinks he has a chance of prevailing."

      4. First mitigated violent resolution.

        Marks end of belligerency stage.

    6. Violent Performances
      1. Building confidence in his/her own violent performance.

        Athens make clear that it takes more than a resolution to be violent. Actual violence is frightening and dehumanizing. The subject who makes a first violent resolution must wants to be sure that if and when he/she is called upon to engage in violent acts that he/she will be able to do so, and that there is some probability of outcome other than irretrievable loss and the resultant terrible subjugation.

        In initial violent performances the outcome is uncertain, the subject himself/herself is unsure of his ability to inflict the harm his violence coach has convinced him will end the violent subjugation. The subject does not lightly undertaken this violent performance, for he/she understands that if he/she is unsuccessful, the resulting subjugation will be worse.

      2. Top levels of provocation for initial performances.

        To that end subjects generally require the top two of four levels Athens describes of provocation: either "actions that purposely and cruelly antagonize the subject to the point of tormenting him," or "actions that place the subject or someone about whom [he] cares in imminent danger." (at. p. 128, Why They Kill.)

      3. The violent personal revolt.

        "Athens writes: 'the protagonist is always a current subjugator of the subject or of a loved one of the subject. Since the subject is seeking to thwart either his own or a loved one's violent subjugation, his act is one of outright defiance against a perceived evil oppressor. If the subject wins, oppression may cease, but he understands that if he loses, 'his oppression may become far harsher.' " Such a defeat could discourage the subject from continuing on the path of violentization, or could so deepen his belligerence and confirm him/her in that path.

      4. Publication of the violent performance.

        "But a notable violent performance will not 'by itself have any lasting or significant impact' on the subject, Athens emphasizes. For lasting impact the subject needs to comprehend the full significance of his success."

        Athens adds: "the job of impressing the subject with the full significance of his successsful violent action is gladly performed by other people who, for whatever reason, always seem to take a perverse interest and pleasure in violence---all the more so when they know the offender or victim."

      5. Reputation as "dangerous" and "crazy" now bruited about. Rhodes suggests that this stage is akin to modern "celebrity," even though Athens doesn't use that term. (at p. 133 of Why They Kill.)

    7. Virulency
    8. At this point, the subject discovers the advantage of being "famous" even if the fame is "notoriety." He becomes, says Athens, "overly impressed with his violent performances and ultimately with himself in general."

      1. Vainglorification

        Filled with feelings of exultancy, he concludes that since he performed this violent feat, there is no reason why he cannot perform even more impressive violent feats in the future. The subject much too hastily draws the conclusion that he is now invincible."

        Most people will not disabuse him of his arrogance, for to them he is "dangerous." Thus, he is permitted to continue in his vainglorification.

      2. Subject makes a new violent resolution.

        "He now firmly resolves to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them for the slightest or no provocation whatsoever. . . . He has suddenly been emboldened and made venomous at the same time. . . . The subject is ready to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or killing them with minimal or less than minimal provocation on their part." Says Rhodes, "that is, he is ready to become an ultraviolent criminal."

      Athens' Conclusion

      "Any person who does ultimately complete the virulency stage, and consequently the entire experiential process, will become a dangerous violent criminal. This remains the case regardless of the social class, race, sex or age and intelligence of people, as long as their degree of mental and physical competence is sufficient for them to performa a violent criminal act."

      Then way do men have demonstrably higher rates of violent crime than women? To what is that attributable? Athens says that women have simply been discriminated in the selection and coaching of violent behavior. On that note, consider the May 2001 story of two young women, twins, who were ejected from an airplane for their violent behavior.