Digging Into the Roots of Crime. UCLA sociologist draws on five-year study to find emotional forces that motivate felons. INTERVIEW; JACK KATZ

FOR the past five years, Jack Katz, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been asking a very simple question: Why do people commit crime? He has compiled some obvious and many not-so-obvious answers in his book entitled ``Seductions of Crime: Moral and Sensual Attractions in Doing Evil.'' A brief interview with the author follows. Two different perspectives on the book - one by an expert in the field of criminal rehabilitation and the other by the Monitor's book editor - appear on the facing page.

Your book is being praised by critics and academics alike as a major advance in the theory of deviance - as capturing the subjective experience of ``doing'' street crime. But to the layman, the criminal's own mind sounds like the logical place to start. Why such a gap in the literature?

There has been an abandonment of faith in the last 20 years in the social programs of the '60s - in education, and employment opportunities, community organizations, and integration of youth into society that were tied to theories that said background factors - family, employment, environment - are the causes of crime.

Much of the literature [on crime] was mostly statistical, looking at [the criminal's] background, that had a lot of descriptive, qualitative work that hadn't been used to answer what criminals are trying to do and how they lead themselves to do it. I thought I had a historical opportunity to pull things together.

What is novel about your approach and the principles you have unearthed?

For five years, I looked very systematically at hundreds of cases, trying to see details - related by the criminals themselves, accomplices, witnesses, police reports - that indicated what the attraction of the [criminal] event was. With respect to street crime, there are a series of moral and sensual attractions that animate people toward crime, and they are not either utilitarian or materialistic considerations.

The motive is not just obtaining the money, or ``knocking off'' a relative for the inheritance, but rather an attraction to the actual acts of stealing and murdering?

Exactly. And the question became, how do people construct the emotional forces they then feel and then act on or allow to take them over. These forces are uniquely ours, they are our constructions, and yet we feel they are brought to us or pushed on us by external things. The answers tell us the prevailing ways of looking at motivation are in error.

Can you give us some key examples?

There's a real question in trying to understand how people who do stickups persist when you look at how little [money] they get out of it. Often they are making far more money selling drugs on the side. The answer is that they're fascinated with being hard men, that is to say with living a life of chaos that they can override by walking into a situation, freezing it, and taking over. [Stickup men] are fascinated with their sense of transcending the chaos, of getting away without penalty, in overwhelming a situation to be the superman.

What adolescents are typically trying to do when they shoplift, vandalize, or steal cars for joy rides I label simply ``the sneaky thrill.'' They do something they know others see as deviant to surmount the challenge just to play out the game, demonstrate personal competence.

I also have a chapter that explains the attractions of street toughs to being mean as the way of showing power to peers.

Can you think of any well-known examples of crime that illustrate your point?

Bernard Goetz [the so-called ``subway vigilante''] took advantage of what I call the ``humiliation ceremony'' his attackers were going through before they asked for his money. If all they wanted was to rob the guy, they would've said, ``This is a robbery, give us all your money.'' But they wanted, I think, to abuse his civility with insults and pushing him around - which gave him the time and opportunity to shoot them.

Your chapter on ``primordial evil and senseless murder'' also highlights a famous case, the murders described in Truman Capote's ``In Cold Blood.'' Could you describe what you are getting at in that title?

It describes the kind of murders that are senseless in the sense of no motive for gain, and not done in rage or by a crazy person. Beyond the simple power plays [these criminals make] by appearing ready to do the most terrible things, these killers often have private mythologies.

They often fashion themselves as some primitive god like in the Old Testament or Greek mythology, where if you looked at certain gods you were destroyed. So they give this kind of stare that gives you the sense that if you look at them, you are going to be destroyed. You needn't do them any other offense. Their actions don't have to make sense to anyone else, because they are just demonstrating their superiority, which everyone else merely has to accept and which only they understand.

Given this new light on the sensual attractions in doing evil, what are the implications for parents, schools, police, and penal institutions?

The thrust of this book is in part to say we should not link social programs to an attempt to cure crime. If we do, we are going to be disappointed, because the motivations to [commit] crime are not specifically economic. [The book] isn't an argument against employment or education programs, but against linking them to claims that the programs are going to reduce deviance or crime rates.

What are the implications, then, of these new insights?

I don't see any necessary revision in criminal treatment procedures - either harsher or more lenient - or in the system of criminal-justice administration.

[The book] does suggest, though, that capital punishment, for instance, is a false issue, because the really serious criminal faces death from people like himself day in and day out.

What about dealing with the gang problem, for instance, here in Los Angeles?

If we realize, for example, that gang kids are fascinated with being street elites, with parading around, and that they're trying to create a culture they can be fascinated with and involved in - and violence grows from this - you begin to pause about the typical answers like mass police arrests and other strong-arm tactics.

You've also extrapolated this theory to include nation-states acting in the international arena as individuals?

I'm suggesting there may be chaos in our American military policy because we're losing power - not as the left would say, ``we are protecting capitalist interests in the third world,'' or the right, ``because communists are threatening our way of life'' - but that we need occasional symbolic displays of power, like the hard men that ritualize their drama on the streets.

Could you describe what you mean by the term ``determinism'' as it pops up frequently throughout the book? Does the term affirm or deny the individual as a free moral agent?

What I'm doing uniquely here is looking at the ways criminals create worlds that fascinate them, which are different in different parts of society. I'm opening up human agency and cultural creativity as something to focus on to understand why people commit crime.

We are fundamentally moral beings, in that we're working out moral dimensions and concerns, and we're also sensual beings. When we find something fascinating, like a line of work or an idea, it's not because we first figure out it will pay off materially. We just act naturally day to day as we take each step to the next idea.

See a related religious article, ``Forgiving the Unforgivable,'' on Page 17.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Digging Into the Roots of Crime. UCLA sociologist draws on five-year study to find emotional forces that motivate felons. INTERVIEW; JACK KATZ
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today