Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Serial killer chic and the lies of the administrative state (UPDATED)

It is one of the perverse ironies of our age that the popular interest in serial killers was driven, in part, by the FBI. The Bureau, in a real sense, served as a press agent for these perverse monsters.

The serial killer “menace” was hyped by the FBI at a time when its mission was shrinking and its reputation was in tatters. At just that moment, the FBI discovered a new threat to America and its children.

As the FBI told it, dozens, maybe over a hundred, relentless killers roamed our highways and stalked our neighborhoods. They crossed state lines which made it almost impossible for local police to stop them. They were smart amd could evade conventional police work.

Fortunately, America had an organization that was ready, willing, and able to take on this scourge. The Federal Bureau of Investigation could operate nationally, their labs were cutting edge, their computers would make linkage blindness a thing of the past.

Best of all, they even had an elite cadre – the Behavioral Science Unit – that had made a special study of this type of criminal. The Bureau, it seemed, was the only law enforcement agency in the country with serial killer experts.

How fortuitous.

As Phillip Jenkins noted “the FBI was in effect making a power grab, claiming jurisdiction over crimes which were beyond its legal scope, and this could only be achieved by presenting the offenders as itinerant, and therefore violating state boundaries.” In doing so they were doing what they had always done. In the 1930s it was “automobile bandits” and kidnappers. Then Nazi spies, then Russian spies.

Times changed but the song remained the same. The FBI was always ready to hype any menace and jump on any bandwagon if that led to bigger budgets and more power for the Bureau.

Quite literally the FBI wrote the template for the growth of the administrative state. Hoover and the DOJ saw the war on John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd as a means of promoting the New Deal and the benefits of federal power.

The War on Crime would become a centerpiece of Roosevelt's push to centralize many facets of American government. It would be a focal point of his State of the Union Address in January. Thus a little known bureau of the Justic Department became a cutting edge of Roosevelt's New Deal policies. If Hoover and his neophyte agents could defeat "name brand" gangsters, it would be immediate and tangible evidence of the new Deal's worth.

The image of the serial killer that the Feds crafted in the 1980s was adopted by fiction writers and journalists alike. This is not surprising; public relations and image management have always been a core competence of the FBI. It may be the thing it does best.

"A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day."
--Scott Shane (New York Times reporter)
Journalists writing against deadline needed experts and statistics to write their stories. The FBI had a near monopoly on both. In the 1980s and 1990s there were almost no outside experts who could challenge the official orthodoxy.

For novelists and screenwriters like Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs), the Bureau offered access, a chance to add verisimilitude to stories, the opportunity to suggest that a work of the imagination was laden with inside dope and closely-held secrets. Most importantly, the “mindhunters” of the BSU had already crafted their histories in a fiction-friendly form.

Philip Jenkins:

The experts who gained the widest acceptance did so not because of their academic credentials, but because of their personal narratives of traveling to the heart of darkness that is the mind of the 'monster among us'. This is the language of shamanism rather than psychology.
This created an odd, even perverse dynamic. The BSU could make itself look good by exaggerating the skill, cunning, and intelligence of the criminal.

It takes a special kind of hero to catch catch genius criminals like Hannibal Lector....

Only a few brave souls have dared to point out several obvious but often ignored facts.

Like the fact that the FBI has an abysmal record catching actual serial killers. Or even identifying that a serial killer is at work. Or that most serial killers do not roam across state lines but instead operate close to home.

The killers, when finally caught, never live up to the FBI-created image. BTK was evil but no genius and Samuel Little was a small time criminal.

The press is rarely interested for more than a day when a criminal profile turns out to be radically wrong. (Remember the wild goose chase for a white man in a white van during the DC sniper spree?)

A reporter on the FBI beat runs great risks delving into these sorts of questions. Life is easier if the FBI takes your calls.

In 1992 Robert Ressler, one of the first of the FBI's “Mindhunters” warned America that the serial killer menace would turn our streets into a real life “Clockwork Orange”. When, instead, murder rates fell for over two decades, he was never asked to explain his failed prediction. It wasn't as if the press did not have the opportunity-- he gave interviews as he toured to promote his string of books on his heroic fight against human monsters.

FBI profilers are still treated as uniquely skilled experts even though their record in catching actual serial killers is weak. Luck still plays a larger role than FBI expertise. DNA has been the game changer not the pseudoscience of the BSU.

Thus, the press becomes an enabler of the bureaucracy. It eagerly hypes the panics that lead to large budget and more laws. It is much less interested in assessing the performance of the agencies on an on-going basis. The watchdog can be turned into a lap dog with a little access and a good narrative.

Hoover blazed a trail, not just for the FBI but for all the ambitious federal bureaucrats who came after him.

UPDATE (12/5/22): There is a new biography of Hoover out. Eli Lake interviewed the autho for his podcast.
The author highlights that Hoover's FBI was the avatar for the ideal of progressivism: power in the hands of dispassionate experts who were beyond the control of politicians.

Hoover believed in the administrative state—in the power of independent bureaucrats.

The New Criterion has a lengthy and insightful review of the book:

Federal foes


Tuesday, November 29, 2022

The trouble with True Crime: Assassins and serial killers

While history ignores the assassin, justice at least has it that no assassin can become more famous than his victim. By way of proof, who can recall, off-hand, the identities of those who killed Thomas à Becket, or Mahatma Gandhi?
Brian McConnell, The History of Assassination
It is good that this is so. We should remember and celebrate builders , not destroyers. That seems to be a very basic requirement for a healthy society.

David Gelernter:

What matters is our communal response to the crime. Evil is easy, good is hard, temptation is a given; therefore, a healthy society talks to itself.

Such ritual denunciations strengthen our good inclinations and help us suppress our bad ones. We need to hear them, and hear good acts praised, too. We need to hear the crowd (hear ourselves) praising good and denouncing evil.

So what should we make of popular true crime? Here, the victims are almost forgotten and nearly nameless. The killer is the star, often gifted with a headline-grabbing nom de guerre which adds a touch of unearned glamour to their infamy.

Simone Weil:

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.
Popular true crime follows popular fiction. Mindhunter is Silence of the Lambs with a patina of history and a large dose of truthiness.

We draw so many of our ideas about the world from what we see in the mass media and mass culture. One of the most disturbing aspects of this is the manner in which serial killers are often glorified and glamorized--through a process in which they are depicted as Super Males, even Supermen....Dr. Hannibal Lecter bears no resemblance to the defective, limited, unfeeling, and ungifted persons who are the overwhelming majority of multiple killers.
Elliott Leyton, Hunting Humans
Bundy, Dahmer and Gacy are dead and yet they are the stars of movies and streaming documentaries. They are celebrities in the truest sense of the word.

Aaron Haspel:

In an age of almost unimaginable abundance, celebrity is the last scarce good. Is it any wonder that people pursue it, and proximity to it, so assiduously?
We know that for some killers posthumous celebrity is something they think about (The media's vile calculus: If it bleeds, it leads and leads to more blood .) More than one serial killer was willing to risk capture in order to grab press attention and notoriety.

Is this good for society? Or does it suppress the social immune system Gelernter writes about?

A crude culture makes a coarse people, and private refinement cannot long survive public excess. There is a Gresham's law of culture as well as of money: the bad drives out the good, unless the good is defended.
Theodore Dalrymple, Our Culture, What's Left of It

Friday, November 25, 2022

From the annals of regrettable forecasts

Prime Minister William Pitt, February 1792:

There never was a time in the history of this country when, from the situation in Europe, we might expect fifteen years of peace than we may at the present moment.
Within a few weeks Europe would be at war with Revolutionary France. Instead of fifteen years of peace, England endured over two decades of war and preparations for war.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Pondering: Learning from disaster

After the Fall of France and the retreat from Dunkirk, Winston Churchill moved quickly to avoid recriminations and focus the nation's attention on what lay ahead.

If we open a quarrel between the past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.
It was the right decision at the time. For Britain, the supreme crisis of the war was at hand. What was required was unity and focus on the tasks at hand.

Six weeks that saved the world
The US took a different tack after the Pearl Harbor disaster. The quarrel went on for years as investigation followed investigation. Though they never threatened the war effort, they did manage to harden party lines and distract the Republican base.

After Prussia was crushed by Napoleon in 1806, its army decided to risk the quarrel and set about to determine the causes of defeat.

Commissions of enquiry at the end of a war, especially one ending in defeat, are not uncommon. But the investigation'sscale and intensity were unprecedented at the time and may not have been equaled since. The commission began work toward the end of 1807 and continued until the summer of 1812.
Peter Paret, The Cognitive Challenge of War: Prussia 1806
The Prussian army benefited immensely from the effort. In less than a decade, a prostrate nation-- little more than a French satelite – was a vital part of the coalition which crushed Napoleon and sent him into exile.

A century later, the Prussians (Germans) did it again. Defeated in 1918, they interrogated the past to create the future.

[Hans] Von Seekt organized no fewer than 57 committees to study what really happened on the battlefield of 1918 in excrutiating detail. [He wanted] short, concise studies on the newly gained experiences of the war" especially "which new problems put forward by the war have not yet found a solution.
Williamson Murray, "Thinking About Revolutions in Military Affairs"

Whereas the Germans assigned experienced officers to analyze tactics -- the lowest ranking army officers assigned to tactical doctrine studies in 1919-1920 were experienced captains who had been admitted to full membership to the General Staff corps -- the British War Officer in 1920 assigned the task of rewriting the infantry tactical manual to Basil H. Liddell Hart, a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant of limited experience.
James C. Corum, The Roots of Blitzkrieg: Hans von Seeckt and German Military Reform

The French became too pedantic, too theoretical, and not practical enough; their doctrine was more suited for the classroom than for the battlefield. And in their classrooms, officers were not rewarded for being innovative; they were rewarded for absorbing huge amounts of information and learning to apply a series of fairly standard responses (one could almost call them formulas) to particular situations. Sadly for France, memory became a more precious quality for officers than judgment.
Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-39

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Saturday, November 19, 2022

Lincoln: Practical greatness

Die when I may, I would like it to be said of me that I always pulled up a weed and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.
Abraham Lincoln
No president ever faced greater challenges than Lincoln when he came into office in 1861.

No democracy had ever waged war on such a scale. No nation had ever before waged a modern war where mass armies, mass production, mass media, and machine transport came into play. Lincoln, unlike his opponent Jefferson Davis, had no military education, possessed little military experience, and had never held a policy-making position in Washington.

And yet, it was the ignorant neophyte Lincoln who guided his nation to victory.

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
Eric Hoffer, Reflections on the Human Condition
While Lincoln never lost sight of his goal of victory and reunion, he also stayed true to his chosen epitaph. The War President did not fail to plant flowers.

Lincoln asked for and got what Adam and Clay would have envied: internal improvements, including a railroad to the Pacific, the cheap sale for settlement of western public lands, subsidized state universities, a protective tariff, a centralized banking system, and even, while the war lasted, a federal income tax.
John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy
Gertrude Himmelfarb summed up Lord Acton's approach to writing history-- “Acton had the highest ideals and the most modest of expectations.” That assessment could just as readily apply to Lincoln and his statecraft. He lacked Napoleon's megalomania which eventually drove the Emperor into Russia and disaster. Nor did he have Wilson's unbending self-righteousness which turned potential allies into real enemies.
Lincoln: "Stand with anybody that stands RIGHT. Stand with him while he is right and PART with him when he goes wrong." Speech at Peoria, Illinois (October 16, 1854),
When Lincoln found Grant he found a kindred spirit and the fate of the Confederacy was sealed.

Grant seems a very modern man, with the problem-solving approach of a practical engineer. He can be imagined in charge of developing an oilfield; or sorting out a loss-making major industry. That cannot be said of Lee any more than of Washington or Wellington.
Correlli Barnett and The Lord Dannatt, Leadership in War: From Lincoln to Churchill