Inside the mind of a hate crime offender

BY ELLEN FUTTERMAN, EDITOR

Here’s what we know about people who commit hate crimes, based on the most recent Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics as well as from sociologists and criminologists who study these offenders:

• 61 percent are white

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• Most are young men, under the age of 25

• Most act alone

• Most are not officially affiliated with white supremacist or other hate groups, though many identify in some way and/or are familiar with their rhetoric

• 20 percent are black

• 37 percent intimidated their victim(s)

• 62 percent assaulted their victim(s)

• 63 percent committed vandalism

• Less than 1 percent murdered or raped their victim

Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University who has written extensively on the subject of hate crimes, says that many hate-crime offenders feel overwhelmingly powerless growing up. “Almost always he, and it is almost always a male committing these crimes, was seriously mistreated in childhood and been forced to suffer,” said Levin, who has published several studies on hate offenders with his Northeastern colleague, Jack McDevitt.

“He may feel inferior,” Levin continued. “As he grows up he may learn to compensate but often not in a socially acceptable way. He hates out of a profound need to feel good about himself and to feel powerful as a result of how he was treated as a child.”

These hate offenders, says Levin, often look for any minority to harm so that they can feel better about themselves. “If they can’t find someone Jewish, they would be glad to bash someone who is black or Muslim or gay or disabled or homeless,” said Levin.

Levin adds that hate is learned from an early age. “People learn hate and prejudice the way they learn society’s most cherished values,” he said.

“There is learned hate, but then there is another kind of hate that is pathological. These people make hate their life’s mission.” Often, these “mission haters” are members of organized hate groups or at least identify with these groups and have flirted with becoming members, he explained.

“We’re talking about individuals who are extremely paranoid, and delusional, blaming every problem they have on Jews or blacks or other groups they dislike. It destroys their lives.

“They are consumed with hatred and a desire to annihilate an entire community of people. Often, they will commit a hideous act or acts against members of a group and spend the rest of their life in prison.”

Abuse alone is not enough

While Levin indicates the “mission hater” is a rarity, the description would certainly fit Joseph Paul Franklin, who is awaiting execution at the Potosi Correctional Center for the 1977 sniper attack at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI) synagogue, which left one man dead and two others wounded, among other hate-related crimes.

Although it’s been 14 years since she has had any contact with him, Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis remembers Franklin well. Lewis is a psychiatrist and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University. She testified in St. Louis in 1996 about Franklin’s competency to stand trial for the BSKI attack. Lewis, who at the time was a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, said she told the court that based on her examinations, Franklin was a paranoid schizophrenic, delusional and in no mental shape to stand trial.

Eventually, the judge rejected Lewis’ arguments and the trial went ahead, with Franklin representing himself.

Lewis has spent a career examining hundreds of murderers, including 22 serial killers, and trying to figure out what accounts for their criminal behavior. She’s interviewed Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon; serial killers Ted Bundy and Arthur Shawcross, who strangled about a dozen prostitutes in the late 1980s; and John Allen Muhammad, the so-called “Beltway Sniper.” And she examined Joseph Paul Franklin.

She was the subject of a 1997 New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell and she is about as expert as you get in knowing how childhood violence, injuries, illnesses and disorders effect the human brain.

But she’s the first to admits that even with all the hands-on interviewing, studying and analyzing she and her collaborators have done, she still doesn’t have a clear enough picture when it comes to understanding why certain particularly vicious criminals commit multiple murders.

“One of the reasons I haven’t written on serial killers is that though I’ve seen 22 of them, in looking at our data and trying to figure out how they are or are not different, we still don’t know,” she said in an interview last week. “A lot of killers we see could be serial killers had they not been caught before there were able to kill again and again.”

Lewis recalls talking to Franklin in prison and finding a lot out about his mother that confirmed a highly abusive childhood. What Lewis does feel very strongly about is that some combination of abusive childhood, brain dysfunction or injuries and psychosis work together to create notorious violent criminal behavior.

“Abuse alone in childhood is not enough,” she said. “Sure, there are exceptions, but if you scratch the surface with these offenders, you’ll find a very serious mental illness or illnesses.”

She added: “We do know that stressors change the anatomy of the brain. Abused children pour out cortisol, secreted by the adrenal glands, which damage the brain.”

Thrill-seekers and defensive offenders

By the nature of her research, Lewis deals with only the most violent and most psychologically disturbed criminals. To be sure, Franklin – a serial killer and hate offender – is by no means not representative of hate offenders in general.

Indeed, Levin, the criminologist, says the majority of people who commit bias-motivated crimes are bored or idle teenagers and young adults. Because of peer pressure and pact mentality, they find themselves part of a larger group and get caught up in committing a hate crime.

“Friendship means everything to them. Many have self-esteem issues,” said Levin. “There may be four or five of them in a group where only one, usually the leader, is a sadist, and he will inspire the others. They are not haters but they don’t want to risk going against the group and being rejected by their friends.”

He adds that often juveniles who initiate hate acts do so because they are want to experience a quick thrill or brag about what they have done to their friends. “Sometimes they see the opportunity and seize it,” he said. “In other cases, it may be premeditated.”

Another, smaller group of offenders fall into the “defensive” category, says Levin, explaining that they are motivated by a need to protect their way of life. “Something or someone sets them off and they feel the need to retaliate or defend themselves,” said Levin. “They tend to be people, usually middle-aged white men, who do not respond well to change.”

Still, says Levin, since most hate crimes are committed by young men, teaching them to rely on one another could change things. “We cannot afford to leave opportunities for cooperation to chance,” he said. “We need structured opportunities to bring young people together from different groups in the spirit of cooperation and harmony. They need to see each other as allies rather than opponents.”