Is Your Kindly Neighbor a Serial Killer?

Sociopaths often seem nice and respectable. Should you be afraid of the man next door?

serial killer- body.jpg

Sebastian Anthony/Flickr

With social capital dangerously frayed, what does the Washington Post feature a week before Halloween? A former FBI profiler offering the following irrefutable syllogism. Most serial killers look nice and respectable. Your neighbor looks nice and respectable. Therefore your neighbor may be the next Jeffrey Dahmer.

The man sitting in front of Mary Ellen O'Toole was, she says, a well-mannered guy. "He was low-key. He was nice. He didn't swear." He was very proud of his work, which he described in polite, pleasant tones.

His name was Gary Ridgway. His other name was the Green River Killer. His work was killing at least 49 women in Washington state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He did it all while maintaining marriages, parenting and church-going, and he seemed very much the word neighbors often use to describe men who turn out to have headless torsos in their freezers. Which is to say, he seemed very, very nice.

I don't blame Mary Ellen O'Toole for seeing mild-mannered maniacs everywhere. Obviously, Ted Bundy wouldn't have gotten very far if he had looked like Boris Karloff. She has scientific support, too: at least one sociobiologist says we're all natural-born killers.And distrust of appearances may be a prerequisite for security work. To a store detective (as Ms. O'Toole once was) every customer must be a potential shoplifter; to a casino surveillance operator every gambler is a would-be chip thief. Remember the insurance analyst Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity to whom every claim was filled with "twisted hopes and crooked dreams?"

The problem with the logic of universal suspicion, though, is that it can so easily turn against the authorities themselves. If respectability aids criminality, what better place than in law enforcement itself, which we've seen in the Robert Philip Hannsen espionage case and the John Connolly, Jr. conviction.

Before you start peering into the Smiths' basement, consider that the higher the case's profile, the more controversial profiling has been. Ted Bundy had worked for law enforcement and anticipated its methods. Early Unabomber investigators reached contradictory hypotheses about the perpetrator. The bioterrorism researcher Steven J. Hatfill won a multimillion-dollar settlement for government leaks of unfounded accusations based on a profile. Scientific evidence reported in the Post itself casts doubt on the guilt of another scientist, Bruce Ivins, in the anthrax letters case, profile to the contrary.

Not that profiling is necessarily junk science. It just hasn't been strongly confirmed or disconfirmed, according to the American Psychological Association. The real question is not whether some profilers have been uncannily accurate but whether on balance successes outweigh false positives and misleading pictures.

Instead of seeing random serial killers over every fence, it would be far better to focus the real risk among decent people, the sudden killing of families, usually by fathers (often after financial triggers) but sometimes by mothers. And an average of five parents are murdered by their biological children in the US every week. So, if you choose to be afraid, you don't have to leave the comfort of home.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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