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Inside the offender’s head

To make society safer, we must understand the tortuous minds of criminals. Prasenjit Chowdhury writes.

india Updated: May 02, 2013 23:27 IST
Prasenjit Chowdhury
Prasenjit Chowdhury
Hindustan Times

Cesare Lombroso, the discredited Italian criminologist, physician, and founder of modern criminology in 1876 argued that the criminal is an ‘atavistic’ species, between modern and primitive humans. He argued that the physical shape of the head and face determined the “born criminal” and that these people were primitive, unable to adapt to modern morality. Lombroso believed ‘primitiveness’ could be read from the bodies and habits of such born criminals. According to him, people with glassy, blood-shot eyes, curly, abundant hair, strong jaws, long ears and thin lips were very likely to be murderers. A person with glinting eyes, strong jaws, thick lips, lots of hair and projecting ears, was liable to be a sexual offender.

But how could an unwary person know who is sick in the mind? Clinical psychopaths have physiological markers that can be seen in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex thought to be caused by a genetic flaw in the brain’s amygdala — and none can say how his mind has been shaped by nature and nurture. So, none can say if a monstrous looking neighbour is a stalker, or another cherubic-looking neighbour is a rapist, however much we are wired to fight shy of suspicious looking people. Psychopaths can often be superficially charming and glib.

The other day, when I saw the picture of Manoj Kumar Sah, a 25-year-old man accused of raping and brutalising a five-year-old girl in east Delhi, I was not trying to study his physiognomy a la Lombroso from his well-coiffed hair, his thick lower lip or his pencil moustache, but was trying to figure out what might have been his behavioural and psychological indicators that were left at the crime scene as a result of his physical, sexual and, in his verbal, interaction with his hapless victim — an area of academic study known as psychopathology. Criminal profiling is a process now known in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as criminal investigative analysis in which highly trained and experienced law enforcement officers study every behavioural aspect and detail of an unsolved violent crime scene in which a certain amount of psychopathology has been left at the scene.

Charles Patterson in his book Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust argued that if the essence of humanity was defined as consisting of a specific quality or set of qualities, such as reason, intelligible language, religion, culture, or manners, it followed that anyone who did not fully possess those qualities was “subhuman”. It is about time to think about what can be done to those judged less than human? Are they to be curbed, domesticated, and kept docile, or as predators or vermin to be eliminated?

What led the six rapists to cause grave injuries to a 23-year-old woman on the fateful night of December 16, 2012, in which the youngest and the most brutal attacker had not only sexually abused his victim twice, but also inserted a rod into her ripping out her intestines? As the horror of the Noida (or Nithari) serial murders of 2005 and 2006 made clear, it is important to profile violent crimes to prevent psychopaths like Surender Koli lurking by the wayside.

Experts suggest that violent crimes such as homicides, sexual assaults, kidnappings, extortions, bombings, product tampering and threats can be profiled only if residual offender psychopathology can be identified. Faced with crimes that betray a pathological degree of brutality, unfortunately little of which is, one can guess, coming to the light of day, we perhaps need more psychopathologists to know the concourse of the tortuous minds of the criminals.

Prasenjit Chowdhury is a Kolkata-based commentator

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 02, 2013 23:22 IST