Randolph Roth

 

On his book American Homicide

Cover Interview of August 29, 2010

A close-up

Historically, only a small minority of murders of unrelated adults have had their origins in long-term, hostile relationships.  People who killed non-relatives who lived with them—boarders, landlords, slaves, servants, masters, mistresses—had deep-seated, personal reasons for doing so.  Killer and victim were bound together emotionally, interacted with each other almost daily, and could not easily sever ties.  The vast majority of murders committed by women have always been personal.

However, in the vast majority of homicides of non-relatives in both America and Western Europe there was no long-term, hostile relationship between murderer and victim.  The violence wasn’t generated by the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator.  The killers were already predisposed to violence.  They were already prepared to view people as enemies or rivals or prey.

The strength and prevalence of that predisposition determines whether men in a given society are homicidal or non-homicidal, whether they are emotionally prepared to be violent at the slightest provocation or whether they refrain from violence even if they are brutalized or humiliated.

Where does the predisposition to violence come from?  What causes men to be so alienated that they can kill passersby for money or sex?  What causes men to view every encounter with another man as having the potential to be a life-and-death struggle for supremacy or self-preservation?

The predisposition to violence is not rooted in objective social conditions.  Men who are poor, oppressed, or unemployed can be disposed to violence in one historical situation and nonviolence in another.  The same is true of men who are well-off.  The predisposition to violence is rooted in feelings and beliefs.