The Right Coast

August 20, 2005
The BTK killer, psychopathology and punishment
By Tom Smith

Even as these cases go, this is a pretty bad one. Like I suppose many people, these sorts of cases make me think there is a place for capital punishment, even in a civilized society. There is, of course, the sheer horror and scale of the crimes Rader committed. For depravity, it is hard to exceed torturing to death children, not to mention men and women, for sexual gratification.

Interestingly and appropriately, the prosecutors have asked that Rader be deprived of anything (such as writing or drawing materials) that would help him relive his murders. Sexually sadistic psychopathic killers commonly want to relive the excitement of their crimes. They will revisit crime scenes, store bodies and have necrophilic sex with them (sorry, but it's true -- indeed, this has been used by police as a trap to capture sexual predators), collect trophies and of course obsessively relive them in their imaginations. It seems quite reasonable to me to view the re-imagining of his horrible crimes, albeit just mentally, as additional harms that the murderer does to the victims' families. Indeed, this seems to me one of the best reasons to put people like Rader to death. It gives victims' families the consolation of knowing that the murderer is not sitting in his cell savoring his past crimes. One might say, if he wants to delight in his crimes, let him do it in hell. I am sure many people, like me, regret that Rader cannot be executed under Kansas law.

It seems fair to say that psychopathic sexually sadistic predators are not that well understood, but more is known about them than used to be. Several articles noted the strangeness of Rader's statement at sentencing in which he tried to humanize himself by drawing parallels between him and his victims. One of the boys he murdered had a dog. Rader had a dog as a child. One of the women he tortured and murdered liked to garden. He liked to garden. This sort of grotesquely inappropriate "moral" thinking is common in psychopaths, or so I have read. They typically have an emotional poverty and superficiality, and lack of empathy and conscience, that makes them unable to engage in moral and empathic talk without appearing ridiculous. It is like someone who does not speak French trying to do so, and coming out with ridiculous nonsense -- "Waiter, please boil the blue tractor and eat it for me." It is not much of an exaggeration, if it is one at all, to say it is like a monster pretending to be human, and failing when the context disfavors his imitation. Yet in other contexts, psychopaths can be extremely glib, smooth and persuasive. One suspects many sucessful con artists are psychopaths.

Not all psychopaths are sadistic sexual predators, though inappropriate sexual behavior, such as early and extreme promiscuity, is apparently common. Scarily enough, psychopaths can be quite sucessful, in business or politics for example. Though no expert, I find it hard to believe that the extreme depravity evinced by Rader and similar killers, comes about without either a marked genetic predisposition, some sort of organic brain trauma, or both. Rader, again typically, apparently hanged stray cats as a child, showing an early preference for strangulation. This is not something he got from watching TV or growing up in a mean, capitalist society. This was evil bred in the bone. Cruelty to animals in childhood is definite danger signal of psychopathy, something parents and teachers should take seriously indeed when they come across it. (The two others in the triad are setting fires and fighting with other children.)

It remains mysterious to me, however, and perhaps to psychologists, why there should be a way in which humans can go wrong, such that they end up wanting to torture and kill people for sexual gratification. But then, a lot of sexual perversions are very odd. But at least some are odd, but not so extremely evil. Creatures such as Rader leave one wondering, where does it come from? One wonders for a while, but then one must turn one's face away.