Thursday, June 21, 2012

The criminal, the narcissist

The literary archetype

In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky’s aspiring criminal Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov tests his theory that the world exists only to serve the needs of a few exceptional men, to lift them to great heights and achievements. Raskolnikov convinces himself that laws apply only to average men, and not to those of his own intelligence and willpower:
[The extraordinary men] all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities...[I]f such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood...
To test his extraordinary man theory, Raskolnikov plans to murder a pawnbroker, presumably to use her money for good purposes. I won’t spoil the results of his experiment. But this narcissistic attitude, this sense of being above others and excepted from all rules and laws, seems to be universal among real criminals, leading me to think back to this character often.

The "right to crime"

White collar criminals, as mentioned in a past post, exhibit narcissism in spades. Warning signs of workplace violence, according to the study discussed, include a sense of entitlement and egocentric behavior. These offenders believe they are entitled to commit fraud, and feel victimized when challenged - much in the way that one teenage armed robber interviewed by psychologist Stanton Samenow believed he was the only real victim of his crime, since he was the one incarcerated.

The criminal act itself can betray a narcissistic perspective. Take the case of Thomas Lagenbach, a VP in a prestigious software company, charged with stealing discounts on Lego sets at Target stores by switching the barcodes on boxes. He not only resold sets on eBay at full price, but assembled many and put them on display in his own home. They would have served as visual reminders of successful burglaries, trophies in plain sight. Police found bags of bar codes at his home and in his car. It may seem remarkable that someone in a position with so much to lose would flaunt his crime so carelessly, not even bothering to take simple steps to avoid detection.

From breaking rules to breaking laws

The conveniences of technology, in addition to making life easier for law abiding folks, have made it easier to commit crime and for educated criminals in positions of trust to believe they are untouchable. This bar code scam serves as a good example. Stores are only able to catch offenders by carefully comparing inventory with sales and reviewing surveillance tape. The criminal, on the other hand, can go through checkout and leave the store with a receipt for his stolen merchandise.

But the other angle to this story is that with easy crime comes easy excuses. Many people, not exclusively criminals, suffer from some degree of narcissism. They may simply like to be the center of attention, or they may break small rules to prove their special status. But in most cases to break a law means to cause harm to another person, which goes beyond attention-seeking.

There are at least two ways, however, in which a person with feelings of entitlement and superiority could potentially cross this line. The first is to deny that real harm was caused, and in cases of property crime this is an easy rationalization for offenders to make. Crimes against businesses may create even more emotional distance from the act of theft, since no single individual appears to be harmed by it.

A second is, frankly, to be a sadist as well as a narcissist. The desire to control someone physically, to compel them to act in a certain way, leads to many forms of violent crime - from spousal abuse, to rape and murder. This worship of violence turns pain inflicted on others and their submission into an affirmation of the criminal’s power. Violent criminals don't evade the harm they cause, but derive pleasure from it.

Changing perspective

Given the widespread assumption that crime is an attempt to overcome poverty or some form of injustice, it’s a wonder that crime persists in the face of its total failure to do those things. And there are many cases, such as with this Lego thief, in which there is no apparent injustice that the crime is aimed at overcoming. Instead the crime just appears to be an irrational escape, an act of pure self-destruction.

Alternatively, if you consider that crime persists because it often succeeds at acquiring something for the criminal, then your focus shifts. And one thing it acquires is a delusional state of freedom from morality, Raskolnikov's "right to crime", which is freedom from accountability not only for his behavior towards others, but from the accountability of acting in his own interests.

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