June 27, 2005

"If you've read much about serial killers..."

I have never seen anything more horrific on television than the 9/11 attacks. The shocking, spectacular images of fire and collapse are deeply imprinted on my brain. But in a different way, the appearance of Dennis Rader on television this morning was unbearably horrible. Here was this neatly groomed man, speaking in a rational-sounding calm voice, detailing the ten, coldly planned and executed murders he committed over his years as the "BTK" murderer. At one point he spoke of himself from a detached, third-person perspective:
"If you've read much about serial killers, they go through what they call different phases. In the trolling stage, basically, you're looking for a victim at that time. You can be trolling for months or years, but once you lock in on a certain person, you become a stalker. There might be several of them, but you really hone in on one person. They basically become the ... victim. Or, at least that's what you want it to be."
How can a person who would do such things tell all of the details without showing any sense of pain or sorrow or regret? This man is beyond evil, not even feeling sorry for his own miserable condition or showing any sign of an inner anger that pushed him over the edge. To watch him was to feel thoroughly confounded. How can that be a human being -- even the most evil human being? How can anyone be like that?


JLP said...

I grew up in Wichita during his "reign." He sure had everyone in town worried. It's amazing and scary that he made it as long as he did without getting caught.



knoxgirl said...

I saw some of this... at one point he actually used the term "putting them down" --like you would an animal--in reference to killing a family. Freak.

JLP said...


Raider worked for the city and actually was responsible for stray animals. That's probably where he got the term.

But you're right, he is a FREAK!



Goesh said...

He is not beyond reach. He was most likely abused as a child. Some old fashioned nurturing, lots of hugs and a good therapist will go a long ways towards his reclamation. If nothing else, it will develop in him a sense of appreciation for the millions of tax dollars to be spent on his appeals. American Justice is such a wonderful thing.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

It's because of people like him that I am not opposed to the death penalty. (I believe that, as in Israeli penal practice, it should be reserved only for the most appalling crimes.) We are all mortal; the universe does not go out of its way to prolong our existences; and I fail to see how this man's life is sacred to the point where it deserves prolongation. I think there are some people who by their actions forfeit their right to continue to exist. They forfeit their membership in humanity.

I've read that this man has a wife and family. That provides food for thought.

Ann Althouse said...

Richard: He can't get the death penalty. Kansas didn't reinstate the death penalty until 1994 and his crimes precede that. He'll just be put in prison for the rest of his life. Nothing more can be done to him and he knows it. Maybe that was why he was so calm. Maybe he got a bang out of describing those details, knowing there was pretty much nothing anyone could do about it, except take care of him in a little room and not let him go outside.

Ann Althouse said...

Goesh: There won't be any appeals. He pleaded guilty. And he saved the state the cost of trying him. Turned himself in, too, didn't he? There now, do you like him better?

Pogo said...

Ann, Re:"How can a person who would do such things tell all of the details without showing any sense of pain or sorrow or regret? This man is beyond evil...How can that be a human being...? "

There is a simple and awful answer. Mr. Rader clearly does not have a conscience.

He is unable to experience shame or guilt. He does not know what those words mean, and cannot understand what the 95% of humans who do are yapping about. He is thus unable to connect with others at all, unable to love or care about anyone than himself. Without a conscience, of course, anything is possible. Like any large predator then, he merely does what he can get a way with, a cold calculus of primal satisfaction. (Not predator as metaphor, but literally).

And if he is indeed without a conscience, then he does not meet what you heartbreakingly point out is a minimum criterion for being human. While we must be careful of labelling people as "the other" simply to justify our desire to do them harm, we need to recognize that some people are simply not human, at least not in the way the vast majority of us take for granted.

JLP said...


Actually, he didn't turn himself in. He started contacting the local media and he sent someone a floppy disc that he created at his church. They traced it back to his church and that's how they found him. He was already on the Police's radar screen.



Kathleen B. said...

I agree with both Prof. Althouse and Mr. Cohen - I just cannot understand such evil. I couldn't even finish reading the article. And this case is exactly why I am not opposed to the death penalty either. It is truly sad that he cannot be executed. Although maybe if there was that possibility he would not have confessed.

Daddy Warbucks said...

For a minute, I thought you were talking about the President, the approximately 25,000 dead Iraqi civilians and the 1900 dead U.S. service men and women.

The I realized you are just creeped out about some psycho in Kansas. . .

vnjagvet said...

There should be some way to study such an individual in a way to benefit humankind.

Actually, living 25 more years with people studying him like an insect or other loathsome creature might be fitting punishment indeed.

What is scary is his ordinariness. A church leader, a government employee, orderly, tidy, ostensibly mousey in word and temperament. Robert Louis Stevenson could have had this guy in mind when writing Dr. J and Mr. H.

Ann Althouse said...

But, Pogo, HOW does it happen that a person has nothing where a conscience should be? HOW is it possible?

SteveR said...

Some people like to find reasons why people do horrible things, as if to assure themselves that "we" can figure it out and prevent it and while excusing bad behaviour.

Well sometimes we can't understand, we can't prevent and we can't excuse. Evil exists.

Ann Althouse said...

Daddy Warbucks: What minute was that? When I wrote "Dennis Rader" that must have sent you right down the wrong mental path.

Stever: I can contemplate evil. As I say in the post, this is something beyond evil. I can comprehend extreme perversity and anger and insanity, but not this rational-seeming coldness -- a person alive enough to be motivated to undertake difficult activities but devoid of any emotion. Why would a machine bother to do anything?

Pastor_Jeff said...


Christian missionaries have come across cultures where deceit and betrayal were virtues. When the natives heard gospel stories, they thought Judas was the hero.

I think it's possible to quiet the conscience over and over to the point that a person no longer is capable of feeling shame, regret, remorse, pride, pity, etc. It happens more often than we think, but usually on a smaller scale. Don't you think that we are more shameless as a culture than we were 30-50 years ago?

Ann Althouse said...

Pastor Jeff: Not to that extreme degree.

Pogo said...


I suspect that the conscience, rather than being a mere social construct, has an actual neurological locus. While this can be affected by the presence or absence of nurturing (i.e. you can train someone to be evil), it must be present to create the conditions we think of when we speak of societal rules as understood 'by the ordinary man'.

People like malignant boyfriends, mean Machiavellian office workers, serial killers, or Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot share to varying degrees the capacity to inflict harm without the possibility of regret or shame. (They think the conscience simply does not exist, that they are merely doing what you would if you had the guts.)

Much like our abilities to sing, do math, build a company, or start a government have neurologic precursors for language, spatial construction, and socialization, our conscience must be derived from our brain activity. C.S. Lewis pointed out that we seem to have within us the innate sense --not taught-- that there are behaviors that are just and unjust.

What if, like intellegence, or artisitic ability, this conscience exists within a range of 'conscience' capacity. Much like some are born with no ability to see color, or to smell, or to grasp art or law, perhaps it is true that some people have very little conscience, and some are simply born without any conscience at all.

If you've ever seen the cold stare of the human predator, you may begin to suspect this is true.

Pastor_Jeff said...

I didn't mean to say that society has become shameless to that degree, merely that consience is affected by our choices - as eivdenced by the choice of many people not to be ashamed of things we once rejected.

But I also think Pogo is onto something. Conscience seems to be a combination of choice, environment, and innate predisposition. Perhaps BTK was the "perfect storm" of all these factors.

Slocum said...

I fail to see how this man's life is sacred to the point where it deserves prolongation. I think there are some people who by their actions forfeit their right to continue to exist. They forfeit their membership in humanity.

I oppose the death penalty in such cases not because his life is sacred but because the whole process of carrying it out gives him more of the prominence and power over public imagination that he has sought (but should be denied) and some even minor claim to victimhood. It puts him at the center of a final, high-profile 'death pageant'.

Now that he has plead guilty, I would rather see him disappear down the memory hole as quickly and quietly as possible: no appeals, no interviews, no books--nothing.

Dave said...

If ever there were a bastard who should be executed, this is the one.

It is unconscionable that he will live.

Alas, such is the world liberals have wrought.

As to how it is possible for a murderer to be so dispassionate: well, there are a lot of cold, callous bastards out there. He is one of them.

I hope someone Dahmers him in jail.

Pogo said...

A quick example: Dogs display reactions that look very much like shame. Primates do, too. Cats do not seem to do this at all, nor do many other animals.

Perhaps dogs have the precursors for shame (displayed as submissive behavior) in an attempt at social cohesion. However, lacking self-awareness, they may not actually feel shame or guilt. The beta version of shame, if you will.

In the movie Blade Runner, an interrogation is conducted using a machine that measures iris contractions through carefully worded questions and statements (a proxy for the empathetic response), in order to determine if a suspect is human or android.

The really interesting question is: what if we were similarly able to isolate people who lack a conscience? The social and legal implications would be enormous.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Slocum: I agree with you in terms of the realities and politics of the death penalty. I was thinking more in terms of what I thought should be done with him in the abstract.

Daddy Warbucks: Responses like yours are the reason why people like me can no longer identify with or sympathize with the left, and why the left's role in this country will keep decreasing into the foreseeable future.

Kathleen B. said...

such is the world liberals have wrought.

I *beg* to differ. If racists had not continually improperly applied and enforced the death penalty, we would not be where we are today. They were hardly liberals.

Finn Kristiansen said...

It would seem to me that Radar is not some anomaly of humanity, unique in his incomprehensible calm and unspeakable lack of humanity.

One need only look at history (Hitler swings into mind, or even the deposed Saddam and his now dead luna-sons) to find men, whether powerful or ordinary, who are fully capable of killing with their left hand, and embracing the grandkids, wife or lover with the right. Radar is simply a Hitler without a nation, and with a more personal obsession.

One thinks of this nation's history, where men could burn a town to the ground, or hang a few people, while dressed in white (or not), and return home in time to sit by the fire with the wife. Some of those very same men are our beloved grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

People like Radar are probably all around, and ply their trade at various levels of intensity, dishing out evil to feed some pursuit or false god (lust, power, revenge, racism, hatred)they have long since become servants to.

It's a hard life, a hard life...a very hard life.

Pogo said...

That all humans have the capacity for evil is undeniable, but I believe you miss the point. People like Rader appear to lack the capacity for attachment to others. They are usually characterized as cold, even by family memebers (e.g. Svetlana, Stalin's daughter so described him). While they are adept enough to mimic such behaviors ("embracing the wife"), it is without actual emotion. That is "they know the words, but not the music".

The 'inhuman' aspect in Rader's telling of the story is evident in his dispassionate remarks, as if he were reading directions to assemble a water heater, rather than how he killed someone.

Few people, thank God, are capable of that.

henny said...

"One thinks of this nation's history..."

Finn's comment is quite odd to me, and speaks of the obsessiveness many Americans have now, in insulting America and our history wherever they can make the connection.

knoxgirl said...

I read something by John Douglas, one of the men who pioneered the profiling of serial killers and interviewed hundreds of them in his time at the FBI. I remember him saying that almost every one had been abused either psychologically, physically, or sexually as a child, and that their motive was, without exception, the utter domination and control of their victims.
I think it's very possible that these people are also genetically predisposed to be conscious-less because there are plenty of abused children who don't later "take it out" on others in this perverse way. But it seems to me serial killers are typically systematically tortured and from a very young age experience a sick, twisted version of what human relationships are about.

Serenity Now said...

Ann Althouse: But, Pogo, HOW does it happen that a person has nothing where a conscience should be? HOW is it possible?

How is it possible that some people are blind or deaf?

Imo, cases like Rader's should make us realize that having a conscience is as remarkable as having the power of sight or hearing. We tend to take these biological abilities for granted because we have trouble imagining what life would be like without them.

Ann Althouse: I can comprehend extreme perversity and anger and insanity, but not this rational-seeming coldness -- a person alive enough to be motivated to undertake difficult activities but devoid of any emotion. Why would a machine bother to do anything?

Sociopaths aren't machines devoid of emotion. They just don't feel any moral connection to other people.

ploopusgirl said...

henny: I suppose you'd rather we ignore our ugly history? If we acknowledge it, we may have to make ourselves accountable for many problems present today. This then becomes a problem because we can no longer simply blame those different from us.

What finn says is correct. There have been thousands, if not millions, of people throughout the course of time, and in our very own country, that have-without heart and without morals-viciously murdured and slaughtered other human beings. Seems relevant to me..

amba said...

Ann: Oh, he has emotion all right. He has lust for gratification and for power, and he has pride. These serial killers just don't have any feeling of the reality of other people. Their emotions are all warped and bent back around themselves.

He probably thought of his wife and kids and all the rest as necessary "cover."

The act of imagining the reality of another person (Paul Ricoeur: "The other is also a self") is the prerequisite for having empathy or compassion. The only way I can imagine such evil is to take my own most selfish moments and multiply them exponentially. But I can't get past the imagining of the pain of the other person -- it just rises up in my face, involuntarily. I can be mad enough at someone to imagine killing them, but I know I could never do it. Short of a situation of self-defense against a stranger (or the desire to see some thing like Rader, if not executed, then "Dahmered,") no rage would be strong enough to stop me from imagining it from their point of view.

What horrified me most, seeing Rader on TV, was hearing him talk about how he conversed with his victims and basically let them hope that if they let him tie them up and do his thing, they'd survive. One woman sat and had a cigarette and then said, "Let's get it over with." That broke my heart. Imagine that terror and hope. And then he strangled her.

Barry said...

Previous commentors wrote such things as:
It is truly sad that he cannot be executed.
It is unconscionable that he will live.

Is it really that important that this man be killed? As slocum said, wouldn't involving this killer in his own ritual of execution be a continuation and extension of his desired "death pageant"? What harm is there in letting him die the belittling death of life in prison?

Or is our own culture dependant on the killing of killers? Is that necessary for our cultural welfare?

Pogo said...

Barry, re: "Is it really that important that this man be killed?"

Given the possibility that in 20 years some court might decide to release him when he's old and frail, yes, maybe it is that important.

As for death fitting in with his plans, well, good. At least we can both agree he should be dead.

(Actually, I don't buy that nonsense; if it were true, he'd have done so long before this. He simply wants to maintain an illusion of control. If he is sentenced to die, he'll demand it. If he is sentenced to life, he'll make demands of that as well. Best ignore his worthless speech. Nothing good can come from paying attention to his musings, warnings, insights, or speeches.)

ronin1516 said...

Unlike some of the previous comments , I dont believe in the "hug-a-thug" approach when dealing with vicious peopl ewho have hurt or killed other human beings. The unwillingness of some to punish the very evilk amongst us, puzzles me. How can one, with a clean conscience, say that someone like Rader ought noty to be punished, as severly as the laws of the land allow?
And while we are at it, what about defense attorneys, who make a living at trying to ensure that folks like Dennis Rader go free to kill again? Zealous defense of a defendant so that he/she gets a fair trial? I think not, I feel a lot of folks who do defense work, and make all manner of excuses to try to get the raders of this world off are essentially o better than the killers and thne thugs they represent.

bos0x said...

ronin1516, I love the way I can feel your passion through all of your typos. Tell me, if you simply despise Dennis Rader oh so much, why would you be willing to throw out all kinds of constitutional freedoms so that he can die a nice, clean, sterile death? He'll have years to come to terms with it, I'm sure, and while his death might be so meaningful to you and everyone else who is so morally outraged about laws and defense attorneys and things, I doubt that it would be symbolic the people that he terrorized and strangled. But ok, let's just get rid of all of the defense attorneys (cuz they r evlk just like killers LOL) so the criminal stars of sensationalist news stories can all be executed as quickly as possible. Of course, the mistakenly accused will be fucked, especially all of the regular people who aren't committing horrific violent crimes - but that's okay! Since that wouldn't be newsworthy, you'd never know and you could live your life in an even more blissful ignorance because Dennis Rader would be off the street. I mean, really off the street, not the weak, liberal kind of having-a-pleasant-time-in-prison "off the street."

Oh... but you only want the most sever punishment the law of the land allows for Rader...which, apparently in Kansas is...not death.. so.. why are you whining again? ...

Pogo said...


I used to be adamantly opposed to the death penalty. However, I have met enough victims of rape and child abuse to suspect that there are some crimes so heinous as to cause one to re-examine such a blanket premise.

The risk that some future politician or judge might throw out or commute a life sentence for a proven serial killer (e.g. DNA, video, etc.) is not a small one. I have increasing misgivings about letting these folks live given the slightest possibility they will ever be released.

And it has indeed happened, has it not? "Life" is a long sentence, but death is permanent.

bos0x said...

ronin1516 fantasizes about a world without defense attorneys and thinks that Florida law is the absolute pinnacle of moral depravity because it prevents a serial killer from being executed. Pogo, do you think that people accused of horrific crimes should have their right to a fair trial depend on whether or not news coverage of the crimes can horrify and disgust viewers?

Rape and child abuse are tragic, but it seems like excessive violence to actually execute offenders. It's not eye-for-an-eye anymore, so what's the point? You just can't have people killed because your sense of sympathy has become enormous and bloated - it's not justice then, it's masturbation. Horrific things happen to people without a concrete human cause - disease, natural disasters - so do you propose rewarding that grief with some good, old-fashioned execution as well? It makes everyone feel so much better!

Pogo said...

re:"do you think that people accused of horrific crimes should have their right to a fair trial depend on whether or not news coverage of the crimes can horrify and disgust viewers?"

While negative publicity is certainly a concern, there is little evidence this often precludes a fair trial. And that's what defense attorneys must address, I think.

Moreover, the use of shame and disgust heaped upon the (in this case) self-admitted serial killer is likely a useful and necessary social phenomenon.

re: "Horrific things happen to people without a concrete human cause - disease, natural disasters - so do you propose rewarding that grief with some good, old-fashioned execution as well?"
bosox, I find it unlikely that victims or families of vicitims of rape, pedophilia, or serial killings would equate their experiences to natural disasters. I suspect few non-victims would think so, either.

amba said...


I agree with you that serial killers should be destroyed because they are unfixable, incurable, irredeemable. They are so addicted to their sexual pleasure in killing, and feel so entitled to it, that they will escape from prison if they can (like Bundy) and will kill again if they are ever released. They are too dangerous to take the risk of letting them exist. They are the one case in which I am SURE I favor the death penalty, not even as punishment -- paying with your life doesn't bring back the lives you destroyed -- but as a public safety measure, the way you'd (yes) "put down" a rogue or rabid animal.

Pogo said...


I agree about the 'public safety' needs here. One of the primary duties of any government is the protection of people from aggression and deception by others. If a serial killer is not dealt with swiftly and permanently, there is an accurate perception that lawlessness prevails.

The effect on any society is easy to guess. I prefer Rader's execution to such dystopias.