Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, brings his inimitable vision, exhaustive research, and mesmerizing prose to this timely book that dissects violence and offers new solutions to the age old problem of why people kill.Lonnie Athens was raised by a brutally domineering father. Defying all odds, Athens became a groundbreaking criminologist who turned his scholar's eye to the problem of why people become violent. After a decade of interviewing several hundred violent convicts--men and women of varied background and ethnicity, he discovered "violentization," the four-stage process by which almost any human being can evolve into someone who will assault, rape, or murder another human being. Why They Kill is a riveting biography of Athens and a judicious critique of his seminal work, as well as an unflinching investigation into the history of violence.
Why They Kill is really two books in one. The first is a biography of Lonnie Athens, the maverick criminologist of the subtitle. He's a product of the world of the ultraviolent criminal, but managed to escape into a rather unwelcoming academia. The biographical section also includes a detailed explanation of Athens' theory of violentization, the process he proposes by which ultraviolent criminals are made. The second book is a series of tests of Athen's theory, for example against famous folk such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Mike Tyson.
Criminology is well outside my area of expertise, but Athens' theory seems sensible to me. It appears to explain the process by which people become violent and the mitigations discussed at the end of the book are in line with successful intervention programs. I suspect that the situation, however, is more complicated than presented here. Genetic factors are ignored, and the possibility of mental illness or learning disabilities in violent offenders are dismissed out of hand. Rhodes, and by extension, Athens, claims that the theory explains every violent person, however cases which don't appear to fit the theory are assumed to be cases where the person (or the researcher) are not telling the whole story and so the argument becomes somewhat circular.
All in all, I think the book was worth reading, although Rhodes was a bit drier in this one than in others of his that I've read. The ideas should be taken with a grain of salt, but are well worth thinking about.