John Buell

Superpredators Revisited

Those superpredators are in the news again. The immediate context is a partisan discussion of Hillary Clinton’s role in criminal justice “reforms” that led to the vastly disproportionate imprisonment of a whole generation of African American males. But the term and its implications merit more in-depth analysis.

This language became especially popular in connection with the vicious attack on a Central Park jogger in April 1989. Five teens — four black and one of Hispanic descent — were convicted of charges relating to the brutal attack in 1990, based on confessions that the defendants said were coerced by police, and they received sentences ranging from five to 15 years in prison. The convictions were vacated in 2002, after another Hispanic male who had been a juvenile at the time of the attack confessed to raping the jogger, and DNA evidence confirmed his involvement in the rape. He also said he committed the rape alone.

Many of our inner-city youth have suffered hidden but equally significant injustices. Not only were they deprived of the economic and cultural opportunities that nourish responsible behavior, they were also denied the very neurological support on which responsibility is based.

Writing in the January 2013 Mother Jones, Kevin Drum explores several theories as to the causes of the dramatic drop in the rate of violent crime, including demographic changes and then nature of police work. His startling conclusion was that lead, especially disseminated though the once popular additive to gasoline, was the culprit.

The evidence for this claim is both econometric and clinical: “We now have studies at the international level, the national level, the state level, the city level, and even the individual level. Groups of children have been followed from the womb to adulthood, and higher childhood blood lead levels are consistently associated with higher adult arrest rates for violent crimes. All of these studies tell the same story: Gasoline lead is responsible for a good share of the rise and fall of violent crime over the past half century.”

Nor does the linkage of lead and violence depend merely on correlations. We have clinical evidence as well: “Lead is a double whammy: It impairs specific parts of the brain responsible for executive functions and it impairs the communication channels between these parts of the brain.”

Thus far, even after the well-publicized story about lead in the Flint, Mich., water supply, it remains hard to interest mainstream media is this broader association between lead and crime. The narrative that “broken windows” policing helped curb the problem sits better with police forces and the prison-industrial complex.

There is, however, a deeper existential issue as well. Responsibility is one of the key concepts of western morality. The individual is an end and not a means. In some versions of Christian theology human freedom spares God responsibility for the evil in the world.

Perhaps we must entertain a more nuanced less absolute notion of responsibility. Responsibility is a complex, imperfect formation coevolving between the individual, the environment, and the social order. Drum is not saying that there is a one to one liner connection between lead exposure and violent crime. Rather, lead exposure in conjunction with substandard schools, a hostile educational environment, authoritarian working conditions, family breakdown predispose many individuals to the wrong choices.

This complex evolutionary process leaves its own remainders, dilemmas and imperfections in which no choice is fully justified. Thus if hardened criminals are what they are in large part because of social injustice combined with environmental exposure, there is a prima facie case against their life time imprisonment, Nonetheless, their seemingly irredeemable status threatens other responsible citizens and may lead many to conclude that imprisonment is the only alternative.

Still some conclusions seem clear. The violence of our prisons helps intensify violence. And since many of our prisoners have already been victims of a toxic social and natural environment, there is no justification for adding to this burden. This understanding carries implications not only for whom we put in prisons but also for their treatment once there. Such a set of affairs is a tragedy rather than an outcome to be celebrated or cited as proof of our moral rectitude.

Drum’s analysis also includes the surprising finding that lead is not merely a problem of inner city neighborhoods. Gentrification of coveted urban space stirs up lead and exposes even the affluent to great risk. For many of these gentrifiers lead has been a problem associated with minorities and the poor, thus blinding themselves to dangers even in their own domain. Perhaps more measured notions of responsibility might open them to the silent threats they face.

Some contemporary political theorists hypothesize that responsibility is a tenuous and imperfect achievement made possible by intersecting processes of social, economic, and neurological evolution and our scientific understanding of these. As such human beings both individually and collectively can work on developing a capacity for greater empathy with others, but interactions among these realms and our understanding of these may never be smooth or complete.

It may never be obvious or incontrovertible as to exactly for what we are fully responsible or who among us is responsible. As such, humility and a willingness to engage surprising perspectives is the best course. Openness to such surprises as the role of lead in the lives of many “superpredators” is imperative.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016

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