The criminal mind laid bare

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What motivated Adolf Eichmann or Osama bin Laden? Were the Nazi and the terrorist leader psychologically disturbed, or were they just like you and me? The latter, says forensic psychiatrist Antoine de Kom. His book Het Misdadige Brein (The Criminal Brain) attempts to put a human face to the evildoers. Good and evil, though, appear worryingly close to each other.

For years, Mr de Kom worked at the Pieter Baan Centrum in Utrecht, where courts send defendants for clinical observation. He often studied people accused of terrible crimes. Because he was unable to write about the actual cases that he worked on, his book discusses well-known criminals. The author seeks to get to the bottom of what drove them to their infamous acts.

“In fact, there is no typical criminal brain,” he says. “The ordinary brain is, broadly speaking, capable of making criminal decisions. Everyone is capable of making bad, damaging and reprehensible choices. They can sometimes be against the law.”

A gradual process
Mr de Kom demonstrates how choosing for evil is usually a gradual process.

“Most people have taken normal standards on board, have an ability to hold things in check, which stops things going too far. But it’s also perfectly possible that totally normal people go off course and make bad decisions. Take the classic criminal who gradually gets involved in criminal circles and joins in organised crime. It’s very difficult to break away from that course. Luckily, the majority of people don’t choose to go down that road.”

Criminals, says Mr de Kom, cannot be recognised as such. “Most of the people I had under observation appeared totally ordinary. There’s nothing to separate them from the person on the street.” To this he makes an exception: people suffering from serious disorders who sometimes display animal-like characteristics.

Not disturbed
Most criminals are not disturbed even though they have sometimes done terrible things, says Mr de Kom. “That’s what is so worrying.” The psychiatrist must find the person behind the criminal to discover his motives.

Osama bin Laden did appalling things despite his “endearing and disarming personality”, according to Mr de Kom. “He believed it could avert Western oppression, which he saw as being worse than violence. His anger with the West grew from anger with his overbearing father.”

Robert Mugabe’s crimes might be explained through understanding that the dictatorial president sees Zimbabwe as his own child. But, says the author, “it’s hard to be the father of the fatherland when you yourself have grown up without a father”.

Yet Mr de Kom doesn’t condone what either man has done: despite difficult childhoods, they could have made different choices. Most people with comparably challenging past experiences do not go off the rails.

Empathy, resentment, fascination
Psychiatry is not about judging people. Mr de Kom must get suspects to talk; this means empathising with them. He can then reconstruct their inner worlds.

Admittedly, this sometimes leads to his feeling contaminated. Perpetrators can be very explicit about what they have done, he notes. “Some sex offenders go on and on about their desires.”

Despite any sense of resentment, Mr de Kom must look for what makes a suspect human. “There's a danger that you lose touch with someone who shares no common ground with other people. That person you can never get back." So a psychiatrist must remain sympathetic. For Mr de Kom, understanding the suspect is the one thing more significant than the crime.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to share in this fascination. “You sometimes see that those accused of serious crimes still find acceptance. This fascination with crime is in part a recognition of people’s own possible inclinations, albeit ones they do not give into.”