Defining Evil: An Interview With Dr. Michael Welner

Then why are you, as a forensic psychiatrist, attempting to forge a definition of depraved crimes?

Forensic psychiatry is advantaged in guiding this pursuit because it has more exposure to the entire evidence of a case than any other profession. Police investigate the case, but may never interview the defendant. Pathologists and emergency room physicians and nurses, trauma specialists examine people and bodies and read injuries but learn little about the person who inflicted them and how events transpired. Forensic psychiatrists incorporate the input of all of these professionals in the course of reviewing the "before," the "during," and the "after" of a crime. No discipline learns more about the intent of a crime and victims targeted, and the attitude of the perpetrator about his act.

Yet evidence for depravity derives from many different specialties: anthropology, pathology, dentistry, even the computer sciences. So we have an involved advisory board that has helped us very much to refine distinctions that you might never consider, such as "how much attacking reflects an exceptional amount of attacking?"

So forensic scientists, in this Depravity Scale research, are very much involved in the fine points?

Absolutely. Scientists' role in the research on evil is to provide a framework. The public, by participating in the surveys, dictates what examples of intent, actions, victimology, and attitudes should warrant greatest importance in a crime.

Do you feel that examining the crime itself is so overlooked?

In my professional experience, people would be surprised to know how commonly the motive, the attitude of a person about a crime, or the perpetrator's actions are overlooked by psychiatrists who focus rather on theories or diagnoses that "might" explain why a crime happened. To me, that is a disservice, akin to ignoring the elephant in the living room.

Why do you think that is?

Looking at the ugliness of crime is painful and distasteful for everyone, including me. But to refuse to engage evil in behavior and in crime, in my professional opinion, is like a physician who refuses to treat leprosy because it disgusts him or gangrene because it smells bad. Imagine if our military surgeons shied away from half-destroyed soldiers because their wounds were so gory. Physicians trained as specialists in psychiatry as such cannot pick and choose what behavior is psychiatric. Behavior science means an openness to probe all behavior.

You have placed a special focus on criminal intent, and attitudes about a crime. How is that unusual?

My research in courts' approaches to determining "heinous" crimes has shown that courts focus on actions to the point of almost entirely excluding consideration of intent. Law enforcement gathers evidence reflecting on guilt or innocence; yet in my professional experience, crime is far more complex than that. Let's consider the following example: A college student brings a knife to school, is in a conflict with another student, and stabs the student. He is charged with attempted murder. Another college student draws up plans and arms himself to mimic Columbine, targeting maximum casualties, hoping to become an icon, or targeting a particular ethnicity. Police stumble on his plot before anything happens. He is charged with possession of weapons. What is the more heinous crime? You cannot appraise the severity of crime, in my professional opinion, without a full understanding of intent.

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