Scientists search for the seat of evil
By Greg Barrett, Gannett News Service
At the forefront of the brain or buried near its stem is the glue of civility. It is here, science believes, that nature first raises its hand in discipline.
And it is here, it appears, that America's No. 1 villain is unable to summon the punitive pang of remorse.
When Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh meets his court-ordered demise on May 16, it is expected that he will leave the world stage in much the manner he entered it. Defiant. Unapologetic.
It's the same manner in which serial killer Ted Bundy left us in 1989 and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski remains today. The same manner in which Emile Raby confessed to a gruesome rape and attempted murder in Baton Rouge 12 years ago.
"I saw no remorse in him," recalls retired Baton Rouge police Lt. Julius O'Brien. "The ones that do it in cold blood, it doesn't take long after you interview them to see what you have. There's no feeling when they look at you and there is nothing in the eyes."
Despite decades of debate about nature or nurture, science still gropes for answers in the dark recesses of our psyche. Sociologists have long told us that poverty and poor education are seeds of crime, but those don't explain the unrepentant and middle-class McVeighs, Bundys and Kaczynskis of the world — former soldier, law student and mathematics professor, respectively.
Brain science believes that remorse springs from the dense gray matter of our skull, in the frontal lobe or the limbic regions. But for some people, it is as if the neurons that charge us are not firing on all cylinders.
Or, in the words of Canadian psychologist Robert Hare, who has studied 500 psychopaths during the past four decades, "The parts of the brain that would add emotional coloring to our thoughts are simply not functioning properly."
No easy explanation
For all its sophistication, science has no definitive answer for how a man such as Raby can repeatedly rape a stranger, force her boyfriend to watch, and shoot her execution-style in the back of the head. Then go home and sleep, as if nothing happened.
Or for how a self-styled terrorist can ignite a 4,800-pound fertilizer bomb that killed 149 adults, 19 children and made orphans of 30 children, then later claim he has "great respect for human life." McVeigh has offered neither tear nor apology for the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
"I did not do it for personal gain," he told the authors of American Terrorist (HarperCollins, $26). "I ease my mind in that ... I did it for the larger good."
Boston neurologist Bruce Price, like many in science, does not want McVeigh executed. To him, McVeigh's death is akin to destroying evidence.
"He is much more useful to us alive," says Price, chief of neurology at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. "How does his brain function any differently than the rest of us?"
And does it?
An autopsy — which McVeigh rejected with the acquiescence of the U.S. government — would yield little science, Price says. But a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of his live brain would be like a 3-D journey into his neurobiology.
"It's the closest thing we have as a window to the brain," says Hare, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us (Guilford, $16.95).
Because of inadequate blood supply to the frontal lobe or the limbic region of the brain, visible in the MRI, science believes some people react indifferently to unpleasant stimuli. Like a knot in a water hose, the flow of emotion is stymied.
In studies reported by Harvard University this winter, several psychological and neuropsychological tests indicated neurological abnormalities in violent sociopaths. Also present in the sociopaths were low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has been associated with impulsive violence.
This is not to say that social science does not play a significant role in explaining sociopaths, Price says. Nature and nurture are as interchangeable as length and width.
But "social science has weighed in on people like this," Price says. "Now I would like to study these people to see if anything sets them apart from the rest of us on the level of brain science."
For social science's part, it's all baloney. At least as it relates to McVeigh.
"Certainly we know that every offender is not suffering from neurological damage," says Drexel University criminologist Julia Glover Hall, a self-described hard-nosed social scientist. "There are just some people who make rational decisions to do very evil things."