Is Your Kindly Neighbor a Serial Killer?

With social capital dangerously frayed, what does the Washington Post feature a week before Halloween? A former FBI profiler offering the following irrefutable syllogism. Most serial killers look nice and respectable. Your neighbor looks nice and respectable. Therefore your neighbor may be the next Jeffrey Dahmer.

The man sitting in front of Mary Ellen O’Toole was, she says, a well-mannered guy. “He was low-key. He was nice. He didn’t swear.” He was very proud of his work, which he described in polite, pleasant tones.

His name was Gary Ridgway. His other name was the Green River Killer. His work was killing at least 49 women in Washington state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He did it all while maintaining marriages, parenting and church-going, and he seemed very much the word neighbors often use to describe men who turn out to have headless torsos in their freezers. Which is to say, he seemed very, very nice.

I don’t blame Mary Ellen O’Toole for seeing mild-mannered maniacs everywhere. Obviously, Ted Bundy wouldn’t have gotten very far if he had looked like Boris Karloff. She has scientific support, too: at least one sociobiologist says we’re all natural-born killers.And distrust of appearances may be a prerequisite for security work. To a store detective (as Ms. O’Toole once was) every customer must be a potential shoplifter; to a casino surveillance operator every gambler is a would-be chip thief. Remember the insurance analyst Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) in Double Indemnity to whom every claim was filled with “twisted hopes and crooked dreams?” 

The problem with the logic of universal suspicion, though, is that it can so easily turn against the authorities themselves. If respectability aids criminality, what better place than in law enforcement itself, which we’ve seen in the Robert Philip Hannsen espionage case and the John Connolly, Jr. conviction.

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