Wed, May 15, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Mapping a killer’s brain

The idea that our genes, rather than our morals or upbringing, are mainly to blame for whether we become criminals or not is one of science’s biggest taboos. However, if we could identify would-be offenders at an early age and perhaps prevent a massacre, should we do so?

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

However, then there is a further thought, that if you start to see criminality as a biological illness, where does a sense of retributive justice stand?

Raine himself was forced to face this dilemma when he became a victim of violent crime. As he recounts in his book, while on holiday in Turkey several years ago, a burglar entered his bedroom and in the struggle that followed tried to cut Raine’s throat with a knife. He fought the attacker off, but when the following morning he was presented with two possible suspects by police, he admits to not only choosing the one who looked most like a thug (the man later admitted the crime, under duress), but also to wanting to visit on him the terror he had felt himself.

“I wasn’t proud to discover I was a bit Jekyll and Hyde — perhaps we all are in that situation,” Raine says when I ask him about his response. “The rational Dr Jekyll knew that if I took this man’s brain scan and found he had prefrontal dysfunction, low resting heart rate, a background of neglect, then of course I should cut him some slack. With understanding comes mercy. However, the Mr Hyde, the emotional voice in my head, was saying he cut my throat, I want to cut his. That event changed me from someone dead set against the death penalty to someone who would not be ruled out of a jury on a capital case in America. I think now my mind will always go backwards and forwards on this, the scientific understanding of the causes of crime versus being a human in society with all these gut reactions to people who commit awful crimes.”

If the neuroscience raises as many questions as it answers about culpability after a crime has been committed, what about its role in crime prevention? Here, the questions seem no less fraught.

One of them was posed a couple of years ago by the archinquisitor Jeremy Paxman of Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, on Newsnight.

“If science could predict with 100 percent certainty who was going to commit a violent crime, would it be legitimate to act before they commit that crime?” Paxman asked.

Chakrabarti was in no doubt: “I would have to say that in a liberal society of human beings, and not animals, my answer to your question would be ‘no.’”

However, if such intervention could prevent Newtown, you wonder, or Dunblane, would any of us be quite so certain? The fact is that the reality will always be a much grayer area because even the most nuanced neuroscience will never produce a perfect prediction of human behavior. Is there a point at which the science — in identifying the possibility of repeat offending, for example — will be accurate enough to warrant routine scanning of those on the sexual offenders’ register?

“The fact is parole boards are making exactly these kind of predictive decisions every day about which prisoner or young offender we are going to release early, often with crummy evidence. At the moment, the predictors are social and behavioral factors, marital status, your past record. What is not used are biological measures. But I believe that if we added those things even now into the equation, we could only improve the prediction,” Raine says.

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