Volume 2, Issue 1, June 1999
ISSN 1096-4886 http://www.westerncriminology.org/Western_Criminology_Review.htm
Random Violence: How We
Talk About New Crimes and New Victims
Bby Joel Best, 1999, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Northern Arizona University
Best's latest work could also be aptly titled, "The Myth of Random Violence," as it evokes the images of what we could expect if there were such a thing as "truly" random violence. There is much to reflect upon in the almost mystical difference between the public's perceptions of random violence and what the academic community knows to be true about violence. Interestingly enough, research and study in this field would be futile if we could not create theory, profiles, and predictions based on the patterns, cycles and statistical probabilities of offenses and reoffenses. Crime mapping, risk prediction and criminal careers are all based on the notion that crime and victimization are not random.
The possibility that reliance on explanations of randomness allows us to avoid the more controversial attributes of crime, namely race and class, is intriguing. While it is one thing to not understand the connections between poverty, minority status, and victimization, it is another to deliberately hide from it. It is obvious that making victims and offenders "just like us" is an effective tool not only for the media but for activists as well. Often times the most notable crimes are those where seemingly normal people get caught in bizarre and horrific circumstances ("PTA Mom Shoots Cheerleader," "Model Husband Chops up Wife While Sleepwalking" or "Coach of the Year Arrested on Molestation Charges").
Best uses the criteria of pointlessness, patternlessness, and the concurrent impression that conditions are deteriorating (i.e. random crime is increasing) to characterize a citizen's perception of random violence. In this process, tragedies become like ancient stories, told around fires at night, narratives that let us wonder and imagine and interject our own version of meaning into an event. Perhaps on some instinctual level we are compelled to do so since so many mysteries of life like volcanoes, photosynthesis, and lightning have already been scientifically explained.
As we are compelled to explain crime, so are we fickle about crime popularity. Ironically, the evolution of interest in crime types can be viewed as not only the product of a criminal's innovation or adaptation, but also our own preoccupation with the new and exciting. Similarly, in the culture of victimization, there is competition for status. The invention of new victim categories and campaigns for their recognition demonstrate the snowballing effects of public acceptance of one new form, group or syndrome after another.
In the context of new crimes and new victims, Best discusses crime waves, crime fads, and the "context of conflict" that underlies many otherwise seemingly random incidents. He takes a realistic look at "wilding," occult scares, freeway shootings, stalking, and hate crime. The author suggests an "iron quadrangle" model to explain how media, activists, government, and experts align to define and promote a social problem or its institutionalization while still serving their own interests. Moral panics conjure up deviant conspiracies. As an example, inner city gang activities have generated myths about bizarre initiation rites that call for random violence. Best argues that dichotomies are also created in the melodrama of claimsmaking so that good and evil, victim and offender are easier to understand but, ironically, further from the truth.
Although many of the ideas in this book feel familiar, Best assembles them in a way that is extremely readable and well argued. Examples are effectively offered in historical as well as sociopolitical context so that the reader will see the "big picture." Trends and evolutions can be used to demonstrate that what often appears new is simply a reformulated version of the same demons. As with the Kappeler et al. Mythology book and the Pepinsky and Jesilow, Myths That Cause Crime, students will be confronted with a progression of logical ideas that chip away at their often deeply ingrained belief systems.
The most unique feature of this work, however, is that it is not until the end that Best wraps the whole discussion up into an analysis of social problems in general, the specific functions of social problems, and our responses to them (i.e., the war on drugs). Drawing the "connections among claims" at the end seems very effective and unfortunately, almost in direct opposition to the way I have been teaching for years. I had always assumed that you had to lay out the framework for studying social problems in the beginning but I am no longer sure that is so.
This text would be an excellent resource for courses in victimology, criminology, popular culture, violence, social problems and media. Best even offers some interesting notes on conducting media content analyses in an appendix that students might find very helpful.
The book was, for me, delightfully refreshing and thought provoking. And, he did not use the term "postmodern" once.
Marilyn D. McShane
Marilyn McShane is a professor of criminal justice and author or coauthor of books on criminological theory, community corrections, and prisons. Her most recent research has been related to parole prediction instruments.
Contact information: Department of Criminal Justice, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, and Prairie View A & M University, Texas; e-mail: Marilyn.Mcshane@nau.edu.
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