Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

Identifying Terrorists and the Ghost of Cesare Lombroso

The criminal [is] an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.  Thus were explained anatomically the enormous jaws, high cheek-bones, prominent superciliary arches, solitary lines in the palms, extreme size of the orbits, handle-shaped or sessile ears found in criminals, savages, and apes, insensibility to pain, extremely acute sight, tattooing, excessive idleness, love of orgies, and the irresistible craving for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extinguish life in the victim but to mutilate the corpse[.]
            --Cesare Lombroso

So, it’s some time between last Thursday late afternoon and early Friday morning, last week.  My sister and I are riveted by the coverage of the Boston Bombing manhunt.  Separated by 200 miles, we’re in contact via email and telephone.  One of our conversations occurred after the suspects’ photos were released, but our discussion focused on cable network coverage – particularly CNN’s.

On Wednesday last, CNN’s John King had not only erroneously reported that a suspect was in custody but had added that the suspect was “a dark-skinned man.”  Considering that King’s sources were shaky, his gratuitous quasi-racial call-out was troubling.  More troubling, I think, than his erroneous reporting about a suspect in custody . . . because of Boston’s uncomfortable history of racial bias and, even more importantly, because of this country’s uncomfortable history of racialized scapegoating.

But my sister and I were not being politically correct (after all, we were sleep-deprived and caught up in the drama).  Instead, we started guessing the ethnicity of the suspects – after dissing the very ‘white’ John King and his maladroit reporting and suppositioning.  Our conversation occurred before the suspects were identified by name.

Me:  Hell, I lived in Boston for over four years.  If you showed my their photos, and labeled them simply as part of the Marathon crowd, and asked me about their ethnic background, I’d probably say . . . Italian?  Greek?  Lebanese?  Albanian?  Persian?

Sister:  Irish.  One of them looks like a former relative-in-law.

Me:  (With a shrug, and an ensuing conversation about which low-life relative she was referring to.)  Whatever, all I could feel comfortable saying is that they’re not Scandinavian, Central African, or Asian.

Sister:  Actually, I thought maybe they were Asian.

Me:  You’ve got to be kidding (I was thinking of epicanthic folds).

Sister:  No – really, look at the flat facial planes.

Turns out she was right.  The brothers are ethnic Chechens, a segment of peoples from the Caucasus region of what’s now Southern Russia and what was one of the furthest reaches of Mongol hegemony hundreds of years ago.  Mongol, Tatar, etc. . . . all were marauders/conquerors from the east who not only secured political dominance for a while but also marked what is now the Eastern European gene pool (not that such marking is always, or sometimes,  or even at all readily apparent).

Timur the Lame / Tamerlane, conqueror of much of the Ottoman empire, 
Central Asian and Caucasus region hero (after whom the elder Tsarnaev brother was named)

Point of all this?  Here were two well-educated, progressive/liberal women chatting blithely about race/ethnicity.  Considering the circumstances, we were skating on the very thin ice of racial profiling:  what was left unsaid was the assumption that the suspects’ genetic heritage might give clues as to why they did what they did and maybe even to their propensity for ‘terrorism.’  The ghost of Cesare Lombroso haunts our culture still.

Cesare Lombroso, Sir Francis Galton, Louis Agassiz

Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909) was a father of anthropological criminology – the belief that there are ‘born criminals’ recognizable through distinctive physical traits.  With the classificatory zeal that typified much 19th-century positivistic science, Lombroso took multiple measurements of criminals and the insane, of the imprisoned and the dead, assembling this data into elaborate taxonomies of ‘avatism,’ regressions in the evolutionary scale.  He accompanied his published findings with weirdly compelling photo arrays ‘proving’ how criminals and ‘lunatics’ are distinguished by specific physical marks, marks readable as ‘facts’ thanks to what he believed to be the camera’s impartial truth-telling. 

A photo array by Cesare Lombroso

Lombroso is just one of many 19th-century scientists fascinated with the intersection of criminality, ‘deviance,’ and photography.  Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), cousin of Charles Darwin, produced work similar to Lombroso’s; Galton’s studies flirted with a eugenically influenced Social Darwinism and seem to have been motivated in part by fears that Britain’s upper class was being threatened by the lower classes and by undesirable immigrants.  In the meantime, squads of anthropometrists and photographers were busy throughout the British Empire, measuring and ‘shooting’ indigenous peoples so they could be identified, classified, and more easily ruled.

A photo array by Sir Francis Galton

Both Galton and Lombroso were influenced by predecessors like the Swiss physiognomist Johann Lavater, the Austrian phrenologist Franz Josef Gall, and the French criminal photographer Alphonse Bertillon, who invented the mug shot.  But it was in the United States that this composite discipline really took off . . . and has stayed put, as the open-source multi-media photo array produced last week attests.

In the States, the first systematic student of what photography could reveal about ‘types’ was the famed naturalist Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873).  He collected daguerrotypes of slaves in the late 1840s, supplementing them with pictures of Chinese and Native American people.  These collections reinforced Agassiz’ belief in ‘special creationism’:  that different races were created separately, at different times, a belief easily enlisted as support for slavery due to inherent racial inequality.  At about the same time, Matthew Brady was commissioned to photograph prisoners in New York City, as authorities hoped that correctly reading people’s features could disclose their authentic character and their suitability for rehabilitation. 

One of Agassiz' daguerrotypes:  “Guinea” Jack

By the 1850s, police departments were keeping photographic records (“rogues’ galleries”) of all sorts of criminals, from vagrants to murderers.  After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the photographer Alexander Gardener was tasked with recording the crime scene, evidence, and suspects; he produced one of the first photograph-based Most Wanted posters, featuring the as-yet unapprehended conspirators. 

Gardner’s Wanted Poster

Although new scientific methods – like fingerprinting and DNA testing – have replaced the photo array as ways to solve crimes or to predict potential criminal behavior, photo arrays have not disappeared.  They remain a tool for eyewitness identification, and Most Wanted posters still decorate post office walls.  With the explosion of media technologies, digital Most Wanted posters also can decorate (not to say invade, flood, overwhelm) our televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones.  From Thursday evening to Saturday morning last week, it was impossible to turn on any electronic gadget, with the possible exception of the microwave, and not be bombarded by images of the Tsarnaev brothers.

Once they were identified, speculation turned to their ethnicity and what it might mean.  Were they militant Chechen separatists?  Were they radical Dagestani Islamicists?  Were they controlled by a mysterious Caucasian branch of Al-Qaeda?

A Russian raid on a village in Dagestan

A rural mosque in Chechnya

A speculation not prompted by their photographs was the possibility that they were mentally troubled (or sociopathic) young men who sought some sort of solution via an explosion of random violence.  In other words, the sort of speculation surrounding other young men who’ve recently committed mass murder in the United States.  No one suggested that the Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, or Virginia Tech murderers were foreign-connected terrorists.  Or the Columbine killers.  Or the Washington D.C. snipers, one of whom was seventeen years old. 

I fear that the spurious connections between appearance, race, and criminality forged over a hundred years ago by men like Lombroso, Galton, and Agassiz have not disappeared.  On a Federal level, the fact that the brothers are labeled as terrorists and charged with use of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is a bit puzzling.  Didn’t the Newtown massacre create terror, and didn’t the semi-automatic weapons used cause more mass destruction than the Boston bombs, at least in terms of fatalities?  On a sadly predictable political level, some Senators and Congressmen have called for a halt to Immigration Reform efforts in light of last week’s events, using the convoluted logic that since the Tsarnaevs were immigrants, then regulating immigration in a more orderly manner would lead to more acts of terrorism.  Say what? 

FBI’s first ’10 Most Wanted’ Poster, 1950

All this calls to mind J. Edgar Hoover’s comments at the beginning of his career, when he led the World-War-One-era ‘Palmer Raids’ against ‘communists’ and ‘anarchists.’

Most of the individuals involved [. . .] are aliens or foreign-born citizens. [. . .] Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.

Hoover is dead.  Lombroso and his like-minded 19th-century scientist confreres are long dead.  The ‘atavistic’ urge to equate criminality with ethnicity, an urge that assumed monstrous proportions in the 20th century, deserves to be dead as well.

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