Belmont Club

Predator versus prey

One of the questions raised by the Craigslist Murder was why the suspect might have done it. Silly question, says Kate Harding of Salon, who argues that the suspect currently in custody fits the profile of a sociopathic serial killer perfectly. It’s just that we’re too biased to notice.

one very good reason why a young woman might not be able to believe such a thing of her clean-cut, middle-class, white boyfriend is that every time something like this happens, everybody acts like it’s about the most shocking thing in the world. We somehow forget not only “preppie murderer” Robert Chambers but Ted Bundy, who was famously handsome and charming. We forget that most serial killers are average-looking white dudes no one suspected.

The Salon article’s observation is narrow in its own way. It loses its meaning in societies where the words “clean-cut”, “middle-class”, “white” and even “boyfriend” are undefined, or defined differently. The role bias plays is important but maybe not in the way that Harding thinks. Consider the problem of why we don’t recognize sociopaths more often. A search for terms “sociopath” and “profile” brings up a multitude of articles which attempt to characterize the warning signs of a sociopathic behavior. But if it’s so easy to spot trouble, why do people keep getting into it? How was it, for example, that people didn’t see trouble when they saw Charles Manson?

One reason for the continuing success of killers, I think, is that sociopaths know how to sneak up on people who are blind to them, just as on the Serengeti plain predators come in downwind of their prey. Charles Manson and Ted Bundy knew how to avoid people who would recognize them as threats. They knew how to use filters in their favor. The Craigslist killer, whoever he may turn out to be, may have employed a different approach than that of the classic stalker. He employed ambush predator tactics. An ambush predator’s problem is to find some way to bring the prey to within striking distance so that no escape is possible. Once the Craigslist killer got the victim into that hotel room, they were toast.

So what can we learn from the episode? One lesson appears to be that the new and strange Internet is different. The Associated Press reported that the Connecticut Attorney General called on the popular Internet site Craigslist to stop “pimping and prostitution in plain sight.”

Blumenthal sent a letter to the online community bulletin board on Wednesday, asking the site to immediately eliminate photographs in the “erotic services” section, hire staff to screen images and ads that violate the site’s terms of service and fine those who violate those terms.

But since pimping and prostitution are hardly new activities, what does the CT AG hope to achieve that a sweep of known pickup locations won’t achieve? What exactly are the new elements of danger which the Internet adds to the equation and which have made the case so fascinating? I think the real role of the Craigslist service was to winnow out the careful — people who aren’t stupid or desperate enough to respond to anonymous ads like that — and lure out the vulnerable victim to the waterhole, which in this case were Massachusetts hotels. That way the Ambush Predator could get the easy marks to identify themselves and assure himself of good hunting odds. It’s fascinating to consider the degree to which Internet services effectively create filters which hunters can exploit. The ways in which pedophiles haunt sites frequented by children is well known.

Of course the hunt works in both ways. Counterterror operators and pedophile hunters also use the online space to ambush people looking to hook up. In early 2008, the Australian police busted a worldwide pedophile ring under an operation codenamed Achilles. One of the reasons that convoys were so effective against U-boats during the Battle of the Atlantic was it brought the wolfpacks together in one place where they could be destroyed by the escorts. Who is hunting who is a relative thing.