Opinion

Why does bad behavior fascinate us?

My interest lately has been captured by the recent arrest of alleged local cat burglar Chad Cash. Cash had his own cheering section at some of his earlier court appearances — he’s apparently a hit with the girls.

Isn’t it amazing how fascinated we as a society are with certain types of criminals.

There is a genre in mystery fiction published in the good old U.S. of A now which is simply labelled “serial killers.”

Americans complain about crime, arm themselves against it, but in an almost schizophrenic way, we also support it. From privately operated prisons through endless television shows about cops and robbers, crime and criminals are big business here in the Land of the Free.

We buy books about Ted Bundy, and we will fulfill Gary Ridgeway’s hopes and buy his story too. Ridgeway has already said he hopes a “good” writer gets interested in the story of his life. Since nobody’s buying books about other paint factory employees, Ridgeway must believe the interest in him is in his off-the-clock job — strangling young women and dumping their bodies in the wilderness.

Seattle’s most famous living writer is arguably Ann Rule who writes about almost nothing but locally grown murderers.

Bainbridge Island’s Jack Olsen, who recently passed on, started as a novelist and sportswriter, but achieved lasting fame by writing about Kevin Coe, Spokane’s most famous serial rapist, and other regional criminals.

Our neighbors to the North made heroes out of their law enforcement officers— the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

We made heroes out of Jesse James, a murderous bandit and psychopath who robbed his neighbors and often shot down innocent bank employees (before he switched to robbing trains), and Billy Bonney (aka Billy the Kid), a pint-sized sociopath who killed people for various offenses including looking at him funny. By the time he died at 21, Billy had killed one man for every year of his abortive life.

And it’s not just the Wild West, a period safely buried in our dramatically bloody past.

The number-one-rated cable television show for years has been “The Sopranos,” about a struggling Jersey Mob Boss.

A sizable portion of modern popular music is called “gangsta” rap, and the most famous “artists” in this field have written a lot of songs about killing cops and robbing innocent bystanders, called “mushrooms” in the parlance of the street, because they pop up in unexpected places where they aren’t supposed to be.

Our fascination with crime goes hand in hand with our crime rate — down the past few years but still higher (in murders and rapes) than every country in western Europe except Serbia.

And yet, there are few suburban and small-town Americans who don’t fear the downtown streets of their nearest big city after dark, justifiably or not, fearfully clutching their crime novels as they skitter toward the ferry dock or their parking garage, not making eye contact with anyone who doesn’t look just like they do.

And a majority of us support, often loudly, the death penalty, despite many flaws in our legal system — more than 140 convicts later found to be innocent were executed in the United States in the 20th century by the courts supported by we good law and order folks.

I have no ready and easy answers on this subject. I’m curious to know what others think about our Jekyll and Hyde approach to crime and punishment.

Despite my intellectual distaste for glorifying criminals, I loved the first two Godfather films in Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy. I don’t own a television, but I do own a VCR and a monitor, and on that outdated equipment I have watched every episode of the Sopranos’s first four seasons.

I just finished reading T.J. Stiles’ brilliant 2002 biography, “Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War.”

I can defend my interest by saying I don’t read potboiler true crime, and don’t watch exploitative network cops shows, and, in a CD collection reaching toward 500, I have only three rap CDs, none of which are “gangsta” artists.

And yet, I am fascinated, appalled, interested and disgusted by the criminals amongst us, and our disingenuous interest in them.

America, despite pretensions to civility, has always been a violent place when compared to other western societies.

Is it because many of our earliest ancestors were criminals banished here, or running from British and German authorities?

Is it because we had slavery on our ground for more than 250 years, brutalizing slaves and masters alike?

Is it because we are the gun culture the rest of the civilized world alternately mocks and fears? (Don’t misunderstand. I qualified as a marksman and expert with two weapons during my time in the armed forces, and when younger, loved to hunt and shoot).

Is it because we all come from everywhere and are thrown together whether we like it or not?

Is it because we use 60 percent of the world’s cocaine? (We do).

Or is it all of these things and more?

I don’t know, but I do know that on a day when three American soldiers were killed in Iraq, all the major cable news operations were showing the arrest of Michael Jackson “live” instead of the war.

Is he a pedophile or simply the weirdest entertainer since Tiny Tim died?

Americans care more than we like to admit publicly.

Why?

It’s as good a question as how Gary Ridgeway got away with his crimes for more than 20 years, even if our fascination with scum and scumbags isn’t something we like to talk much about.

Dennis Wilken is a former Port Orchard Independent reporter.

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