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The Killing of Murder

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1987 Crack bust, West 107th Street.  

Solution 4.
Get inside the would-be killer’s head.

Surveillance is expanding quietly into our lives, perhaps too stealthily so far to affect behavior. The whole city is filling gradually with cameras that feed street scenes directly to a command room just downstairs from Ray Kelly’s office. Though only lower Manhattan is likely to receive virtual blanket coverage by government cameras in the very near future, the NYPD’s reach is growing. Already, there are patrol cars in every borough equipped with electronic license-plate readers that automatically feed every passing plate into a searchable computer database.

How far surveillance can go isn’t hard to imagine for anyone who’s ever read a Philip K. Dick novel. Guido Frank, a child psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, Denver, has already been using brain-imaging technology to peer inside the brains of a small group of aggressive teenagers to isolate the causes of violent behavior.

Back when murder was peaking in New York, some brain scientists believed that biology soon would be able to identify “a violence gene.” Though that quest proved quixotic, subsequent findings have largely confirmed that particular physical and physiological characteristics of the brain, some genetic, are common to individuals predisposed to violence. The intriguing twist is that “criminal” thought patterns only emerge in such brains if they’ve been ill fed both by damaging individual experiences and by the surrounding culture. Neurology is now all but saying, in other words, that both childhood abuse and Hollywood shoot-’em-ups really do matter when it comes to a society’s level of violence.

Frank has focused on five teenagers in whom the damage of life experiences has already been done, and the consistency of his findings has been startling. Three separate segments of the brain functioned abnormally when these participants were asked to perform particular tasks. When the teenagers were shown images of angry faces, the amygdala, which registers threats, became overactivated, while the ventral striatum, the brain’s reward center, lit up much as it would after sex or a bite of chocolate. “These kids may get some pleasure out of aggressive responses,” Frank says. In a separate test, the prefrontal cortex, the segment of the brain that moderates impulses, responded feebly to control emotional responses.

A troubling question is what society should do once such an individual is identified. Frank wants to use further brain-imaging studies to test various medications and counseling strategies, either of which might eventually lead to healthier thought patterns. But a city confident that it had identified its most dangerous citizens could conceivably adopt a less therapeutic posture. The possibilities are frightening to consider.


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