The Raskolnikov Syndrome

The Raskolnikov Syndrome

Why do criminals break laws?

I have known or interviewed people who have committed murder, assault with a crowbar, drug trafficking, kidnapping, sexual crimes against children, human trafficking, extortion, fraud, graft and/or smuggling.

I remember once visiting Archambault Prison, near Montreal, where I spent a harrowing day speaking with inmates in low, medium and maximum security. “Super-max” was off-limits to me, however: a heavily-armed guard led me through a series of thick steel doors with time locks, then slid open a tiny window in one cell door, so I could observe a super-max inmate held in solitary confinement, who had tried to escape.

I don’t believe a general psychological rule applies to all these people, as if criminal behaviour were simply a form of social deviance which can only be remedied by confession and redemption.

In Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov starts off as a cunning, nihilistic man who commits murder for private gain. He is convinced he can rise above the consequences.

Porfiry Petrovich, the head of the Investigation Unit looking into various murders, recalls reading Raskolnikov’s article “On Crime”. In this article, “‘all men are divided into ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary men have to live in submission, have no right to transgress the law, because, don’t you see, they are ordinary. But extraordinary men have a right to commit any crime and to transgress the law in any way, just because they are extraordinary. That was your idea, if I am not mistaken?’”

Raskolnikov believes he is an extraordinary, a superior being – above the law and conventional morality. He dares himself to kill, believing that this defiant act will bring a sense of exaltation, will raise him to greatness: “‘Yes, that’s what it was!’ Raskolnikov later tells Sonya, a self-sacrificing woman forced into prostitution by her drunken family. “‘I wanted to become a Napoleon, that is why I killed her…. Do you understand now?’”

Over the course of the novel, Raskolnikov’s “other” nature emerges – the tormented, guilt-ridden man with something to confess, who unconsciously wants to punish himself. One of Dostoyevsky’s favourite themes is that humans have a dual nature – we are just as capable of doing evil as good. We are split down the middle and have constantly to choose between our two natures.

Several of the criminals I have known or interviewed share a common characteristic. They live not above society, but in a parallel universe of their own.

For example, I remember the head of a terrorist militia running his own parallel régime, which was a law unto itself.

And the head of a major crime family thriving in his own parallel economy.

And other offenders totally lacking self-awareness, blacking out on occasion, subject to dissociation and living in a parallel reality.

I don’t believe any of these people take a philosophical or moral approach to crime, like a Dostoyevsky character. I doubt they have a “catch-me-if-you-can” attitude, or any particular desire to confess. They see crime as normal, as something to be expected in daily life, like the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. They are self-consistent, and true to their own inner logic. They go from crime to crime, methodically doing everything in their power never to get caught. From the vantage point of their parallel universe, laws and morality interfere with what they want to do, like an unhealthy and even destructive form of competition.

The Raskolnikov Syndrome must be something afflicting writers, when they overly dramatize situations in the interests of story-telling.

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