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Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Updated: July 6, 10:32 AM ET
Q&A: Bill James on Crime

By Chuck Klosterman

James
If you're interested in baseball, you're interested in Bill James — he's the inventor of sabermetrics, the ideological engine behind Michael Lewis' best-selling Moneyball, and the sport's most influential writer and historian of the past 25 years. But you know what Bill James is interested in? Murderers. He's interested in crime, the people who commit them, and — perhaps most tellingly — the people who write about them.

Over the span of his 62 years, James has read (by his own estimate) more than 1,000 books on the subject of crime and spent countless hours trying to figure out what they really mean; he's tried to understand both the nature of the criminal mind and the meaning of society's relationship with acts of the unspeakable. Now, after decades of unconscious research, James has written Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. It's a fascinating, comprehensive, deeply strange book (it dissects crime literature as much as it dissects crime, sometimes seeming like the most intense 10th grade book report the world has ever seen). I spoke with James about Popular Crime on the third-floor landing of Manhattan's Le Parker Meridien Hotel; our conversation was slow at the onset, but evolved into an unexpected meditation on the future of society. Bearded and soft-spoken, James is among the most stoic people I've ever met — at no point did he seem interested, bored, happy, or annoyed. I think he might have laughed once, but I wouldn't testify to that in court. We had only about 60 minutes before he took the train to Boston, where he continues to serve as the Red Sox's senior advisor on baseball operations. What follows is pretty much our entire conversation …

You mention in the book that you originally wanted to title this project Something Terrible Has Happened, only to discover there was already a 1966 true crime book by the same name. Why did you ultimately go with Popular Crime, and what exactly do you mean by the term "popular crime?"

Crime is a bad thing. Being popular is a good thing. We take horrible events and we make entertainment out of them. We make them into popular culture. The title is a contrast. It's almost an oxymoron. It's a little like [the title of James' 1994 baseball Hall of Fame critique] The Politics of Glory.

As a society, do we overestimate or underestimate the importance of crime in day-to-day life?

We underestimate it, because it's our intent to underestimate it. We only deal with it indirectly. We all do so many things to avoid being the victims of crime that we no longer see those things, so we don't see the cost of it. Just finding a safe place for us to have this conversation, for example — we needed a quiet place, but before that, we needed to find a safe place. A hotel lobby is what it is because of the level of security. I've checked out of this hotel, but I'm still sitting here in the third-floor lobby, because it's safe. When you buy something, it's wrapped in seven layers of packaging in order to make it harder to steal.

It's also part of coded language, I suppose. When people are looking for a new home, they often say they want to live near a good school, but what they're really saying is that they want live in a place where crime isn't, because those things are deeply connected.

That's right. That's what it is.

How can understanding the nature of a specific crime help us to understand what it means to live in a certain place at a certain time?

Details become very important, because crimes are described by people through those details. My favorite example of this is from the case of Sacco and Vanzetti. On the day the initial crime was committed, one of the accused was a fish merchant. At the time, the accused was alleged to be delivering eels. The Italian-American community used to eat pickled eels as part of their Christmas dinner, and this guy had been consigned to deliver a barrel of eels and claimed he was delivering those eels at the time of the robbery. He had something like 12 witnesses who swore that he was doing exactly that. But other witnesses stated that this was impossible because — since the eels were always served pickled — there was no way they could be ready for Christmas dinner if they were only being delivered on the day before. Therefore, they must have been delivered a few days earlier, which proves he was wrong about the date. This is a window into how that guy lived, and what it was like to live at that time. It's not even the veracity of the fact, but the fact that this incident shows how these people lived.

Early in the book, you write about the perceived "shame" that comes from being obsessed with crime, and that this has made the genre of crime writing ghettoized within literary circles. What do you think is the public perception of people who are obsessed with crime?

I think among the population at large, people are openly fascinated with crime and don't feel any shame over it. It's only the opinion-makers and the "opinion elites" who turn up their noses. They're the ones who don't think crime should be discussed.

Is this because the people you classify as the "opinion elites" tend to exist in a social class where crime does not affect them?

Yes, that's right.

So what do you think it means to be obsessed with crime?

Crimes stories are universally interesting. They reveal a side of people that we'd not otherwise talk about. Crime stories show us the part of people's lives they try to keep hidden.

Obviously, there are millions of crimes and millions of criminals. But is there some unifying element among the type of people who become murderers? What is the fundamental difference between the kind of person who kills someone and the kind of person who never could?

That's an interesting question. In a lot of true crime stories, you will see that someone testifies for the defendant and talks about what a good person they are, and that this person could never commit the crime in question. I would like to think of myself as someone who would never commit a crime. I'm sure a lot of people would. But I don't think that's a good argument for anything. If I was on a jury, the claim that the accused was "too good a person" to commit the crime would not be an argument I would buy. Rabbis commit crimes. Ministers. Priests commit terrible crimes. Now, are they committing these crimes because they're not really good people and they're just pretending to be good, or are they truly good people who simply fail to deal with certain situations? I think the latter is more often the case.

Do you believe in the concept of "evil"? Does evil exist?

Well … sure. Very evil things happens. I don't have any problem saying that a certain act was evil or that someone acted evil in a given situation. Some people give themselves over to their most evil desires, and those people becomes evil. But in general, it's reductive to think of evil as something foreign and separate from the rest of us. Evil is part of everyone. We all have the capacity to commit evil acts. Popular crime stories are mostly about apparently good people who commit heinous acts. Most of crime is committed by people who are living a criminal life and not making much effort to live good lives. But crime stories are more like O.J. Simpson: People who seem to be doing OK but then give in to evil urges.

OK, so tell me this: In 1984, O.J. Simpson had not (allegedly) killed anyone. But was he already a murderer? Did that capacity to kill already exist within him, a decade before Nicole Brown Simpson was dead?

I think the capacity to commit terrible acts exists in all of us, myself included. I think we could all do things we'd be very ashamed of. I'm sure that capacity was within O.J. in 1984, as it was in myself in 1984.

You're speaking hypothetically, but I'm curious: What would have to happen in order to make you commit a murder? Can you picture a scenario where you kill someone?

For most of us who are living successful lives, we systematically steer away from those situations. We steer away from those stresses. But, you know … if the kids have to eat and there's no money in the bank, who knows what you might do? So you try to keep money in the bank. You try to avoid that circumstance. If a woman drives you crazy, you'll do things that you wouldn't normally do — so you try to stay away from women who make you crazy. Or drugs: Any one of us can become a drug addict. And once you do, you will kill somebody to get drugs. So maybe that's the way to think about this: Any real drug addict will kill you in order to get drugs.

Wait — are you suggesting the addiction to cocaine or heroin is greater than whatever internally stops us from committing murder?

Sure. But what I'm really trying to say is that this is probably how we need to think about these types of things: It is not as if we walk through one doorway and decide that murder is acceptable. You have to walk through many doorways. The first doorway leads to a party, where people are doing drugs and having fun. The second doorway leads to more partying. It's a long, long series of doorways, until you end up in a room where a terrible thing happens. So the question is, "How many doorways away are you?" It's not a question about a person's capacity to commit a murder. It's a question of how many doorways we keep between ourselves and that situation.

How should we differentiate between the man who kills for passion, the man who kills for greed, and the man who kills without justification? If you're forced to rank these crimes or to decide how they should be penalized by society — how much should motive matter?

The story of the person who kills for love is almost always more compelling than the person who kills for money. I didn't write about the Mafioso in this book because that's a different phenomenon. Those are people who entered a lifestyle where killing people is just a necessary part of what they do.

Is there any benefit of trying to understand the mind of a serial killer like Ted Bundy, or is that a waste of time? Is it essentially trying to rationally understand the irrational?

Actually, we spend a lot of time trying not to figure it out. Men want to have power over beautiful college girls. It's a fact of life. It's not specific to Ted Bundy. What we're really trying to do when we try to figure out Bundy's incentive is that we're trying to avoid admitting that he's not all that different than you, me or anyone else. Police who investigate serial killers will often say, "I don't care why he committed this crime. My job is to catch him." And I think — in general — that's the right attitude. If you think about it otherwise, you're somehow making the perpetrator superior to the victim. The reason the rest of us don't act on our worst impulses is because we care about the people who would be our victims. Ted Bundy did not care. Trying to see things his way is to depersonalize his victims and not care about them.

I don't know if I totally agree with you. You say it's natural for men to want to feel power over attractive college-aged women, but what that usually means is the man wants the woman to be attracted to him. That's the normal manifestation of that desire for power. To me, the situation with Bundy is radically different, and not just because it ends with murder.

It's possible. Bundy was very successful with women, so his actions can't just be an extension of the natural order. He wasn't some sex-starved person … most serial killers are repulsive people. Bundy was not. He was a reasonably attractive young man.

Or take someone like Jeffrey Dahmer: Dahmer not only killed and ate people, but he liked to keep the corpses around so he wouldn't feel lonely. These clearly seem like the actions of a totally insane person. So if he's insane, shouldn't we think about this crime much differently than a person who embezzles a lot of money from a bank but does so consciously? Does a person like Dahmer even have agency over his actions?

One can't really relate to the insanity of Dahmer. You know, there was a British serial killer, Dennis Nilsen, who committed crimes not that different than Dahmer's, yet is perceived far differently. Nilsen was sophisticated. He wrote poetry — some of his poetry is not bad. He lived a reserved, dignified lifestyle. Yet he was doing the same things as Dahmer — he'd pick up homosexual prostitutes and keep them in his apartment for several days. He just wanted someone around. It would be better if there was a more practical punishment for this kind of behavior, but what can you do? You can't return those people to society, ever.

Do you favor capital punishment?

No.

Well, what did you think about the military execution of Osama bin Laden? He certainly could have been arrested by the Navy SEALs, but they shot him instead. I realize terrorism is totally different than traditional crime, but I'm curious about your opinion.

One argument for capital punishment is that some people don't deserve to live. And sometimes that's right. Certain people do not deserve to live. But I choose not to be involved with the killing. My stance on this is not about them; it's about me, and about us. But there are certainly people who don't deserve to live, and you can't ache for them. You can't ache for bin Laden or his descendants. But that's not my point. The point is that I choose not to be part of that process. If I had to choose between killing Dahmer or putting him where he can't hurt anyone, I'd choose the latter. But of course, it's impossible to put bin Laden anywhere where he can't hurt anyone. By being alive, he is a threat. Even in death he's a threat. So that's a different case.

When you say that some people don't deserve to live — what is the cut-off? When does someone lose the right to be alive?

It's when you choose rationally to do great harm to others.

There's a section in Popular Crime where you create a mathematical system that could be used by juries in order to deduce an accused person's guilt, built around a list of criteria. It's basically a weighted point system. The example you use is Lizzie Borden, who you feel was not guilty (as least according to this point system). However, two murders were committed that day, and there does not appear to be any potential suspect except Lizzie Borden. She seems to be the only real option. So what do you make of Sherlock Holmes' fictional axiom that states, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"? If there is no other explanation for the Borden murders, what else are we supposed to conclude?

That Sherlock Holmes line is very, very interesting. It's false, and extremely arrogant, and very dangerous. That's not a real way to think about the world. This concept of eliminating the impossible — we could never do that. The whole idea of Sherlock Holmes is dangerous because it encourages people to think that — if they're intelligent enough — they could put all the pieces together in absolute terms. But the human mind is not sophisticated enough to do that. People are not that smart. It's not that Sherlock Holmes would need to be twice as smart as the average person; he'd have to be a billion times as smart as the average person.

I once watched a speech by a Canadian philosopher named Steven Pinker, and he argued that the world is continually becoming less violent. He wasn't talking about urban crime as much as war and disasters, but I'm wondering if you agree with that thesis: Is the world less violent than it used to be?

If you go back in human history, people witnessed bloodshed on a wide-scale basis all the time. The Romans didn't have gladiatorial shows where people were killed every once in a while — they happened all the goddamn time. If you were a sports fan in ancient Rome and you wanted to watch people torn apart by wild animals, you could do so many times a year. So it's true that the world is profoundly less violent than it used to be. … I knew a person when I was very young — a person who graduated from high school around the same time I did. … He had been with a woman when he was 18, and they had a son. The boy fell down some steps and died. Most everybody in town thought the child was a victim of abuse and that the man should be prosecuted for murder, but he never was. Now, if that had happened just three years later, he would have been prosecuted — because during those three years, there was a media uproar over child abuse. When I was young, I once had a realization while reading the newspaper about just how many things we now consider murder that were not seen as murder 100 years before. In 1950, if there was a fight in a bar and someone was killed, the police would ask, "Was it a fair fight?" If it was a fair fight, it might be manslaughter, but also might be nothing. When I played football in high school, our coach would work us as hard as he could on hot days and not let us have water. And you'd see stories in the newspaper, maybe 10 times a year, where some kid would die from this. Yet coaches still did it. But that would never happen now, because the coach would be charged with murder. We continually become less tolerant of actions that lead to death. The human race has been in a long struggle to eliminate murder. And we will succeed.

Really? You believe that?

Yes. There will always be occasional exceptions, but we're involved in a long struggle against murder, war, famine, disease — and we move forward more than we move back. And you can only understand this if you look over the sweep of centuries. There were so many terrible things done by kings and emperors and everyday normal people that are just incomprehensible today. The historian Suetonius writes about how Nero — beyond the many thousands of people he killed in his official duties— liked to sneak out of the palace at night and murder people in the streets, purely for entertainment. Now, whatever you may think of our recent presidents, it's pretty safe to say they didn't do that. It's now impossible to imagine the official leader of an organized country as a serial murderer. But it's not impossible — throughout history, it was extremely common. But now it's inconceivable. Perhaps one day it will be inconceivable for the U.S. to commit air strikes against other countries. And I'm not saying that as a criticism of George W. Bush or as some kind of judgment. I'm just saying that we've been at war with these evils forever, and if you read history, you can see that we are making constant progress.

Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.