Criminals know the occupational hazards of crime, getting caught, convicted, confined or, in a high risk crime, being injured or killed. But they are able to shut off these deterrents long enough to do what they want to do. This includes shutting off conscience. The “cutoff” may be rapid or it may occur over time.
Novelist Tom Perrotta describes a gradual corrosion and then cutoff of deterrents as he writes about Tim, a character in his novel The Abstinence Teacher (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2007). Tim, a drinker, user of illegal drugs, and an adulterer, is trying to reform. After some success, he finds himself perilously close to relapsing.
“…he sometimes found himself driving repeatedly past certain bars,
thinking of how pleasant it would be just to pop in and have a beer,
less for the beer than for the company, and the darkness, and the
music—the relief of finally being back home among his own kind.
He’d been down this road before, of course, and knew with grim
precision what sort of danger he was in” [page 116].
Tim is tempted, not just by the alcohol but by the excitement of returning to his old life. At this point in the book, Tim does not succumb to temptation. Later, however, he drinks, participates in a poker game, and smokes marijuana.
“It was almost creepy how it had happened, so smoothly and
slyly, the way George had summoned him outside and offered
him the joint without asking, not even giving him the chance to
refuse, as if he’d known all along that this was the real reason
why Tim had come. Of course, Tim had already begun drinking
by that point, so it was hard to blame George, or pretend he
hadn’t made his own decision” [page 310].
“Corrosion” is my term for a thought process whereby internal (i.e., conscience) or external deterrents are slowly eliminated until the desire to commit the act outweighs the fears and the desire is enacted. "Cutoff” allows an offender to dispose of deterrents, freeing him to act. At times, the cutoff occurs almost immediately and so rapidly that the act is interpreted as the result of a sudden “impulse.”
If a criminal makes the cutoff of fear a cornerstone of his life, it allows him to do as he wants. He does not rationalize the behavior to himself. The rationalizations come later if he has to explain his conduct to someone else. Corrosion and cutoff are under the criminal’s control. Although these thinking processes may become habitual, choice is still involved. That is, the individual makes a decision to invoke a cutoff of deterrents.
In Mr. Perrotta’s novel, Tim is not a felon or extreme offender. But the author accurately depicts a man in a struggle, deterring certain thoughts over and over, then finally acting. This is not impulse or passion but the result of antecedent thinking—the corrosion and cutoff of deterrents.