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Law and Crime

Sentimentality of the Criminal: A Basis for More Crime?

Sentimentality is real but has an effect opposite to what one might think.

Key points

  • Criminals experience sentimentality that is genuine.
  • Sentiment can be shut off as the person changes from "tears to ice."
  • Sentimentality elevates a criminal's view of himself as a good person.

Paul took pride in his son Jake’s report card and athletic performance. He told others how he adored his son and loved playing basketball with him on their garage hoop. Returning from grocery shopping late one afternoon, Paul encountered an old friend who offered him what he thought was a great deal on heroin. Short on funds, he rushed home, entered Jake’s bedroom, and dug into the boy’s bank, which contained birthday and holiday gifts as well as money earned from chores.

Tony regularly went to church. He also wore a cross around his neck that he touched whenever he uttered a curse word. A regular reader of the Bible, Tony had a small shrine of religious figures in his bedroom. This religiously observant man was arrested for a series of purse snatchings.

William promised Ruth, his girlfriend, that they would have an elegant evening on the town. In anticipation, Ruth bought a new dress and went to the hairdresser. She was thrilled when late in the afternoon a delivery of cut flowers arrived. When William had not picked her up at the time they agreed upon, she was not all that perturbed. Typical of William to be late. An hour later, no William, only a phone call regretting that he was unavoidably delayed but with no explanation. Enraged, Ruth told him to forget it and hurled the flowers into the trash. It turned out that William had run into a former sex partner and decided to have a “quickie” and lost track of time.

In trying to understand the behavior of Paul, Tony, and William, one might just conclude that they were conmen and thieves who were never sincere and could not be relied upon. However, the situation is more complicated. Paul adored his son and did a lot to help him. Tony was devout in his religious observance, believed in God, and read scripture. William cared deeply for Ruth and had thought of proposing to her that very evening.

Turning Sentimentality On and Off

“I can change from tears to ice and back again,” said a man who committed dozens of burglaries. He was referring to his capacity to become deeply sentimental. However, when he had competing desires, he could turn off the sentimentality in the way a person can shut off a light switch—long enough to do whatever he wanted. It is not difficult for a criminal to shut off sentiment when he has no operational concept of injury to others. A man who committed homicide who refused to step on a bug said he “didn’t want to kill a living thing.” He asserted this in all seriousness because he did not see one as having anything to do with the other.

At times, we all violate our conscience and our principles. Usually, we try to do better and make amends when possible. The criminal rarely has regrets (unless they have to do with his being apprehended). His life consists largely of maneuvers in which he struggles to control other people and enhance his sense of power. He opts for what is expedient with little concern about damage he might inflict. Sentiment went out the window when Paul stole from his young son’s earnings. Religious fervor did not stand in the way of Tony’s grabbing women’s purses. And William’s “love” for Ruth vanished as soon as he spotted an opportunity for sexual gratification.

Criminals' Views of Themselves

Sentimentality may prompt a criminal to do a good deed. Whatever good he does elevates his view of himself as a good person. “I would never hurt a helpless animal,” proclaimed one man. However, spending time buying and selling drugs resulted in practically living on the streets while he neglected his pet dog whom he claimed was his best friend.

Most criminals love their mother. Mothers rarely give up on their offspring. While not approving of many of their activities, mothers of criminals continue to believe that their son or daughter is a good person. They bail them out of trouble, dole out money, and rarely turn them away, even when they think they can endure no more heartbreak. The criminal’s “love” for his mother does not stop him from living in a manner that causes her endless grief. It is extremely difficult for the layperson to conceive of a criminal’s revering his mother while causing her emotional and sometimes physical injury.

Even a cold-blooded murderer is capable of such sentimentality. The capacity to shut off sentiment, no matter how genuine, baffles people. Without sensing a contradiction, the same offender can experience even within minutes maudlin sentiment and savage brutality. A murderer declared that he loved his mother because she was the only person on earth who stood by him. Nonetheless, when she tried to persuade him to look for a job and stop staying out all night, he screamed at her for trying to run his life. While singing her praises to others, this man did nothing to help his mother, an elderly widow, take care of the house. Occasionally, he’d go to the grocery store and think that he was doing a noble deed.

A criminal may go out of his way to help a disabled person. However, this is likely to be a single act as he sees nothing to gain by developing a relationship with that person. He may join a charitable organization with a sense of self-satisfaction. He may find that doing so boosts his reputation but also helps to conceal illicit activities. The more he is known for performing good deeds, the more he can hide criminal conduct.

The criminal’s sentimentality suggests that perhaps there is hope for him to change. However, that is not the case. Sentimentality does not prompt a criminal to examine his thinking and behavior in order to become a better person. Sentimentality fortifies the offender’s view of himself as a good person and thereby provides greater license for crime.

More from Stanton E. Samenow Ph.D.
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