We never stop hearing about how Americans are so bloodthirsty when it comes to crime policy, how black-and-white our moral view of crime is, and in short how we're all one step away from an Iranian criminal justice system. I've gone through the General Social Survey data and found, not surprisingly, that in reality those hardline attitudes track the homicide rate and so have been plummeting since the mid-1990s.
But before looking at charts based on social science data, which will be up tomorrow, let's consider a more qualitative sign from popular culture that attitudes have shifted strongly away from the war-on-crime mindset of more violent times. This way we can spot a similar change in attitudes in other times and places, where quantitative survey data are not available.
During the golden age of horror movies (the mid-'70s through the late '80s or early '90s), the killers are not given any "backstory" at all. They come from who knows where, and God knows how they got the way they are. Any attempt to flash back to a troubled childhood or implicate a rough labor market (or other set of "social forces") would have been read by audiences as a callous rationalization of their murderous behavior.
This uncertainty about the causal process that gave us the maniac killer adds to the overall sense of dread and humility about frightening problems that may lie beyond the powers of human beings to end. You give it your best shot and hope for the best -- though more often than not the killer gets up again, murders some more people, and returns to wreak further havoc in the sequel.
Earlier, when the society was still relatively naive about crazy and evil people, the consensus among social scientists was that crime was a social dysfunction, or perhaps the result of childhood psychological trauma. This supposedly complex view of the world yielded the moronically simplistic cure of the Great Society era -- throw a bunch of money at poor people, and they'll stop going crazy and killing each other. Or if they had the wrong kind of parenting, hand them over to a shrink to be fixed up.
This social determinism view was not confined to crimes that could at least plausibly be explained this way, such as the proverbial thief who steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. Even the most sick and twisted criminals such as serial killers were portrayed as monsters who we should feel sorry for -- just look at how they had to grow up.
The most infamous example of this is the end of the movie Psycho, where the full backstory of this demented monster is explained at length, and with plenty of Freudian psychobabble laid on extra thick. And with all of the shots of Mrs. Bates shouting at her timid little son, they might as well say it straight up: you'd turn out that way, too, if you had that domineering old bitch for a mother. He wasn't an evil person -- just the product of a noxious upbringing. You should imagine yourself in his shoes and feel sorry for him.
After the crime rate peaked in 1992, we lost our memories of how horrific killers can be, and this opened the way for sympathetic portrayals of serial killers. Documentaries of Ed Gein, David Berkowitz, etc., now routinely focus on their stressful childhoods in order to soften the audience for the heavy news that, by the way, this guy hunted people down and carved them up like game animals.
Somewhere around the early 2000s, whatever residual memories we had of serial killers had vanished. It became de rigueur in horror movie remakes to provide the humanizing backstory of the psychotic killers, including the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street, in total contrast to the originals where the killers come from outside the human race, and so whose behavior defies explanation. Even brand-new series, like the Saw movies, have labored to explain how the sick fucks got that way. I mean, you aren't going to hold it against that bitter Jigsaw nerd, are you? -- after all, he was a cancer victim, and besides he's only trying to teach the sheeple to unplug themselves from the Matrix and appreciate life, those ungrateful non-cancer-having bunch of shits.
Sociopaths rely on the gullibility of their would-be victims in order to thrive, and it's clear from horror movies of the past 10 years that we have been a lot more willing to listen to the story of where they're coming from, instead of not giving a damn and just trying to waste them before they kill one of us again.
Like I said, the social survey data support this conclusion, but this one may be more worth bearing in mind since it is easier to spot in other settings where opinion surveys are lacking. Once this pattern becomes common, it won't be too long before the society is hit by another crime wave: it's a clear signal that they've let their defenses down around exploiters.