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Feature Articles


March 2009
Analyze This: The Criminal Mentality

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     Mobsters are modern-day buccaneers, working schemes, profiting from the labors of others, exploiting the weak, picking the pockets of suckers, killing without remorse. How best to explain these behaviors: Is it psychopathic or simply the internalization of an underworld code of morality at variance with normative values?

     "The psychopath is an asocial, aggressive, highly impulsive person, who feels little or no guilt, and is unable to form lasting bonds of affection with other human beings. The study of the criminal mind examines the psychological theories of criminality and character disorders that can lead to criminal behavior." (William McCord. The Psychopath, an Essay on the Criminal Mind, 1964)

     There is not one kind of psychopath but many, and they distinguish themselves in complex ways. There are patterns and the patterns constitute behaviors considered abnormal by the standards of conventional society. Such distinguishing factors include basic immaturity, complete isolation from the human world and an impoverished emotional life. Tolerance of frustration is extremely low, personality explosive and a preoccupation with sex.

     The psychopathic ego tends toward the extreme. Although the mental equipment of the psychopath is less than adequate, there is the belief that one can outwit the authorities, the law, the police and the average person. There is complete self-absorption and a craving for pleasure. The self is motivated by the search for excitement with little regard to cost. That which motivates a mentally well-adjusted person, such as productive labor, does not satisfy. A notable personality characteristic is to be aggressive and to react to frustration with fury. The psychopath can kill without guilt, lie without compunction and rob without the sense of depriving others.

     Not all psychopaths have criminal tendencies. There are those who live conventional lives and are successful and productive in many sectors of the economy. There is a distinction between the violent psychopath and the non-violent one, who commits white-collar crimes. But both types are willing to do whatever it takes to reach their goals-to manipulate, cheat and destroy lives.

     To recap: Psychopathy is a condition of moral emptiness. The main personality characteristic is a severe emotional detachment-a total lack of empathy and remorse (an antisocial personality disorder). The psychopath often has bland and pleasing external manners, while beneath that façade is a lack of normal human sentiments. He is asocial with marked egoism: the potential for aggravation boils within. His emotional relationships are fleeting and designed to satisfy his own desires. Such personality traits make him incapable of decent conduct and propriety in the business of life.

     The professional contract hit man is a serial killer. He takes life because he welcomes the opportunity, unlike the traditional serial killer who cannot restrain his murderous tendencies or the mobster who (like the soldier) kills as an obligation to his calling. Contract shooters (such as the murderous Joe "Mad Dog" Sullivan, so-named because he would froth at the mouth while running down his victim) play the role of a hunter that meticulously plans out and stalks his prey. (Money is not the primary motivation.) There is no direct reference in the criminal psychopathy literature specifying this mental disposition.

     Take the example of Donald "Tony the Greek" Frankos, who was known as "mafia's most notorious hit man." Frankos lived for notoriety. He was a Navy deserter, drug addict/dealer, braggart, violent, an unrepentant killer with a short fuse, who regularly broke parole. A revolving door inmate, he was jailed or imprisoned twenty-nine times in nineteen locations, more than any other American. He ended his career in the Witness Protection Program.

     This is what he had to say about himself: "Society said I should have remorse for the murders I committed, but I'm not sure I do. I viewed myself as a soldier and my victim as the enemy. I felt the sense of mission accomplished. I enjoyed the praise and recognition it brought. Clearly, I had become the most envied criminal, a cold-blooded hit man, and daily I saw my new found status reflected in the deferent, fearful eyes of others. A Navy psychiatrist judged me as 'mentally incapable.' I was a gangster who thrived on the underworld's atmosphere of excitement, not to mention the money. Hit men do brag about their major scores-their egos wouldn't allow them to keep such secrets. I didn't want to go straight. No boring sessions with do-gooder social workers. No bullshit therapy from a shrink who would say I hated my uncle. What a crock of bullshit I fed them." (Source: William Hoffman, Lake Headley. Contract Killer: the Explosive Story of the Mafia's Most Notorious Hit Man, 1992)

     There have been many comments on mobster personalities by those who have had close encounters with such individuals. The perspectives vary, yet there is a consistency among them that correlate with professional views on criminal mentality characteristics. What follows is a sampling.

     Retired FBI agent Bruce Mouw stated: "A lot of these guys are psychopaths. It is not like the mobsters of the twenties and thirties. There is no honor among these guys." Howard Abadinsky agreed: "The New York mobsters are much more psychopathic than their predecessors. They lack loyalty and love violence." Having met Sam Giancana as a young man, a policeman said that he was a snarling, sarcastic ill-tempered psychopath.

     In 1936, a court ordered a psychiatric exam of Charles "Lucky" Luciano found "instinctive and primitive behavior patterns…by eighteen years old he had acquired a definitely criminalist pattern of conduct."

     "Some of the organized-crime figures are among the most vicious, horrible, awful human beings you'd ever meet-they have an almost animalistic quality to them." (Rudolph Giuliani, former United States Attorney)

     The mobsters that Andrea Giovino encountered had "an oversized sense of privilege and a frighteningly warped sense of entitlement." (Divorced from the Mob, 2004)

     "Wise guys are not nice guys," Joseph D. Pistone wrote. "Wiseguys aren't even close to being nice guys. Wiseguys are barbaric. Wiseguys are the meanest, cruelest, least caring people you'll ever meet." (The Way of the Wiseguy, 2004)

     Psychiatrists judged mobster Vincent Rizzo (as a young man) "paranoid and psychotic…as threat to society…sullen, surly, snarling…motivated solely by a pleasure-pain principle." (Richard Hammer, The Vatican Connection, 1982)

     A drug addict and pusher, David Carr presented himself to the psychiatrist as "considerably passive/aggressive and somewhat narcissistic. He was seen as a manipulative, victimizing, and apparently unwilling to make decisions. He is self-centered and has issues of honesty and commitment." (David Carr. The Night of the Gun, 2008)


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