If the police are right about Aaron Hernandez, he enters a new category, the one in which crime profilers will place him once they’ve figured out exactly what brand of killer he is. Investigators now say the former New England Patriots tight end is no mere one-time shooter; he’s a multiple murderer responsible for three deaths. Which means there is a niche he belongs in, among the school killers, cult killers, and thrill killers.
If Hernandez is guilty, what is he, exactly? A spree killer? A gang killer? But settling on what to call him hardly explains him – and certainly doesn’t explain in any adequate way the mechanism that allows someone to live such a two-branched life. According to prosecutors, Hernandez killed Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado, strangers to him, in a post-nightclub drive-by shooting with a .38 Smith and Wesson on July 12, 2012. According to Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, Hernandez “stalked, ambushed and senselessly murdered” de Abreu and Furtado after a mere brush with them at the nightclub Cure in Boston’s South End.
He then carried the deed so lightly on his conscience that he was able to joke about what he did on his summer vacation in interviews with NFL reporters. And to posture as a grateful guy on the straight and narrow when he received a contract extension worth as much as $40 million only six weeks later.
“I just hope I keep going, doing the right things, making the right decisions so I can have a good life, and be there to live a good life with my family,” he said.
A year later, prosecutors say, he murdered Odin Lloyd after another night at a club. He was in jail for that crime when the new charges were announced May15.
Initially, Hernandez’s arrest provoked a number of commentators to associate his violence with the NFL. But it doesn’t follow; if there were a real association between football and murder, there would be more Hernandezes. There is a huge difference between men who are talented at a violent game, and a man who is simply, viciously, senselessly violent. If Hernandez is guilty of these additional murders, all it proves is that NFL executives were as fooled as the rest of us by the blankness of his face.
In fact, killing a man is a profoundly unnatural act, according to Lt. Col. (ret.) Daniel Grossman, author of the book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. A military psychologist who serves as a trial expert, Grossman writes that “There is a profound resistance to killing your fellow man,” and cites studies showing that even trained soldiers don’t easily kill for any reason other than self-defense. In World War II, for instance, 80 to 85 percent of riflemen did not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy. What’s more, all species share this resistance, he says. Even piranhas don’t turn their teeth on each other.
According to Grossman it takes profound brutalization and conditioning to overcome this resistance. Football by itself is not enough, and in fact all of the rules are oriented to penalize one who willfully injures someone. As Grossman has written, “the purpose of play is to learn not to hurt members of your society and members of your own species. In a basketball game, or a football game, when one of the players is hurt, the play stops.” A more likely culprit is the sustained desensitization of video games and other forms of glorified media violence. Grossman argues these are “murder simulators” which actually award points for killing.
Because of football’s savage nature, it’s tempting to draw a correlation between the NFL and violent crime. And then throw in the fact that a lot of high-profile athletes have an undeniable romance with guns. Reuben Fischer Baum, a data cruncher who posts on Deadspin.com, found that NFLers are twice as likely as their male peers to be arrested on weapons charges. But this doesn’t translate to murder – or other kinds of crime, either. Fischer Baum also found that NFL players are 23 percent less likely to be arrested for assault. And 59 percent less likely to be arrested on drug charges. In fact, the NFL is a pretty healthy, stable population. Eighty percent of retirees have college degrees, and 64 percent of NFL retirees aged 30 and over are still married to their first wives.
The urge to kill is an extreme anomaly, a dramatic failure of an internal mechanism. “Most citizens are kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other, except by accident or under extreme provocation,” Grossman writes. If Hernandez is guilty, the explanation for that – and for the coldness that allowed him to lead such a forked, dual existence – does not lie in football. It lies buried deep in him.
In charging Hernandez for the double murder, the Boston police appear to have cracked a cold case and solved a mystery. But there is a remaining mystery, which is why. Why did he need to kill? Why, when he was so privileged, successful, and powerful, did the destructive urge so overcome Hernandez that he sacrificed everything to it – including his athletic brilliance, his unborn child, and a $40 million fortune? The need to destroy apparently included the destruction of himself.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org