I’m not going to recommend that anyone actually watch this apparently fascinating series called Dexter, since I long ago found out that I can’t watch something gruesome without obsessing over the images for months later. Instead, you might just read the Wikipedia entry, as I did.
The premise is that a serial killer works as a forensic specialist in order to identify potential victims, that is, the murderers themselves. Having been raised by a policeman, his tendencies were identified early and he was inculcated with a kind of ethical code (the “Code of Harry,” named for his adoptive father), such that now he effectively hides his compulsions and directs them toward the socially useful end of eliminating other, less ethical killers.
I recognize several interesting themes here. A superficial one is the normalization of psychosis, psychopathy, or neurosis, such as has also been demonstrated in recent years with Monk, 24, The Sopranos, and Seinfeld. I consider this superficial because it is trivial. Fiction has almost always concerned itself with the unusual or abnormal, and for the past several decades it has increasingly depicted the ordinariness of abnormality.
There is a certain utilitarianism in the premise, as in the old series It Takes a Thief or more directly The Silence of the Lambs. Sometimes movies or novels depict a criminal as making the most effective spy or law enforcer, while sometimes they depict a law enforcer realizing his underlying criminal tendencies and their useful or destructive possibilities.
Another theme is the glorification of the vigilante or, more generally, the antihero. Again, this has been around for a long time in the US. This series goes further only by making a serial killer the protagonist, thus taking advantage of the longstanding American fascination with bloody torture killings. However, before judging it harshly, we should ask how many people have been brutally killed by other heroes who are not labeled “antiheroes.” Generally writers at least make them feel guilty, I suppose.
I have long thought about the relationship between the sociopathy of serial killers and that required of the policeman or soldier. I don’t want to demean the police or the military, so rather than sensationalize their documented mental illnesses I will simply note that many inside and outside of these professions have noted that as a matter of course they ask people to do things that would otherwise be considered socially unacceptable or even criminal. Yet, they are expected to do these things willingly and even gladly, while maintaining professional demeanor and social propriety. Fundamentally, the police and the military attract and develop sociopaths.
One obvious response to this observation is to have criminals be executioners or to deliberately send criminals out to keep domestic order. This has in fact been state policy for many governments, including Nazi Germany (the SS and SA), various South American and Central American governments since the 1950s, Iran under the Shah, Iran under the ayatollahs (with the Basij), and Sudan. Another obvious response is to hire criminals as mercenary soldiers, as with the French Foreign Legion, the pro-Allied Forces Mafia in World War II, some of the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and some of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan after 9/11/2001. Yet another option is to bribe criminals to be soldiers, law enforcers, and colonists in some fringe area on the borders of empire.
I think that in more pragmatic ancient societies this was probably even more common. If you have a relatively small tribe in a hostile wilderness, and you identify a member of your tribe who is particularly cruel or bloodthirsty, why not just send him out to annoy your enemies and thereby keep everyone else safe? It was only later that the myth of national identity demanded progressively greater professionalization and predictability in soldiers. Moreover, it is only since the 1700s that some criminals have been viewed as victims who can be rehabilitated rather than as congenitally twisted people who need to either find a socially useful niche or die.
The problem with this view of enlightened rehabilitation, which probably peaked in popularity in the early 1900s and has been on life support since the 1960s, is that it requires a specific and achievable standard of normality. Those standards have been steadily degrading or simply disappearing in the US. I take the postmodern view that such standards are somewhat arbitrary, along with the existentialist view that we need to choose specific standards anyway, regardless of whether we can find universal justification for them.
Now then, don’t whip out your Bible and start preaching to me about absolute standards. I love reading the Bible and consider it authoritative for moral instruction and understanding God’s will. It does include important standards for righteousness in thought and behavior. However, its depiction of them is problematic from a social standpoint, because our society is not the same as any of their societies. Lot was among the most righteous in Sodom, but that doesn’t mean that if a bunch of men want to gang-rape your guests you should offer your daughter to them. If your fiancée’s father tricks you into marrying her sister, that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and marry both of them, and then deal with their fertility problems by having sex with their slaves. And if you sell everything you own, give away the money to strangers, and start wandering the streets preaching to people, I guarantee that you will get arrested, institutionalized, beat up, or set on fire. The Bible offers many instructions and examples of excellence in virtue and humility, but it is a very bad guide for determining what is normal, mostly because that is a modern concept but also because our society is not based on Biblical principles.
Instead, what we can learn from the Bible is how we can have natural proclivities that are socially unacceptable, but God can use them for good or use us for good despite our defects. Moses’ indignant anger was used to demonstrate God’s will; Joseph’s arrogance was used to instruct Pharaoh; David’s adulterousness may have made him a more passionate psalm-writer; and Saul’s critical judgmentalism surely contributed to the incisive intelligence of his epistles as Paul.
What is at stake here is the definition of “normal.” Does it matter what the social context is and who the judge is? Is rationality normal, and if not, does it matter? Dexter is perfectly rational. In fact, he is far more rational than the person who wants to kill the people he hates, then panders to them out of fear, then gets drunk to forget his pain, then beats up his wife out of frustration, and finally ends up on Internet political forums blasting out passive-aggressive sarcasm or engaging in absurd opinion droving. Considering that one is unlikely to change society through pointless pseudonymous political babbling, I would say that the political animals are quite irrational.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am a psycho-gatekeeper, though. I am happy to see evidence of panic among the phony scientists and counselors over the issue of Rorschach tests being hacked. Feel free to be irrational, I say. However, don’t claim to be a paragon of “science” or “reason.”