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Pre-Crime Detection - It’s not all sci-fi


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Point Of View: Pre-Crime Detection. It’s not all sci-fi.

With Barbara Sumner Burstyn

First published on Spectator.co.nz…

In the new Tom Cruise movie Minority Report the police can predict with chilling accuracy just who will commit future crimes. The film is promoted as science fiction but if you look closely at a new report just released covering a study of 442 Dunedin boys over a period of 26 years you begin to wonder if the chill factor is not just on the screen.

The British-New Zealand research team report they have found a gene variation known as monoamine oxidase (MAOA) that signals future anti-social behaviour. (NZ Herald 3.8.02). Claiming a world breakthrough, the researchers say the gene, when combined with childhood abuse, could lead to anti-social and violent adult behaviour. But rather than suggesting the obvious: that the discovery could be used to detect and prevent future criminals, the researchers have instead put a non-threatening public spin on it, saying their findings could be used to screen for people whose genes protect them from the trauma of stress or tragedy, perhaps to recruit them as police, firefighters or soldiers.

And we believe this? Maybe it’s unintentional; maybe the researchers really do believe they are working to identify future good guys, as if this new method for eliminating criminal propensity from the populace were nothing more a benign recruiting tool. But strip away the science from this finding and you still have a group of Dunedin boys, many of whom were abused. Some of them coped well with their abuse while others did not. Instead of addressing the root problem; why children are abused and what we can do to prevent it, the researchers have, by default, classified the less resilient into a separate ‘pre-criminal’ class. So what if, now they’ve found the key to violence, authorities will use it to lock the doors on the lives of boys unlucky enough to suffer bad parenting and bad genes?

Far-fetched? Look at what we’ve done with Ritalin. Without consideration for the wider family dynamic Ritalin has become the drug of choice for just about any kid whose anti-social exuberance and lack of discipline disturbs those around them. Rather than seeing their behaviour as a cry for help and a manifestation of poor parenting they’re classified as maladaptive Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) sufferers in need of medicating. Stephen Post makes the connection between Ritalin abuse and the potential for similar misuse of the MAOA finding. He’s a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University and sees a danger in using medical means to ‘treat’ those at risk. “Medication often becomes a solution to what is fundamentally a social problem on the parent-child axis,” he said recently.

But take out the dysfunctional family dynamic, combine the gene discovery with our willingness to medicalise our problems, give it all a legal twist and you’ve got a great defence for all kinds of criminal activity. In the United States, lawyer Dan Summer recently filed a motion to have his murdering client tested for the gene. Although his request was denied he was hoping to argue that MAOA was a mitigating factor, like a mental illness, maintaining his client came from a long line of aggressive and anti-social men, exactly the profile for a MAOA sufferer.

But perhaps I’m being completely paranoid and the release of the MAOA findings is nothing more sinister than a PR push to soften potential customers for future medication, in other words a marketing campaign for a new pharmaceutical product. Ritalin aside, the pharmaceutical landscape is littered with illnesses created or hyped up to coincide with the release of a new drug. Known as ‘corporate-sponsored disease awareness,’ the technique was kicked off in 1998 with a newly identified ailment ‘social anxiety disorder (SAD). Suddenly the subject of every North American talk show, the disorder was promoted through posters in the UK with catchy phrases such as “Imagine Being Allergic to People,” but without any mention of the remarkable new drug Paxil that became available almost immediately. Then just last year as sales of Paxil were declining the United States was swept with a ‘hidden epidemic,’ generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) that reportedly affected as many as 10 million Americans.

So whether or not there’s a pharmaceutical company sponsoring the Dunedin research remains to be seen. But even if there isn’t the research still sends a chill up my scientific layperson’s spine. Combine our growing reluctance to take personal responsibility for our selves and our wider communities with the increasing ability and desirability to medicate social problems and one thing’s for sure; pretty soon when you walk out of the cinema you won’t be leaving the sci-fi behind.

© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, August 2002.

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