Last year when Internet crime forums were buzzing about the emergence of letters, puzzles and cryptic communications from the Kansas serial killer, “BTK,” I was skeptical of the notion that, after over a decade, a classic serial killer would resurface. Usually, a serial killer’s patterns are disrupted because of his death, incarceration, or relocation. Typically, serial killers don’t cease their murderous habits to then quietly coexist with suburban neighbors, raise children, pay a mortgage, write citations, and become leaders of their church. There are always exceptions to the common profile, however, to which the recent trials of Gary Ridgeway and Dennis Rader attest. Both of these men perhaps were stopped by the limitations of aging, or because on several occasions they came too close to being caught and caution trumped obsession.
Dennis Rader’s actions in 2004 were those of a man who wanted to be caught. Inspired by the newspaper articles on the anniversary of his victims’ murders, he decided that his days were growing shorter and this may be his last opportunity for celebrity. Apparently, Rader was an aficionado of serial killers and imitated their modus operandi as well as their desire to be famous. Nevertheless, his quest for infamy was as trite, obvious and predictable as his fraternity brothers in murder.
His banality bored me. It was almost as though being a serial killer was a pretense instead of a committed avocation. His confession in court, later broadcast to an international audience, was delivered with the listlessness of a poor actor reciting lines from an encyclopedia. No stranger to the methods of other serial killers, Rader employed their jargon and the signature impersonal detachment from the victims. DNA evidence may have proved him responsible, but it appeared to me to be a depraved charade.
From reading a number of books on serial killers, including anthologies of the most notorious and despicable, I have become somewhat inured to their lack of personality and their absence of love, light, joy and truth. As some philosophers believe, evil is the absence of good; evil people are dull and lead empty lives. They are so forgettable and cast such a dim light, most people don’t even notice them. How many times have we read articles or books in which neighbors, friends and family members of psychopaths cannot recall anything remarkable about the convicted murderer who dwelt among them for years? A serial killer’s anonymity is his greatest torture. His narcissism demands recognition and infamy. His invisibility is both a blessing and the bane of his existence.
Rader labeled his targets, “projects.” He knew from reading about serial killers that he had to dehumanize his victims in order to rationalize his behavior. Nonetheless, his disorganization and occasional weaknesses betrayed a glimmer of humanity. Ironically, he continued to attend a fundamentalist church (Lutheran) where he deliberately put himself in the midst of believers almost as a way to defy the Lord and test the depths of his emptiness.
BTK collected “personal trophies” like his idols from serial killer literature. Was he following a script, or did he really enjoy the risk of possessing objects of his victims? He claims to have been satisfying a “sexual fantasy,” similar to what profilers term “lust killers.” Yet, was there really a sexual element to his crimes? I submit that Rader was as sexless as he was conscienceless.
It’s still beyond my comprehension that a human being is capable of something like that, and then to talk about it so coldly, so matter-of-factly, with no flinching and no emotion,” said Paul Carlstedt, who served with Rader in the leadership of Christ Lutheran Church.
Among his many works on serial killers, Harold Schechter wrote a 442-page, 2-pound tome entitled, The Serial Killer Files that I recommend to those who, like Paul Carlstedt, are unfamiliar with the prolific range and inhuman tendencies of two centuries of serial murders perpetrated by mostly unexceptional and pathetic idiots. The greatest punishment for Dennis Rader would be for the world to now promptly forget him.