I got a wild hair and decided to read something a little outside of my comfort zone. It turned out to be extremely outside my comfort zone. The book is David McGowan’s Programmed to Kill: The Politics of Serial Murder. The book is a wildly depressing ride. I don’t recommend it to anyone. This review will be as short as possible.
I believe I should also admit that I made it 150 pages into the book, skipped 100 pages, and finished the last 100 pages. There might have been some crucial information I missed, but I actually sincerely doubt it. The book was very formulaic. Not in a bad way, but he had to establish a rhythm to help highlight his arguments. Most of the chapters were similar in structure. It examined a serial killer, demonstrated childhood abuse, life story, victims killed (in way more detail than I think was needed), trial, and it finally examined inaccuracies or potholes in the official story. There’s also a lot going on narratively, and in some ways, despite being formulaically written, the book is pretty messy.
So what does McGowan establish? We’ll start with the fact that the commonly known “serial killer profile” is largely bunk. The serial killer being someone who works alone, kills in a certain way (has a “signature”), and targets only a specific gender/race/age person. McGowan, after examining 28 serial killers, demonstrates that most serial killers don’t fit the profile. Many don’t work alone. It’s even established in many cases that they don’t work alone.
For instance, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole traveled together during their crimes. Charles Ng and Leonard Lake operated together at Lake’s cabin. In cases where there isn’t an established accomplice, McGowan raises important questions such as how it was possible for Jeffrey Dahmer to haul up a 50lb acid barrel into his apartment alone, and also transport the barrel at all if he didn’t own a car. The official narrative asks us to believe that Dahmer, who regularly took a taxi for transportation, used a taxi to transport an acid barrel, and then moved the barrel to an upstairs apartment by himself. Lastly, there are cases where it’s slightly improbable how a serial killer could have moved massive furniture by himself, logistically move victims, or semen samples don’t match the accused serial killer, etc.
The next point that is established is that serial killers don’t really seem to have a preferred method for killing. They often kill their victims with whatever is readily available wherever they are. A technique, or strategy, that McGowan notes is part of the CIA manual for assassinations. If a weapon is used, it is often a .22 pistol that is a headshot. Apparently the bullet bounces around in the skull cavity which makes it more lethal, no exit wound makes it cleaner, and the bullet itself becomes deformed making forensics more difficult.
Finally, the myth of the specific victim is punctured after he examines the range of who is supposedly killed by a single killer. I’ll spare the details, but it does appear to be more diverse than you’d expect.
A few other things are established in the book as well. To start, child pornography is a multi-billion dollar industry, as of 2004. From pedophile rings in France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Slovakia, England, and the US, McGowan demonstrates that raid after raid in country after country has procured hundreds of thousands of pornographic images of children. The uncomfortable truth is he points to is that often some elites of whichever country currently has an operating pedophile ring is complicit. I can’t help but think of Dennis Hastert (former Speak of the House) or the likes of Tony Podesta in the US.
A big theme in the book seems to be the idea of the patsy killer. McGowan enumerates on a least a dozen trials in which either one of two things happen. The first is that a patsy takes the blame in court and gets railroaded in prison and even gets the death penalty. What McGowan makes the case for is that often the patsy is guilty, but they take the fall for a larger criminal enterprise that is involved with serial murder. The next thing that happens is someone really guilty gets absurdly short sentences. McGowan believes these are government assets and therefore they don’t have the force of the state come down on them. Basically, if some murderer is being treated easy, they are useful in some way to the state, if they are getting railroaded, then they need to go away.
Some examples to illustrate this is the case of Henry Lee Lucas avoiding the death penalty because George W. Bush commuted the death sentence for Lucas for unfathomable reasons. Bush, who rubber stamped most state executions, as well as being in Texas—the capitol of capital punishment in the West—decides to let a serial killer live to old age. The question of course is, why did Bush feel the need to do that? The opposite example is Albert DeSalvo or “The Boston Strangler.” DeSalvo was in fact guilty of murder, but not the 13 murders he confessed to. No evidence linked him to any of the other murders (editor’s note: Boston CSI can get you the evidence which has repeatedly not been DNA tested). He was sentenced to life in prison and subsequently stabbed 17 times in a maximum security prison. The night before his death he made an urgent call to a prison psychiatrist and was going to name names and reveal the true murderers of the other 12 victims.
McGowan believes in mind control. Torture based mind control. I remain skeptical of these claims, but it makes sense why many serial killers can act surprised by their own doings. Richard Speck saying, “I must have done it if everyone says I did”—a man convicted of raping, torturing, and killing 8 nurses—could have been in a dissociated personality. McGowan takes pains to demonstrate the dissociate personality disorder or multiple personality disorder is real, and can be induced by inflicting massive amounts of trauma on young victims. These victims then become useful for other people who have control of the alternate personality. This, according to McGowan, explains why some serial killers have fuzzy memories of their escapades and sometimes feel outside of their own body altogether. This theory of course is built on the idea that serial killers don’t act alone.
Another curious fact he illustrates among numerous killers, especially those who seem to get lenient sentences for their lesser crimes like rape and robbery, have a history with the United States Government in some way. Jeffrey Dahmer joined the US Army and was sent to an Army hospital in West Germany. Another killer, Gary Heidnik also joined the US Army and was sent to a West German hospital and followed a similar path. Others served in Vietnam and came home like Leonard Lake or served in the marines despite being foreign born like Charles Ng. Danny Rolling and Albert DeSalvo both served in the US Air Force. Others would serve in the Phoenix Program—a torture program in Vietnam meant to demoralize the local population—and come home to utilize their skills on the US population. McGowan believes that in many ways the US Government is complicit in the creation of serial killers through MK-ULTRA style programs at psychiatric institutions.
The question remains then, for what aim? McGowan outlines a few goals that might be accomplished. He believes instilling fear and atomization could be a necessary component in increasing the police state. Another possibility is that if the state needs someone assassinated, you can direct a killer to a target and it can look random. Or the State, or at least some elites in high places, are looking to profit from snuff films. Lastly, Satanist elites might simply enjoy viewing extreme debauchery during private gatherings. McGowan takes special note of any and every case that Satanism seems to be involved such as carvings on victims, books in serial killers houses on the topic, quotes that have to do with Satan by the killers themselves, etc.
I don’t feel like I can address each of his arguments. He certainly provides his supporting evidence, I’ll just weigh my opinion on each individual goal listed above with a resounding “maybe.”
The final topic I think worth discussing is McGowan’s obsession with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. This aspect of the book is thoroughly exhausting. To put it lightly, McGowan ultimately blames everything on the Nazis. For a guy who goes into excruciatingly detail on everything, he never bothered to explain what the Nazis did exactly or to whom. He doesn’t even invoke the Holocaust by name, which would at least be an argument of sorts. He does mention the Einsatzgruppen breifly, but again, he doesn’t mention any specific crimes. He assumes the reader has already made the connection that Nazi Germany committed unique evils that are beyond the pale, so no further elaboration or argument is needed apparently, which is uncharacteristic because the entire book dives into more detail than is needed. And if you’re gonna place the blame of all of America’s sins on the Nazis, I think it’s only fair to give an adequate explanation of what happened. I’m not even the only person who noticed this. To quote an Amazon reviewer that left 4 stars and initially praised the book:
It does let itself down in the end with anti-German lean, with the implication that the CIA got it’s ideas from “nazi” Germany ( -not implying that what was said about Germany was true) with the post war extraction of scientists and prominent ‘useful’ people. This idea that there is no evil possible that does not in some way lead back to Germany (them being the only and ultimate evil in the universe) is a quite untrue, lowbrow and slightly disappointing coming from a book of this calibre, candour and depth. It does not take a stretch to see this institution as an evolution of itself, in the internal situation of controlling and exploiting the mass sleepers without some sort of historical buck passing from a very manufactured history.Amazon Reviewer
So what is McGowan’s history? In Chapter 12: Satan’s Family Tree, he outlines how the Nazis are ultimately responsible. (Buckle up because none of this makes that much sense.) The chapter begins with Madame Helena Petrovina Blavatsky—born in Russia to an aristocratic Russian-German family—and her works and ideas. The claim McGowan makes is that her works Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine are popular with both satanists and white supremacists. To bolster that claim he suggests that she popularized the idea of a spiritual struggle between the various races. The Aryans, of course, being the superior race in her ideology. This would be later adopted by the Nazis. The next key to implicating the Nazis is that supposedly one of her followers helped popularize the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Finally, it was supposedly her that popularized the idea of ancient alphabets, specifically runes, which influenced the Nazi party’s swastika as well the lightning bolts of the SS.
The argument is further expanded to include Eliphas Levi (originally Abbe Alphonse-Louis Constant, but he changed his name to Hebrew), he was interested in Kabbalah and magic. He died in 1875, but apparently one of his disciples, Albert Pike, influenced the Confederate Army, Freemason’s, and the KKK. Levi’s ideas also supposedly influenced occult practitioners who “engineered the rise of Nazi Germany.” What this means, or who the occult practitioners are, McGowan doesn’t say.
If you weren’t convinced Nazi Germany is the ultimate Satantist project, McGowan says that English born Aleister Crowley wrote pro-fascist and pro-German articles in 1919 in The Fatherland and The Internationalist. There is good reason to believe that Crowley was a terrible person, but this is the line of evidence that McGowan uses against the Nazis. He even mentions specific crimes that Crowley had committed while only passively saying Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess were part of The Black Order of the SS and the Thule Gesselschaft respectively. No specific crimes were listed involving either of the men, but the implication is basically this: “The Nazis are criminals, they killed millions, a few of them are implicated in occultist things, therefore Nazi Germany is the grand-daddy of Satanism.” It’s pretty lame.
I hate to dwell on this particular aspect of the book, but it’s an extremely weak spot of his writing. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t a recurring theme. Ultimately, I think it’s distracting, and it’s obvious his view of fascism clouds his thinking significantly. So much so that every time a trial, a murder, an escape, a whatever happens on or around April 20th, he will write something like, “appropriately enough, on April 20th,” “on the eve of the Fuhrer’s birthday,” “with no surprise, on the 20th of April,” etc. It’s childish. Imagine using stoner activity on 4/20 to prove that the Third Reich is the progenitor of weed culture. The logic is that bad.
What’s particularly aggravating is that McGowan completely drops the ball on investigating Nazi Germany’s specific crimes, but he doesn’t shy away from investigating the crimes of Marques De Sade in the final chapter of the book. It’s almost like he realized the history he gave for the coming about of Satanism and ritual slaughter is lackluster. In the final chapter, he catalogues the crimes of De Sade as well as some of the tremendously terrible things he wrote while in prison. De Sade kidnapped and raped children and prostitutes. He held lavish parties in which children were whipped and burned with hot implements. They were even forced to eat their own excrement. So what’s to blame for this sick behavior in the Frenchman? Satanism is ultimately blamed, but again in a skull drudging way, fascism is implicated. McGowan quotes a man named Steiner to bring the argument home. Steiner said that De Sade’s philosophy was “a defense of murder as a legitimate civil activity used to weed out the weaker members of society.” And to add on that, Steiner says that Pasolini (director of Saló) saw “in de Sade the antecedents of fascism.” Yes, a mentally deranged film maker murdered for his work made a useless observation, better include it to muddy the water, right McGowan?
I believe that’s all that I can stand to say about this book. There’s a lot there. None of it is pleasant. Some of it is undoubtedly real. McGowan burns through a lot of his credibility, at least for me, with his terrible fascism takes. In some ways, maybe I’m using that as an out so I don’t have to engage with the rest of the material which is truly, truly depressing.