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What makes a man into a murderer?

It was a huge task, but it was worth it: Marieke Liem and her research group have completed a database of all murders committed in the Netherlands over the past 25 years. She will share their initial findings in a three-part lecture series organized by Studium Generale. ‘Beggars kill other beggars; they will rarely murder the king.’

Why did you want to gather all murders together into one database?

‘This database will help us find trends and see links. For example, we can now examine whether the number of murders increases or decreases over time, whether different weapons are used over the years and whether there are any significant geographical differences.’

What is the ultimate aim?

‘Eventually of course we want to explain the murders. The only possible way to prevent murders in the future is by figuring out the motives of killers in the past. Every human being is essentially capable of committing murder, but what were the factors that made those offenders snap? What exactly was the last straw that caused them to commit their violent crime?’

You’ve just completed the database and are now about to start analysing the data. What exactly do you want to study?

‘For one thing, I am curious to find out why the murder rate in the Netherlands has decreased so strongly over the past ten years. I would like to test the hypothesis that this is thanks to the increased availability of the internet. Young men in particular are the perpetrators as well as the victims of murder. They may be spending more time at home these days, limiting the chances that the paths of potential killers and victims cross. I’m hoping to delve into this topic in the coming time.’

What will you be talking about in your Studium Generale lecture series?

‘I would like to show that the average murderer is not a calculating, cold-blooded freak. They’re not usually monsters or psychopaths lying in wait for you in the bushes, or Hannibal Lecters who want to eat your liver “with some fava beans and a nice chianti”. That myth of pure evil is not supported by the statistics. Many murders in fact occur within relationships, between friends or relatives. Everyone can become a murderer under the right circumstances, including you and me.’

I don’t think I find that a very comforting thought

‘No, it isn’t. But we are still very safe here in the Netherlands: Only one in about 100,000 inhabitants per year falls victim to murder. That number used to be much higher, and in many other countries it still is. In addition, murder is a very ‘horizontal’ phenomenon, which mainly occurs among young men from lower socio-economic backgrounds. A killer’s victim is very rarely a complete stranger. Beggars kill other beggars; they will rarely murder the king. So then why do we all feel so unsafe? This security paradox is something I will discuss in more detail as well.’

Marieke Liem conducted her research together with Professor Lenneke Alink. Their study was funded by a lustrum grant from the Leiden University Fund (LUF).

Attend the lectures

The Studium Generale lectures (in Dutch) will take place in Wijnhaven (Turfmarkt 99, The Hague) on 13, 20 and 27 November from 7.30 to 9 p.m. Admission is free. More information on the website of Studium Generale (also in Dutch).

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