Why We Harm

Why We Harm

Why We Harm

Why We Harm


Criminologists are primarily concerned with the analysis of actions that violate existing laws. But a growing number have begun analyzing crimes as actions that inflict harm, regardless of the applicability of legal sanctions. Even as they question standard definitions of crime as law-breaking, scholars of crime have few theoretical frameworks with which to understand the etiology of harmful action.

In Why We Harm, Lois Presser scrutinizes accounts of acts as diverse as genocide, environmental degradation, war, torture, terrorism, homicide, rape, and meat-eating in order to develop an original theoretical framework with which to consider harmful actions and their causes. In doing so, this timely book presents a general theory of harm, revealing the commonalities between actions that impose suffering and cause destruction.

Harm is built on stories in which the targets of harm are reduced to one-dimensional characters--sometimes a dangerous foe, sometimes much more benign, but still a projection of our own concerns and interests. In our stories of harm, we are licensed to do the harmful deed and, at the same time, are powerless to act differently. Chapter by chapter, Presser examines statements made by perpetrators of a wide variety of harmful actions. Appearing vastly different from one another at first glance, Presser identifies the logics they share that motivate, legitimize, and sustain them. From that point, she maps out strategies for reducing harm.


Angela leisure lost her son, Timothy Thomas, on April 7, 2001, after Cincinnati, Ohio, police officer Stephen Roach shot him to death in a dark alley. Roach and fellow officers gave chase after discovering that Thomas had numerous outstanding arrest warrants. Thomas was the fifteenth African American man killed by the Cincinnati Police Department in the space of six years, and his death galvanized many in the community to protest police abuse as never before (M. Singer 2002). the most sustained protest took the form of an economic boycott, launched in July 2001, whose purpose was to hurt the city economically and thereby force city leaders to respond to demands for accountability for the murder and to implement government reforms such as improved citizen oversight of the police. Joe Santangelo, promoter of Cincinnati’s annual Jazz Festival, lost more than five hundred thousand dollars when that event was cancelled in 2002 due to the boycott (Nager 2002).

These two harms are markedly different from each other: one a killing perpetrated by state agents against citizens, the other a financial loss organized by citizens against commerce. Do they have anything in common other than their historical connection? I propose that certain deep and collectively shared logics pertaining to self and Other are common to both actions. These shared logics include a claim of occupational or moral warrant to do the harm, a declaration of having no nonharmful . . .

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