It may, in the long run, be better that way; last month’s Aurora tragedy, where the Batman and Joker storyline, plus politically-motivated grandstanding about gun ownership, led to a glut of Utterly Stupid commentary blaming everything from the Supreme Court to the internet for the resultant deaths, has been so thoroughly re-appropriated that our view of the event is completely distorted. As per the usual, the lure of sensationalism and the sudden responsiveness of readers led members of the media to publish as much as possible, often ignoring pleas from psychiatrists to de-emphasize the death toll and hide the alleged shooter’s personal details, in order to prevent others from seeing something aspirational.
The charitable interpretation is that we pay so much attention because we just want to understand what’s happened, perhaps in the reasonable belief that that if can somehow ‘get’ it, we can prevent it from happening again. But if we’re going to talk about extreme violence, and especially religiously-motivated attacks, we have to allow room for the unreasonable. We have to talk about crazy, and whether, in the shifting netherspace between crazy and sane, any of us can reliably plot guilt, cause, or blame.
Daniel M’Naghten is, by all accounts, the first man to be deemed “not guilty by reason of insanity.” In 1843, he couldn’t tell the difference between the reality of his life, where he was a politically-null woodworker from Scotland, and the delusion, where he was the victim of a conspiracy headed by the British Prime Minister and the Pope. Acting in self-defense, he went after Prime Minister Robert Peel, managing to kill instead Peel’s secretary.
Since his verdict, the working legal definition* of insanity has evolved to mean “mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior…The traditional test of insanity in criminal cases is whether the accused knew ‘the difference between right and wrong.’” A person who cannot tell right from wrong (crazy), or real from false (also crazy), cannot be held criminally accountable. The implicit idea is that when rational, people know how to behave morally, even if they don’t always do it.
The idea, as old as the Enlightenment, holds as its center the reasoning person, freed from mind-controlling authorities (the church, the state), liberated and able to choose. This shift, one of the many markers of a philosophical trade of the Islamo-Judeo-Christian binary of universal good vs. evil (as determined or at the very least described by God) for a secular, perennially in-process definition of right vs. wrong according to prevailing social needs and the evident effects of preventable harm. Just about everything we cherish about democracy (individual autonomy, inalienable rights, social progress, religious tolerance, due process, identity itself) is the intellectual heritage of this evolution. Until the insanity defense throws a monkey wrench into the whole deal; without the reason and the wit to make choices based in reality, are we even still talking about the same idea of human?
Wade Micheal Page, the man who killed six and wounded more worshippers in Oak Creek, WI, is suspected to have ties to white supremacist movements, evidenced especially in his metal band, which CBS reports “often talked about genocide against Jews and other minorities.” This apparent racism, combined with his military past (read: he’s ultra-patriotic), his 9-11 tattoos, and a pre-existing decade of attacks against Sikhs, makes the story easy to frame as one of “mistaken identity,” where Page’s possible anti-Muslim sentiment has been misdirected via ignorance. Again, it’s nice to think we might have captured some sort of reason here: while violence against Muslim-like residents might not be warranted, American hatred against anyone seemingly from the Middle East could be. But as Nitsuh Abebe makes clear, “The problems both groups face are bigotry and violence, not confusion about ‘rightful’ targets.” And while an awareness campaign might help to battle workplace discrimination, it’s no defense against true crazy, which is to be unreachable by the sheer immanent reality of the person you’re aiming a weapon at. Oblivion is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s heartbreaking, for example, to see Satwant Singh Kaleka’s son, whose father founded the house of worship and distracted the shooter long enough for several others to escape, talk about his father’s patriotism and All-American success story. As if anyone could ever be patriotic enough to appease a psychotic who, by definition, can’t be reasoned with. While the geopolitical plays a role here, it’s a truism in the mental-health community that the particular narrative adopted by any violent mass killer—and there’s almost always a narrative of threat or oppression—only matters insofar as it influences the group of people he or she targets.
(Given the diagnostic flexibility on motive, is it possible that any act of extreme terrorism undertaken by any party is, de facto, a symptom of a mental disorder? If it is, how would THAT change our foreign policy? Serious question.)
Neither the legal system nor the DSM recognizes bigotry, xenophobia, or racism as disorders, though there are arguments for making them so: psychiatrist Alvin Pouissaint has claimed that a standardized definition and course of treatment for extreme, delusional racists can put these individuals back in touch with the world, thereby making them less paranoid, less violent, and less prejudiced. Then again, allowing any and all garden-variety bigots to claim in court that they aren’t responsible for their actions is definitely a collective losing game. We might as well write off theft as the action of a person who’s crazy with “wanting things.” We’d have to turn every single jail into an asylum. Luckily, no one’s arguing that all criminals are confused by the basics of right and wrong.
With Page dead, we can’t determine whether he would qualify for the true insanity defense, though the likelihood has been bandied plenty. (By me, for one). Likewise, when we assign contemporary psychiatric diagnoses to Biblical figures (demon possession as schizophrenia) and Shakespeare characters (Hamlet was bipolar), we’re just trying to make a model of the world that allows us to understand, predict, and improve it. It’s the logical thing to do.
But the questions Page provokes are troubling on such a fundamental, ontological level as to make the effort feel, at best, quixotic. Not all of us are rational, not all of us are reasonable. There are gaping fault lines in the psyche that interfere with nearly everything we’d like to be true about human nature. Where can we fairly assign blame? Can we even use the word “fair” when it comes to the people who’ve lost so much? How does a Sikh community cope with the idea that their aggressor might have been, in certain ways, just as traumatized, just as much a victim of an uncontrollable mental force? Do the rest of us, in our assurance that we’re sane, really get to choose as much as we think we do? Every axis of human interaction is in play, here. Especially if what we might once have called ‘evil’ is merely part of ourselves.
*Psychiatry’s primary text, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), now in version IV, never defines ‘insanity.’ Instead it catalogs the degrees of everything from mild nervous disorders to extreme psychosis, those disorders’ interactions with outside stressors, and the prevalence of each phenomena. Since we’re talking about fault, which relies on a clear yes/no determination, the legal definition is the one we’ll use now.
Image from Flickr user daBinsi