On insanity, justice & mass killers

How do we draw the line between understanding mental conditions and justifying criminal acts with them?


It’s inescapable—talk of the Aurora theater shooting and the suspected killer, James Holmes. Not that I’m looking to avoid it entirely, but rather I specifically steer clear of reporting I consider drivel such as, for example, articles investigating the meaning behind Holmes’ heavy blink during his initial court appearance at Arapahoe County Courthouse.

I give my opinion on stories like that passively; that is, by not reading them and thusly, not indulging them.

But there will be reporting in the coming months on aspects of this case and the man charged with the murders of 12 people that is timely, appropriate, and worthy of discussion.

Take for example a piece on CNN.com from a sociologist and criminologist professor who shares his thoughts on how American juries treat the defense of insanity. Jack Levin’s argument is that insanity as an explanation for a crime does not nullify justice to the person responsible. He says it explains the act but does not let the defendant off the hook, which he says is what many American jurors think.

I wrote about a similar topic a couple years ago, in which individuals and society need to rationalize a cause for a terrible crime. “The rationale of culpability” column related to the investigation into the response by Virginia Tech to the school shooting in April 2007. My thoughts on this borrow from victim psychology, in which essentially victims pinpoint something that went wrong—often something he or she did wrong, but could also include perceived mistakes made by others—as a coping mechanism, a reason why the crime happened that can give him or her a way to prevent a similar act down the road. Essentially, it’s self preservation—If I don’t do this one thing, I will be safe.

While I’m not fully on board with the conclusion of Levin’s article, what I liked most about the opinion piece is that Levin subsequently draws the line between understanding conditions potentially or directly connected with a crime and justifying the crime with them.

I still believe what I wrote in 2010—that justifying a crime by assigning a culpable factor is obstructive when it comes to active shooter investigation and prevention. That energy is better spent developing a method for identifying troubled individuals before they become killers, like profiling the unfortunately plentiful history of active shooters. Finger pointing in these cases wastes time, something tomorrow’s active shooter victims may not have.

Tabatha

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