Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 11.19

Normally, Wednesday is Stacey’s day to Afternoon Inquisition you. Unfortunately, she’s busy with some other things, so you all have to look at my ugly mug for the next two days. Sorry, folks.

Anyway, on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown disaster Tuesday, the first panels of a 36-foot-long stone wall that is to be inscribed with the names of more than 900 victims of the violence in Guyana were unveiled at a memorial service. The minister made it clear during the service that Jim Jones’ name will not be included on the granite panels.

Jim Jones Jr., the minister’s adopted son, is a little miffed. He says, “The tragedy is we’re villanizing Jim Jones. Jim Jones was also a victim, of his own madness. We need to memorialize all the bodies, as a great loss.”

Do you see madness/insanity as a valid excuse for any criminal or violent acts?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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58 Comments

  1. I don’t know if excuse is the word I’d use. Neither is justification. But I do see the reality that sometimes bugnutty people do criminally irrational things. If one tries to rationalize it, to fit it into a non-bugnutty worldview, that doesn’t always make sense or feel just. Nonetheless, it’s real.

    It’s the same question with any severe mental deficiency. If someone who was profoundly mentally impaired left the stovetop on and burned down a house, how accountable are they? What if the house they burned down had all your prized beanie babies, and you were pissed? Who are you angry with in that case? Rationally, you’re angry with the instigator, but don’t hold them accountable.

    Still, I also understand that sometimes rational minded people are criminally twisted. The specific example I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (due to a too much To Catch A Predator viewing) is this:

    If attraction is not really a choice, and an adult finds themselves unfortunately attracted to 9-year-olds, isn’t that devastating and wholly pitiable? I think it would (and often does) destroy people. BUT, if that same tragic case acts on this attraction, that’s criminal. And horrible. And should be punished to the extent the law provides. No doubt about it. Thinking does not make it so, acting makes it so.

    But if one isn’t really thinking before the acting, what then?

  2. Do you think animals have excuses to attack humans? I think that madness/insanity is a valid excuse for acting like that, but such people who are mad at the point of commiting such crimes should not be loose in the society.

    So are those mad or insane people criminals, no, but I do believe that they should be locked in a treatment facility, and if later found that they are not insane after all, then the penalties should be doubled.

  3. Obviously madness/insanity is a valid excuse when considering the proper course for justice when dealing with perpetrators of criminal or violent acts.

    A more challenging question would be how to determine conclusively the status of someone’s sanity in retrospect.

    Another interesting question would be, is it possible for someone like Hitler to do what history tells us he did and still be sane? I would think the answer to that would be — absolutely. I n my opinion we toss off those unqualified assessments to avoid asking harder questions.

  4. I’m with the above comments (2 and 3): you need to recognize the distinction between the urge for revenge (which is clearly not justice) and the desire to protect society.

    If you want revenge, then it’s reasonable to ask who is to blame.

    If you want a safe society, then institutionalizing the criminally insane is appropriate, whether they are to “blame” or not.

    As for memorials, I don’t know. It would be great for people to be able to recognize the suffering of a madman, but memorials are necessarily tied to people’s emotions and desire for closure – perhaps including the instrument of their loss would get in the way of that. I don’t know.

  5. Not an excuse. Defiantly a mitigating factor for non prosecution in certain cases in the same manner mental retardation is a factor. This should not and does not preclude civil commitment laws that put these folk in institutions if they present a level of danger to others.

  6. I think we need to distinguish between people with personality disorders (which likely Hitler and other evil dictators and killers had) and true insanity. A sociopath is not insane, they know right from wrong but don’t care.

    Someone who is really insane doesn’t have that capacity to know that what they are doing is wrong. Take for example someone with paranoid delusions who because of their disease really believes someone is after them and kills that person. Are they responsible? In their delusion they were acting in self-defense and therefore didn’t know what they did was wrong.

  7. The problem is thinking of madness as an excuse. It can’t excuse anything, although it might explain some things. To the best of my knowledge, neither Jim Jones nor Adolph Hitler suffered from any recognized psychoses. Horribly, in both cases, people supported them, and believed in them right up until the end. Demonstrably sane people thought those men had good ideas.

    Here’s where I differ from A.Real.Girl. While no doubt there are people who are truly attracted to 9-year-olds, most of the rapists who abuse children aren’t. Rapists choose children, and disabled people, and sex workers, and other vulnerable members of society for the quite sane reason that they can probably get away with it, not out of any special attraction to their victim.

  8. I agree with the comments regarding the goals of criminal punishment and the conflict that often occurs between the goals of retribution, rehabilitation, and the protection of society. People who are a danger to society should be treated until they are not.

    In this context, it should be noted that the legal standard for insanity as exculpation or defense from criminal liability is often misunderstood as being more broadly applied than it actually is. When you boil down the legalese in most jurisdictions, the finder of fact is essentially asked the following question: If the world actually existed as it did in the defendant’s mind at the time of crime, then would the defendent have a defense or be exculpated from having committed the crime (e.g., for self-defense)? For example, if you are a paranoid schitzophrenic and you believe your spouse is sleeping with every member of the opposite sex, you would still be criminally liable (because it would not be a justification even if it were true). But if you believed your spouse was trying to kill your children with the spatula she had just picked up and you harbored documented delusions concerning the dangerousness of spatulas, you would be able to assert the defense of insanity. To summarize, it is actually rare that someone is exculpated by reason of insanity, and even if they are, the state can lock that person up in a mental health care facility until they are deemed sane enough for the public even if the time is longer than what that person would have served if that person had been found guilty of a crime.

  9. Should point out that what I said did not mean someone who is insane shouldn’t be kept institutionalized for public safety but the institutions shouldn’t be places of punishment but of treatment.

  10. @Kaethe: Where is the data on this “most” statement (because I have certainly read a lot to the contrary):

    While no doubt there are people who are truly attracted to 9-year-olds, most of the rapists who abuse children aren’t. Rapists choose children … for the quite sane reason that they can probably get away with it, not out of any special attraction to their victim.

  11. @TheSkepticalMale: It’s actually pretty common knowledge that people (not just men), rape not because of sexual desire, but because of power. I’d imagine it’s the same with children — they can exude power over the children they molest through sex, but it’s very rarely about actual sexual desires.

  12. @Stacey: I’d say it might be the oposite … rape is always molestation, while molestation may not always be rape — ie, you can molest a child without actually having intercourse of any kind (touching, kissing, fondling aren’t intercourse).

    But I could be wrong, because I’m not sure on the legal differences between the two, myself.

  13. Yes, it is an explanation. Mental illness is a problem with the brain that often leads to aberrant behaviour. We’ve defined what are acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours in the eyes of the law (i.e., “the line” not to be crossed) and sometimes a person is so mentally ill that, yes, they can commit a crime that they did not have the thought coherence, cognitive capacity, or appreciation of consequences to understand that what they were doing was illegal or “wrong”.

    This can be a failing of treatment, though compliance or effectiveness, that criminalizes people with mental illness who may not have been if more supports for treatment were available. This is not to say that people with mental illnesses are not responsible for any crime they commit just because they are mentally ill or just because they had few supports. Just that, yes, it is possible that their mental illness explains their crime and should be an available “defense”, as rehabilitation and treatment may be made available to them as opposed to generic imprisonment, which may improve their life outcomes.

  14. In this context, I don’t think we need to further victimize the relatives of those who were victims of Jones’ madness. That Jones didn’t make the list shouldn’t upset his progeny at all. If they are decent people, they should understand.

    On the other hand, there’s no particular reason to villify men who are truly insane, but I refuse to believe that Hitler was. Wounded, vain maybe, definitely charismatic, Hitler was part of a group of well organised political and military leaders that already shared his beliefs. If some other man had headlined his party, they may never have come to power, but Hitler did not keep thousands of German soldiers and military leaders in line with his mind alone.

    Those who act dangerously out of true madness, a real, neurological condition, should be treated or put away in a high security permanent care facility. I don’t know that anyone can forgive them for what they did or may have done given the chance. I think people who hurt others because they can’t help it are like a force of nature. You can’t really have an opinion on the hunting instincts of lions, can you? You can’t forgive them for killing your friend. You can only forgive someone for something who understands what they’ve done. Real criminals are those who can understand what they’ve done.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter of crime and insanity.

  15. @Stacey: Ooooo, I am dense because I still don’t get it. (I get off work in 50 minutes…I am so half at home right now). So I might need a knock over the head, or a better explanation of your question. ;) Are you saying that one would molest because of sexual desire?

  16. @marilove: I disagree. From what I have read, most child “rapists” are standard pedophiles, who do not use violence but are often seeking to have consensual sex with a child. They just have a different view of who is actually capable of consent … It is for this very reason that “statutory rape” laws are separate and independent of common law rape definitions, the latter of which invariably involves to use of violence or threats of violence.

  17. @wytworm: Oooh, you said it better than I.

    Another interesting question would be, is it possible for someone like Hitler to do what history tells us he did and still be sane? I would think the answer to that would be — absolutely. I n my opinion we toss off those unqualified assessments to avoid asking harder questions.

    I think we label them as evil so that we don’t have to ask ourselves why they did it and confront the possibility that we already know.

  18. I’m not convinced Jim Jones was insane. My impression is that he had very strong convictions, and was able to bend weak-willed people to his fold. Couple that with all the usual cult behaviors (isolation, indoctrination, bullying, etc), and you have all the makings of people convincing themselves of strange self destructive behavior.

    Is it a stretch to imagine (for example) Scientologists performing a similar stunt? Tom Cruise, while harboring some very strange ideas, isn’t insane per se. And it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine a hypothetical situation where he could gather followers to a remote location to live in isolation. The religiously fervent are perfectly capable of that kind of behavior, with no clinical insanity involved.

    Now, I’m not saying that Tom Cruise isn’t nuts, but I don’t think he’s clinically insane.

    Jim Jones strikes me as a similar kind of person; nuts, but not insane. He took his followers to a remote location to avoid persecution. Those feelings of persecution were what lay the groundwork for his decision to kill his followers.

    It was an act of twisted reason to be sure, but I don’t think it was a kind of clinical insanity.

  19. @TheSkepticalMale: I agree with your assessment of the distinction between child rape and other forms of rape, but you only mentioned violence or threats of violence and it occurs to me that rapists use other forms of coercion such as drugs or deception (for instance: the case of a man who slept with his brother’s girlfriend when she clearly did not know who was in her bed. She thought she was with someone else).

  20. @Cola and @Zapski:I guess the question is: at one point does megalomania=insanity. In either case, however, neither of them meet the criminal definition of insanity that would exculpate them from their crimes. Nor would they be exculpated under the international laws governing war and genocide from what I understand.

  21. @TheSkepticalMale: Statutory rape is different from when a grown man rapes a young child, though. Statutory rape, from what I understand (and correct me if I’m wrong) is when an adult has consensual sex with a teen (or when a much older teen has consensual sex with a younger teen). It’s not the same thing as a peodphile molesting a child.

    I still say it’s about power, but I’d imagine it would depend on the person involved. There are plenty of adults who rape children because they get a sick power from it, while I’m sure there are some who do it because they imagine the child can, and did, consent. A friend of mine was molested as a young child by her step-father, and he certainly didn’t molest her because he thought she was consenting.

  22. To get back to the topic of Jim Jones. My thoughts are that he was a sociopath, narcissistic and deluded. His having all those folk “drink the cool aid” seemed nothing more petty and nasty than the jerk who kills his wife and children because she was going to take the kids and leave an abusive situation. I think Jim knew the jig was up and he couldn’t stand the thought of having “his people” taken away from his control. The notion that Jim was somehow a victim in all this is beyond credulity.

  23. @Cola: You are correct and I should clarify the legal definitions:

    At common law, rape was the unlawful sexual intercourse of a man over a woman who was not his wife accomplished through force and against her will. The definition has been expanded in modern statutes to include unlawful sexual activity with any person without consent. (Thus, knowinly having sex with a person whose IQ is below 60 might result in your being convicted of rape based on the jury’s conclusion that the victim is mentally incapable of granting consent.)

    Statutory rape (a separate crime), on the other hand, is always defined as unlawful sexual activity with a person under a certain age regardless of whether the person consented or not.

    What I meant was that philophically speaking, by creating a separate crime of statutory rate, we as a society are saying that children under a certain age are always incapable of giving consent.

  24. @marilove: As an example, I’d say Micheal Jackson, if he did indeed molest any children, probably didn’t do it because he got some sick power from it, but rather because he’s … well, to put it simply, still kind of a child himself (perhaps a little insane?) and probably, honestly thought that these children wanted to be with him.

    But I honestly don’t think that’s the rule, but rather the exception.

    When adults molest/rape children, it’s usually because of opportunity — they are there, they are weak, and they can exude power over them while doing it. And not because they think the child is consenting in some way.

  25. @marilove: Consent is not an element of statutory rape – only that the victim was under 18 (or whatever age). Consent is only an element of common law rape. Some states (like Arizona) have a definition of both statutory rape (in Arizona, “intercourse” with a person under 18) and molestation (in Arizona, “sexual contact” other than fondling the female breast), but in reality, the differences are blury at best and the effect is to merely compound the punishment for the same actions.

  26. @TheSkepticalMale: That’s a very good question. Do megalomaniacs disassociate from reality in a meaningful, categorizable way? Do you have to be clinically paranoid to be a megalomaniac? I’m certain that in some cases the answer would be “yes” – but if a megalomaniac is simply someone who is obsessed with power, one has to question if that obsession is part of a deeper disorder or not.

    I’m inclined to think that if one’s quest for power ignores objective reality, then one could be said to be insane. For example, a dictator declaring victory after his armies have been routed could be said to have crossed into insanity.

    A church leader though, becomes a trickier proposition since faith by its very nature ignores objective reality.

    Hmmmm…. I need to think about this more.

  27. @marilove: You are correct most cases of child sex abuse are incidents of opportunity and are not perpetrated by pedophiles. Also the notion that “it’s a power thing” only and not about the sex is not born out by the research I’ve read. They are contiguous issues and if there was no desire for sexual gratification there would be no sexual assault. Perhaps just a physical assault which is more often clearly a power thing alone. The reason the sexual gratification issue is so important speaks to the extreme difficulty and near impossibility of treating pedophiles. Our sexual response is a very big part of who we are and when it is totally centered on underage children there is little hope of getting that changed.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that incidents of child sex abuse have been dropping for a number of years as a result of a lot of hard work, increased education and better quality investigations by law enforcement and child protection agencies.

  28. @TheSkepticalMale: That may be why I was kind of confused, because I worked for the public defender’s office in an Arizona county when I was 15-18 years old and the main attorney dealt with all the cases involving children (including juvie cases).

    @James Fox: You are correct. I should say, “Children under the age of consent…”

    And let me say, statutory rape is kind of iffy. My younger sister was 19 and got caught in her truck on the Cali side of the border fooling around with a 16 year old boy. He fully consented (it was likely his idea, knowing him), and they’d known each other since like, birth … but if she hadn’t been as lucky as she was, she could have been made to register as a sex offender for the REST OF HER LIFE. It was pretty effed up, but thankfully it all worked out in the end. Poor guy felt SO BAD.

  29. Who isn’t culpable? Who isn’t mad? Who isn’t meat?

    At the end of the day, we are either all responsible or none of us are. You can’t have your natural material universe to which we are a part and your free will capable of guilt. The two are mutually exclusive.

    The only useful question is how can we form a community given the range of inherent behaviors. Do prisons facilitate human happiness and well being? Do executions? Do treatment facilities? And should the judicial system base its judgments on the likelihood of future harm and not the relative severity of prior harm if the goal is social good?

  30. If free will exists: then madness “may” be an excuse.

    If free will doesn’t exist and the world is deterministic: then madness is not a valid excuse.

    At least that’s what I think – tell me if my logic doesn’t hold.

  31. Back to the particular instance that prompted this question, I do not think that there should be a Jonestown memorial. This incident is very distinguishable from Auschwitz. We need to focus on the responsibility borne by the 900 who killed themselves, not just on the madness of Jim Jones. (Interestingly enough, Harvey Milk defended Jones in the press just prior to the mass suicide.) They had gone through at least two dress rehearsals for the mass suicide on “White Nights” just prior to test their loyalty to the cause. Sometimes there is a fine line between insanity and idiocy; but in this case, I don’t think those 900 people were anywhere close to that line. And I don’t think there should be any memorials to honor their choices.

  32. This is one situation in which a little pragmatism goes a long way.

    The whole reason behind “judging” a person’s actions is so we can disapprove of or punish them, with the ultimate goal of preventing those actions. If the person is insane enough that he/she would not respond to punishment, then the whole paradigm of judging actions falls apart. We must resort to other means, such as medical help or incarceration.

    In short, the answer is “undefined”.

    As for Jones, it depends how mad he was.

  33. I don’t think this story has anything to do with excusing Jones’ actions. Like funerals, memorials are for the living, not the dead. Jones was insane, a cult leader, a monster, and a victim. His family lost no less than anyone else’s in this tragedy and haven’t they been penalized enough for having the misfortune of having the world know they share the man’s name and genes? Removing Jones’ name doesn’t remotely hurt Jones. He’s dead and won’t know the difference. I think Jim Jones’ family is entitled to just as much, if not more, sympathy and closure as anyone else’s.

  34. @marilove:

    My point is that an insane person can have as much capacity to judge the consequences of their action as much as an animal, that is disconnected from our culture and values.

    This is a hard problem, because even animals know when they are doing something “wrong” by our standards, is just that those things aren’t bad for their standards and even we as people who mostly classify as normal have several cultures and different measurements.

  35. @miller: I like how you bring JavaScript into the discussion. Well, yes: the whole idea of punishment and revenge is a pragmatic one that came from our evolution (a hunch, I suppose). There is no such thing as “X deserved punishment” other than the need to prevent something bad from happening again.

  36. First off, an apology for not having the patience to read through every reply.

    As for the question, however, I think we really need to define what we mean by “madness” or “insanity.” There are a number of psychiatric disorders recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses, but there is no such thing as a diagnosis of “insanity,” as my psychology textbook is fond of saying.

    The problem is that many things that we would consider “insane” in common parlance would not be covered by the DSM. For example, bungee jumping some people would consider insane, pathological even. But “bungee jumping” isn’t a mental disorder according to the DSM.

    I could only see insanity being an “excuse” for a criminal act if we define insanity as being “sufficiently disconnected from reality as to be unaware of the consequences of our actions.” Even then, there are many points of contention, for someone can be unaware of their actions’ consequences out of ignorance, willful or otherwise. The distinguishing characteristic of insanity is that the subject is not merely unaware of the consequences of their actions, but *incapable* of being aware of said consequences without medical intervention.

    As for the issue with Jim Jones… with what little I know of him, it is hard to make a judgment. My instinct, however, is to say that to memorialize him as a victim would be irresponsible and unjust. To make him out to be a victim “of his own madness” would absolve him of the responsibility to overcome that so-called insanity. Furthermore, it is unclear that Jim Jones was mentally ill in the first place, and even if he were, that does not make his intentions benign.

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