Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mad or Bad?

The horrific events in Kandahar province on Sunday remind us of a couple of perplexing moral problems. Leon Panetta says of the massacre of 17 Afghan villages, purportedly* by a single "rogue" American soldier, "War is hell," and as reported by CBS, "He said this "wasn't the first and won't be the last" of this kind of horrible event, adding "I do not believe there is any reason to change our strategy at this time." Well yes. In wars people kill each other. Under specific circumstances it's considered not just okay, but heroic. And it's perfectly alright to kill non-combatants as well, so long as you didn't really mean to, even if you knew it was going to happen but it wasn't your actual purpose. Since war, according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, expectedly and inevitably means that event such as this will happen, maybe they aren't such a good idea after all?

That said, we have a muddled and inexplicable view of moral culpability when people commit such unimaginably atrocious acts. Charles Whitman, who climbed a tower at the University of Texas in 1966 and shot 16 people to death, was found on autopsy to have a brain tumor. No-one can say for sure, of course, but it is entirely possible that tumor was a necessary cause of his actions. (Behaviors are complexly caused, of course. What I mean to say is that given the counterfactual that he did not have the tumor, he would not have committed the crime. We cannot do the experiment, but I would still say the statement is meaningful.) If that is so, was he responsible? Was he culpable?

Then consider Jared Loughner, who attempted to kill Representative Giffords and did kill 6 people. He has been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic by court-appointed psychiatrists. Based on published reports of his behavior before, during and after the crime, he is what we technically call completely nucking futz. He is as profoundly psychotic as anyone can be, and was clearly fully inhabiting an alternate reality. Does it make any sense for him to have a criminal trial and sentence, presumably death? Or is he also not responsible and not culpable?

Some people will say it doesn't matter, that we are what we do, but most people do not. The law obviously recognizes brain disease as at least mitigating, and sometimes entirely exculpatory, based on a conclusion that the person was unable to comprehend the wrongfulness of his or her actions, or unable to conform to the law.

But what does it mean for someone to be "able" to behave in a way other than the way the person actually does behave? Consider Sergeant X. We are told that he was on his fourth combat deployment, had suffered a brain injury, and was having marital problems. There seems little doubt that he merits some sort of psychiatric diagnosis. Suppose those things had not happened to him. Presumably he would not have committed atrocity. Okay, how is that different from Whitman's brain tumor and Loughner's schizophrenia?

Now let's consider Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Perhaps he got labeled with a personality disorder, but he was certainly not psychotic. He explained his own motives in affirmatively moral terms: he believed what he did was not only right, but admirable. The vast majority of us see that as preposterous. Even if you are deeply offended by government actions at the Branch Dividian Compound, the workers in the Murrah Building had nothing to do with it. Deciding that they were guilty because they work for the federal government makes about as much sense as going around killing everybody you could find with the last name of Reno, or the first name of Janet; these categories are just irrelevant.

But it made sense to McVeigh, not because he created himself as somebody who believed such a thing, but because the sum of his experiences as they interacted with his neural network created that belief in him. The point is, none of us creates ourselves or could, in a meaningful sense, have done anything than what we have done. The history of the universe leads to each point in time and makes it what it is.

The useful way to think is not to assign blame and seek retribution, but to look for ways of preventing such terrible events. Not going to war seems like a very good place to start.

* I say "purportedly" because there is a great deal about this story which is more than little bit fishy. For one thing, it's more than a little bit odd that a lone soldier could simply walk off the base, carrying a weapon in the middle of the night. The official story that has trickled out seems to imply that the only sentries on duty were Afghans, who apparently didn't feel they could stop him. When they reported it (To whom? The American Sergeant of the Guard? What the hell was he doing?) the response was a head count and a bed check. Really? Nobody saw him leave the barracks? And how did he set fire to the children's bodies? Was he lugging a can of gasoline along with his rifle as he supposedly hiked to the villages on foot? And is it really possible that nobody in this highly confined and intimate space noticed that there was something wrong with the guy? We may never know the real truth, but whatever it is, lots of people are never going to believe the official story. The commanding officer and the OD, at the very least, should be court martialed for dereliction of duty and dishonorably discharged. Want to be that will happen?

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