There are a few obvious questions to be asked regarding the shooting tragedy in Tucson last week:
How is it that a fellow into whose hands the US Army doesn’t feel safe putting a weapon can walk into a shop and freely buy one… which is capable of shooting 33 rounds in about 15 seconds… as a matter of “basic rights”?
How is it that an individual who is, in retrospect, so clearly dangerous and disturbed was able to “slip through the cracks” without anyone picking up on the danger he posed to himself and those around him?
And perhaps most important, who, if anyone is morally responsible for this fellows actions? Those who carelessly equipped him? Those who kicked him out of school without following up on what happened from there? Those who set Arizona’s mental health policies in general? Those who spread messages of hatred and bitterness against the sort of “liberals” that he gunned down? Or is it just down to the responsibility that this “sick” individual should have taken for himself? In most respects that last alternative is the least morally plausible.
One of the unanswered questions I was left with from my childhood was what people mean when they talked about the “craziness” of others, particularly in a negative sense? In talking about people with substance abuse problems, emotionally unstable individuals, incompatible former spouses of family members and those with profoundly different moral standards, my mother had a tendency to try to dismiss complicated discussions by simply saying, “She’s just totally crazy!” What does that mean? Near as I could tell, the implication was that the person was basically broken beyond repair, and that one shouldn’t waste time trying to help such individuals, or at least not with the expectation of it doing any good. The further implication is that those who the person might be reacting against could be freely absolved from any blame for whatever damage the “crazy person” caused. No doubt such perspectives can be legitimately applied in any number of cases, but just how we go about justifying ourselves in personally dismissing such people, and on what basis we are willing to grant absolution to those who pass them by, probably deserves a bit more careful consideration.
On the other side of the coin there are all of the variations on the “insanity defense.” In my school years there were two famous individuals that fairly obviously had more than a few loose screws: John Hinckley and David Berkowitz. Berkowitz was convicted of murder in spite of his sincere belief that he was just doing what the devil, speaking to him by way of his neighbor’s dog, ordered him to do, without it really doing Berkowitz himself any good. The idea that he might actually have lost touch with the world that most people live in, and that he couldn’t really be held morally accountable for his actions, just didn’t fly with the jury. Hinckley, on the other hand, partially because he didn’t actually succeed in killing anyone, and partially because his family could afford a far better legal team, was able to convince the court that his efforts to impress a hot girl who was way out of his reach, through the radical action of killing a politician that he knew she didn’t particularly care for, showed that his mind was far enough broken where it wasn’t really his fault. “The devil speaks through dogs to tell me to kill people” vs. “Doing something radical to get myself into the news is my best chance of making an impression on this chick.” Which sounds less logical and more absurd to you? If you had to say that one of them was totally psychotic, and the other one was just getting a bit careless letting his fantasies run away with him, which would you go for? Some things about the world’s legal systems I’ll never understand.
There are many other lesser variations on this theme. In my everyday life I’m continuously confronted with claims that so-and-so is a “feeling-based person” and thus when he or she makes careless, irrational decisions based on weak evidence and poor judgment, you can’t really say anything about it, because that’s just the way his/her mind works. Some people are thinking types and some people are feeling types, and we thinking types can’t be too harsh on feeling types in general. Or can we? Many times this reminds me of the time when my half-sister was about 3 years old and one day, to give her mom a break, I took her out for a ride in the car and an ice cream. I had to stop for gas along the way, and as it was a self-service station where I had to go inside to pay I took the little girl in with me. Letting go of her for long enough to hand the cashier the money and take my receipt, I turned around and she had basically emptied a display shelf of small stuffed animals onto the floor to play with them. When I tried to give her a gentle rebuke and say that this was not allowed, she simply turned to me and said, “But I’m so tired!” as though that explained everything, and she was effectively not guilty of anything by reason of the temporary insanity that goes with relative sleep deprivation.
Sure, of course, we all do things once in a while at least that are the result of being tired, or being frustrated, or sad, or lonely, or totally pumped up, or… But how far can we claim immunity from blame for our actions on such bases? To what extent can we claim that we are just logs caught in the current of the river of life; leaves being blown to and fro in the wind of circumstances? On the one hand it would be the height of wishful thinking to claim that we are totally free from the influences of circumstances, bio-chemical states and psychological factors of the “nature and nurture” each of us have received while being given very little choice in the matter. On the other hand, it would be rather irresponsible to claim that all we are is the sum of those factors, and there is nothing further any of us can do about it; giving each of us free reign to do whatever we feel like whenever we feel like it because that’s just “who we are.”
There is of course a sense in which rights and responsibilities go together here. When a river overflows its banks and wipes out a small village, we don’t hold the river morally responsible for the damage that it has done; but then we don’t feel any moral reservations about damming up the river or carving new channels or building levies to keep it from doing “what it wants to do”. If we thought more literally about the river “being cruel” and having a will of its own, we would feel more justified in being morally outraged at what it chooses to do at times, but then we would also feel more limited and reserved about respecting its will in our various engineering projects.
When it comes to animals, small children and the clinically insane there is something of an in-between category. These individuals clearly have some sort of will of their own, but not to a great enough extent where they can be held legally or morally responsible for their actions. If a dog bites the neighbor boy who comes into the yard to fetch runaway ball, it is the dog’s owner who is responsible, not the animal itself. If a child vandalizes a building and breaks a bunch of windows, it is the child’s parents or guardians who are responsible. If an adult human is not capable of making presumably rational decisions and acting in an adult manner due to structural or chemical factors within the brain beyond his or her control, we can also say that such a person can be morally excused from moral responsibility for the actions beyond his or her control that he commits; but at the same time, and by the same token, these individuals cannot be allowed the freedom to do whatever they want, in that their actions entail a risk of damage for which they cannot be held responsible. To a certain extent they must be locked up and prevented from doing what they feel like doing. The same applies in varying degrees to children of different ages and to animals of different levels of intelligence.
In some ways this was the key point in John Steinbeck’s classic story, “Of Mice and Men”. The character Lenny is unable to control his sometimes rough appreciation for soft things in general, and he has a tendency to kill small animals accidentally by stroking them to death. His friend George tries to take care of and moral responsibility for Lenny, limiting the things Lenny is allowed to touch and stroke, largely for his own good. George is not, however, always able to look after Lenny, nor is he entirely able to control him. This results in a woman carelessly drifting into Lenny’s grasp when George isn’t looking, and Lenny accidentally killing her, as he had already done with a mouse and a puppy. Lenny being George’s assumed responsibility, and Lenny’s death as punishment for killing a woman seeming somewhat inevitable, George then takes responsibility for killing him in as quick and merciful a way as he can.
Was that ultimately the right thing to do? If we’d be talking about a very loyal and intelligent but at times vicious and unstable dog, the requirement to put it to death in the interest of public safety if the owner couldn’t control it would be legally self-evident in most countries. But what about a creature of our own species which displays the same limited levels of intelligence and self-control as a vicious dog? In most modern societies there is an assumption that somehow human life has intrinsic value, even in its most messed up states, and therefore it is morally wrong to end a human life just because it as become less stable and reliably useful to others… in theory. In practice people are killed on such grounds, in the name of “(national) security,” far more than we care to admit. Another excuse for killing someone who is a clear danger to those around her/him is if we can attach some moral blame to what the person has done. That doesn’t work as a legal and moral principle everywhere, but it is the “conservative” view that in all likelihood will be applied to Jared Loughner, the young shooter in Tucson last week.
If it is a matter of locking the dangerous person up and either trying to fix what is wrong with her/him before letting the person back out into the general public or more or less permanently keeping the public from having to deal with this person ever again, in practice it doesn’t really matter if you consider this person to be morally responsible or not; the practical solution is the same. The person is no more or less stigmatized with the label of “mentally ill” than he would be with the label of “criminal” and the person’s freedom will be restricted and attempts to modify his behavior will be made in any case.
But strictly speaking, if a person has committed some horrible act because he couldn’t help it and he wasn’t being properly taken care of, someone else should also be held responsible. Society should be working together to deal with such cases, and thus either the society as a whole is guilty of collective negligence, or the individuals who have been appointed to take responsibility for such cases should be properly held responsible. And if it can be established that any individual or group has taken advantage of the “crazy person’s” lack of capacity to manipulate him into doing things they want to see done for their own selfish reasons, those persons should be prosecuted as harshly as possible. In many ways it is the same type of crime as statutory rape––taking selfish advantage of another person’s powerlessness due to their lack of capacity for understanding––only far more morally repulsive.
So rather than an excuse for ignoring the causes of tragedies, claiming that someone is crazy, insane or whatever should pose a requirement to look more carefully at what went wrong in the person’s life, and to consider who else than the person himself should be held responsible for his actions. That does not mean that friends and loved ones must shoulder all the blame. Sometimes those who are emotionally closest to a person with very serious problems are the ones who are least able to do anything to help. But communities should be able to care for the mentally unwell among their own, and factors which have a strong likelihood of “driving people crazy” need to be addressed by societies as a whole.
Beyond that, “normal people” as well need to be aware of the forces that drive them, and those around them, to do things that are not “proper.” Sometimes we need to be better aware of our short-comings and we need to find strategies for overcoming them––the psychological equivalents to the reading glasses I wear in writing this. Then sometimes we need to adjust our concepts of how propriety works to take into account what we are really like. Conservatives tend to favor the former solution; liberals, the latter. Obviously the balance is somewhere in between. Laws and moral standards need to be in place for the good of mankind, not visa versa; but there needs to be some sort of consistent standard of acceptable behavior that we can all hold each other to in order for us to be able to get along with each other.
“Good crazy” is when someone has the ability to help others re-examine what is considered “normal” and how important that standard really is. Almost by definition such people are extremely bright, extremely funny and in some sense extremely liberal. But not everyone is impressed or laughing; some will always consider the standards being questioned as something sacred, and take deep offence at anyone who considers any other possibility. And on the balance that may be true: certain standards do need to be considered sacred, such as the value of each individual human life or the requirement to defend the innocent against the self-promoting schemes of the powerful. But such sacred principles should also be able to stand up to scrutiny, and their defenders should not be afraid of or offended at the task of rationally explaining them to those who fail to grasp them. So if “good crazies” are given room to operate some traditions will be weakened but the moral character of society will end up stronger in the long run.
As to the more dangerous sorts of crazies, perhaps not dismissing them out of hand is the most important starting point. That doesn’t mean that the Army or the community college that Loughner wanted to go to should have been required to take or keep him, but it does imply that those who rejected him there should still have taken him seriously in the sense of seeing him as worthy of the amount of their attention necessary to get him the sort of therapy that he needed. Perhaps practice in relating to crazies of a more harmless sort could have given them that sort of capacity, and ultimately saved lives.