THE SANE CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND THE MAD

A lot of my American friends are talking about what punishment should be given to James Holmes, the young man who shot at an audience in a Colorado cinema recently, killing twelve people and injuring another fifty-eight. Personally, I do not think he should be punished at all.

The man is mad. To base his punishment on a decision as to whether he knew what he was doing or not is completely wrongheaded. All mad people know what they are doing. You are not some sort of mindless robot when you are mentally ill. James Holmes should be placed in a secure, safe facility (most probably for the rest of his life) and given as pleasant a life as is possible always bearing in mind his own safety and the safety of those caring for him.

I would love to be able to tell you what was going on in his mind when he planned and carried out the massacre of so many innocent people. But, even though I have suffered from madness myself, I cannot. The thoughts inside your head when you are seriously mentally ill, the way your mind feels, are so different to what is regarded as normal that the normal world has never come up with words to describe it. Psychiatrists ask you how you are feeling and use words such as "down" ("on a scale of one to ten") but such terminology is not really applicable to what you are feeling inside. It's a feeling beyond words. I remember being faced with these questions and just thinking, "I don't understand."

As I said at the beginning of this short post, James Holmes would have been fully aware of what he was doing. He was most likely aware of the fact that what he was doing would be regarded as abnormal, as evil, by everyone else. But that does not make him sane or, in a just world, responsible for his actions. Under our present legal systems he will be judged using concepts understood by sane people who, thank God, have been spared the knowledge of what it is like to be mad. To punish him will, no doubt, give some sort of closure to those affected by the massacre. But as far as James Holmes himself is concerned it would be like beating a dog because it had bitten the postman. The dog would know that you were punishing it and would probably know why you are punishing it, but it wouldn't understand your moral thinking for punishing it. You would have to understand the mind of a dog to understand the actions of a dog and there's as much chance of a human being ever being able to do that as there is of a sane person understanding what goes on in the head of a madman. If you don't believe me, ask my wife.

Comments

THE SANE CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND THE MAD — 16 Comments

  1. OK so I have this atheist coworker named Mike who would say the cops should have shot Holmes down where he stood. He doesn’t accept “madness” as an excuse. The man committed the crime, so he should pay with his life. What can one say to that??

  2. I don’t know what you could say to someone like that. Compassion has largely failed in the U.S., especially when any effort is required. Compassion for victims goes without saying, and while the victims and those close to them may not feel compassion for James Holmes themselves (now if ever), the rest of us might consider it. We have lots of mental illness in our family on both sides, and from the little I’ve seen of James Holmes, he definitely seems to be a sufferer. Good post, MP. I definitely agree with you.

  3. @Tracie Holladay i’m not sure what ‘atheist’ has to do with it. i have known more ‘christians’ over the years who feel that way than atheists. so an appeal to virtues such as love your enemy, mercy, compassion seem to have little affect on the person whether they have a belief system or not.

  4. Your co-worker should count himself very lucky indeed, Tracie. He is never going to suffer from mental illness in his life. This is because the more intelligent you are the more likely you are to suffer from mental illness some time in your life.

  5. Yes, Carl. But an atheist can believe anything he or she wants to as all moral choices for an atheist are arbitrary. Christians with such an attitude about the mentally ill should wise up quickly otherwise they are going down.

  6. RE: MP @ 15:22

    I’m not quite sure how to respond to that, because I thought of myself as moderately intelligent. But that means I am moderately mad too.

    Hmmmm. Food for thought. 😉

    PS: I think of Joe as quite brilliant – but I suppose right there is proof that higher intelligents = madness. 😀

  7. Actually, I think the word intelli-gent, sort of describes Joe. Although he probably likes to think of himself as less refined.

  8. On the other hand, when (as a Catholic kid) he was dragged to the charismatic, happy-clappy “Jesus is my bro” type of churches, he was *appalled* at what he saw. He actually would make a good Anglo-Catholic, believe it or not.

  9. One of the major problems with our “advanced” society is that we always answer violence with yet more violence and then we wonder why it never stops.

    Until we live the Gospel and conform to the two “great” commandments: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, we will be forever trapped in this cycle of murderous behavior; a behavior that is practiced by all regardless of the state of one’s sanity.

  10. “The man committed the crime”: so many assumptions in a short assertion like that. So much to unpack.

    “man”: probably presumes rational actor (person doing action)

    “committed”: presumes rational thought carrying out action

    “crime”: (getting to insanity defense) presumes rational awareness of right and wrong before and during action

    If any of the above are warped away from rational, then the assertion simply doesn’t stand. You may have a Homo sapiens finger pulling a trigger, but that doesn’t equate w/ the medical and legal evaluation “the man committed the crime”.

  11. “…it would be like beating a dog because it had bitten the postman. The dog would know that you were punishing it and would probably know why you are punishing it, but it wouldn’t understand your moral thinking for punishing it. You would have to understand the mind of a dog to understand the actions of a dog and there’s as much chance of a human being ever being able to do that as there is of a sane person understanding what goes on in the head of a madman.”

    I got to thinking about this, and I remembered that my coworker Mike always gets very upset when a gator is destroyed because:

    1: either it wandered into human territory and damaged property and/or people

    2: a person wandered into its territory and it hurt or killed the human

    Mike does not believe a gator should be destroyed because it was simply doing gator things, and we humans were too stupid to stay out of its way.

    So is it a case of, similar to the gator, a mad person is just doing mad person things and therefore should not be destroyed (death penalty, as he so firmy advocates)?

  12. Correct. Although a mad person is capable of making moral decisions, which an aligator is not. It’s just what seems morally reasonable to a mad person may not be what is allowed in society. I remember believing all sorts of things that in hindsight were bonkers, they didn’t seem so at the time. Fortunately, my problems were never going to lead to me hurting others, just myself. But I have an idea of what thought processes go through the minds of people who have more antisocial problems in their madness. The thing is you don’t get to choose.

  13. Brilliant post, MadPriest. Punishing the chap isn’t about justice. It’s certainly not about making the world a better place. It’s about drama. Theatre. It’s in our hormones to lash out when we feel threatened. The mass media make it easy for whole societies to feel threatened by one disadvantaged person. Everyone then feels the urge to inflict pain on the person, and the mass media calls it justice. Numbers 35:33-34 gives an alternative explanation: murder pollutes the land, so murderers need to be killed. A society which didn’t feel so ill at ease wouldn’t be so keen to find scapegoats.

  14. “All mad people know what they are doing. “

    Ah, and this is where Mike tells me that Holmes should have been executed on the spot; if he “knew what he was doing,” then by definition he could not possibly be “mad” or “mentally ill” or whatever.

    :sigh:

    There’s no getting through to some folks.