A reader, Hugh F., wrote to say the mug shot of Jared Loughner with his head shaved reminded him of a comment in my post of November 18 ("Omar Hammami: Alabama al-Qaeda"):
Take a good look at photos of Omar's face: do you detect the "trademark smirk" Andrea Elliott wrote about? You will be seeing that sneer more and more frequently. Maybe, even in your own household.
What is behind Loughner's eery smile? He seems to be relishing a moment of absolute certainty, a moment when, inside his bald head, no validity exists outside him. He is real, all over the place.
On January 24, he pleaded not guilty. Why would he do otherwise? I am innocent; je suis innocent; yo soy inocente. Is that the smile of the 21st century?
Hugh, Loughner's mug shot made me, too, remember a few things…
Many years ago, I worked at Maricopa County Hospital in Phoenix. They had a ward for -- they didn't mince words back then -- the "criminally insane." Psychopathic and psychotic murderers. The madness that one locks up.
The first day, I asked the chief psychiatrist what was the most basic thing I needed to know about the patients. He answered right away, "Never turn your back on them."
Many years later, I worked as the assistant to the director of a large department of hospitals and institutions. My primary assignment was the creation of rules and regulations governing numerous facilities around the state.
The legal staff and I drew up a patients' rights policy that was advanced for its time. It placed limits on isolating patients from the outside world. Talk about walking on eggshells -- here's what happened:
A reporter got wind of the policy, and demanded an interview with a notorious serial murderer confined in the forensic treatment unit of the mental hospital.
At an emergency central office meeting, the hospital administrator and his chief medical officer vigorously opposed granting the interview. I argued exactly the opposite -- that if we refused, the media would have what they really wanted: not an interview but a sensational article about how awful we were. "Snake Pit" stuff. Besides, either the new patients' rights policy meant something or it didn't. My boss assigned me the task of detonating at our time and choosing -- not the reporter's -- the little stick of dynamite.
I saw the inmate briefly. And that is all I did. He hadn't said a word in 20 years. I had the impression he was submerged in the valley of a shadow. His unconscious had welled up, seized control.
I told the reporter the truth. His bluff called, he audibly sighed, folded his cards, said goodnight. I say bluff because he knew next to nothing about the patient. No research = no real interest. To my knowledge, the media never again made a similar request.
All of which goes to show that murderers locked up in mental institutions are simultaneously more dangerous and more boring than anything you've been told.
It was not work experiences, however, that led me to conclude that, special circumstances aside, anybody who kills someone is insane. I think there is a significant, positive correlation between witnessing a murder, as I did, and concluding that only insane people kill. Hopefully, someday somebody will study such attitudes and values. They are primordial for resolving a number of public policy questions, among them televising state executions.
I am unaware of any culture that is an exception to the rule that any murderer is insane. That includes the perpetrators of the carnage in Mexico. Recently, the Mexican government announced that 34,612 people were killed over the past four years in drug-related violence.
Which means, there are a lot of crazy people out there. Many more than official figures show.
Hugh F. disagrees with my position that all murderers are insane. He asks "What about hit men?" Here, we enter new territory: guilty but insane.
To reasonably answer the hit man question requires a departure from prevailing legal definitions and widely accepted beliefs:
I'll center my case on a quote of the month -- maybe of the year. The author, Charles Nodier (1780-1844), is unknown today. "To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable. To have him killed by someone else after calm and serious meditation and on the pretext of duty honorably discharged is incomprehensible."*
I regret to say that having a man killed by someone else is only too comprehensible. I would amend Nodier's observation to read: to kill a man in a fit of passion is the act of an insane individual. To kill him with the cold calculation of a trial in the name of a higher good is the mark of an insane society.
That position casts capital punishment in a different light. If it is true that anyone who murders is insane, is the state insane by engaging in capital punishment, or is the state covered by the special circumstances noted above? When the state premeditates taking a citizen's life -- a life the state ostensibly exists to protect -- is that a form of madness? When such premeditation occurs, can it be that the laws, as well as those who write and enforce them, do not know right from wrong?
If all murderers are insane, then the argument that a murderer's premeditation and calculation disprove insanity is nonsense. Sidebar: I wonder if that argument is not part of the very societal madness the argument supposedly addresses.
Which brings us back to Jared Loughner.
The media are reporting he will have a hard time making an insanity plea stick.
First, Loughner seems to have premeditated his mass shooting. He wrote shortly before he went to the Tucson Safeway what is the purest textbook case imaginable of premeditation: "I planned ahead."
And second, he apologized for his act before he committed it, suggesting he knew what he was about to do was wrong.
I would argue that, contrary to everything you will hear in the coming weeks, precisely because Loughner premeditated mayhem, he is insane.
Hugh F., please note: being insane does not make Loughner innocent. The sensational Jeffery Dahmer trial in the early 1990s set a legal precedent for finding a person guilty but insane. New territory, to be sure.
In reality, the worst and truest form of insanity could prove to involve premeditation -- be it by the state, a drug lord, or, yes, a hit man. In them, indifference trumps hatred. In the valley of the shadow of death, all is foam they will tell you, so why worry about it?
Result: the trademark smirk.
*Albert Camus quotes Nodier in The Rebel (p. 40).