Magazine article USA TODAY

The Insanity Excuse and Retrograde Thinking

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Insanity Excuse and Retrograde Thinking

Article excerpt

THOSE OF US WHO have been on the front lines of the more than half-century fight relating to the issue of whether alleged mental illness should be an acceptable legal excuse for felonious behavior periodically have been encouraged and dismayed during that time period.

We have been encouraged when there was a realization by millions of Americans (and others around the world) some 30 years ago that John Hinckley, whatever his socialization peculiarities, intentionally and premeditatedly tried to kill Pres. Ronald Reagan, despite the fact that his plea of insanity was successful.

Yet, we have been dismayed during this same lime period by the apparent persuasiveness of the psychiatric community that, since the insanity plea is invoked and successful in criminal cases only around one percent of the time, there should not be much concern. In this author's writing on persuasion, also the name of a course I have taught for almost 40 years, I have been fighting that powerful--but specious--argument which implies that, when a psychiatric defense is false, there is little problem since it is employed infrequently. However, the fact that the defense's use is relatively infrequent does not mean that its absolute invocation will not constitute thousands of cases.


One assumes that, when irrationality dominates a policy dispute, there will be a linear movement toward dispensing of the most indefensible components of both sides of the argument. In disputes over mental illness, the critics have, to a large extent, conceded that there is a tiny percent of those mislabeled as "mentally ill" who may have brain disease, and there has been an apposite conceding among many establishment mental health practitioners that, in the area of the insanity plea and beyond, the labeling of "mental illness" often is substantively empty and intended for strategic benefits to those so labeled.

At the same time, there are many in the psychiatric and psychology communities who utterly are impervious to argument and evidence. These are those who promote institutional psychiatry's ever-increasing estimates (now 55% and rising) of individuals who have or will have mental illness, always through nonmedical surveys, not medical exams.

Part of this flat-Earth community is found among the intelligentsia, and this filters down to the media and general population. The consequences range from benign fear of mythical mental illness to the factoring in of imagined mental problems of accused and convicted criminals, leading, worst of all, to the exoneration of said criminals.

One theory regarding why many people are sanguine about the use of the insanity plea to exculpate felons is that only a tiny number of citizens directly are affected by such miscarriages of justice. When an outrage is national, however, people may focus on the need for condign punishment. Not many Americans, after all, are related to victims of the criminals who are defended with various "legally not responsible" pleas. When, however, the forensic psychiatry forces rescue, say, a potential presidential assassin, many more people examine the arguably fatuous arguments that the would-be killer could not control his actions or did not know what he was doing.

This theory was put to the test, however, in the 2009 case of Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who perpetrated the Ft. Hood killings and shootings. The cowardly massacre by Maj. Hasan was typical of goal-driven homicides: motivated by hatred of the U.S. and facing a detested personal change in venue as his deployment to Afghanistan loomed, he decided to vent his murderous rage on as many unarmed objects of hatred as he could. So, he ended up killing more than a dozen innocents and wounding over two dozen more in what has been called "the deadliest mass shooting on a U.S. military installation."

Immediately, political correctness was dominant--not citing as motive Islamic radicalism--and psychiatric motives were publicly proffered: was mass murderer Hasan a "sociopath," a person who has a personality disorder marked by antisocial thoughts and behavior, a man who may have acted out of "madness," as the Washington Post wondered? …

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