Thursday, November 12, 2009
Mad or bad
I see that John Allen Muhammed was executed by lethal injection this week for murdering a number of people in Washington DC. What to make of it? The assumption in most western law is that if you are sane then, wherever they observe the niceties of state execution, you could eventually leave Death Row for the last walk of your life. Administrations that maintain the death penalty often execute the sane – who might have some chance of rebirth as an inoffensive person – and keep alive the insane, who have a more limited potential for beneficial change. Unless, of course, you are in a country like Iran or Afghanistan, where being publicly stoned to death doesn’t differentiate between the sane and the insane but focuses on acts that are found, for whatever reason, to be unacceptable. Acts that can range from going to a school if you are a woman, through adultery to murder. (In the US, too, it is possible to make executions public to provide closure for family and friends of victims when they observe the last thrash of a killer’s limbs.) The nature of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is embedded in the structures of all early societies. Vengeance is served hot or cold for it avers that the enemy might not repeat the mistakes of its individuals and cause you harm again. The notion that someone may not suffer the death penalty owing to his or her mental state, is relatively recent. The French once enshrined in law, crime passionel, to cover an emotionally distraught act of killing for which you were not held wholly responsible. In the US they have a plea for the same emotional aberration which is called, temporary insanity.
I wrote recently about how our genes are affected by our experiences in life – quite a paradigm shift given that we assumed genetic structures were fixed at birth. Research published this week shows that mice who are traumatised in their early months by separation from their parents, have a much decreased capacity to handle stress and behave normally. Since psychopathy can, therefore, be attributed to either an at-birth incapacity to know what is socially acceptable or not, or the result of later traumas changing genetic structures so that a person no longer has the power to control his or her actions, we can only execute them if we adopt ancient practices and rid ourselves of the problem of determining who is sane or insane.
So how do you judge a man such as Muhammed? If sane, he surely could not have done what he did, day after day, because a person capable of such gross acts is not like you or I. He is not sane. If he is insane, therefore, he cannot be held responsible. In truth, if we take into account how people who have killed in war suffer a guilt-ridden stress at their acts, we know that for a sane person, killing is not good for the psyche, no matter what the circumstances.