Beheading on a Bus How do we explain the mentality of a killer?

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In August 2008, Canadians were shocked to learn that Edmonton
resident Vincent Li had stabbed to death and decapitated a stranger
on a bus. On March 4, 2009, Li was declared “not criminally
responsible,” that is, not guilty by reason of insanity.

Why did Li commit this crime? Queen’s Bench Justice John
Scurfield answered: “These grotesque acts are appalling.
However, the acts themselves and the context in which they were
committed are strongly suggestive of a mental disorder. He did
not appreciate the actions he committed were morally wrong.”

That interpretation was contradicted by Li’s behavior when
he was arrested, immediately after the killing. Li apologized,
asking police to kill him – evidence that he knew what he
had done and that he knew it was wrong. The authorities, however,
wanted to treat him as a madman. Defense and prosecution alike
called for a finding of NCR, “not criminally responsible.”
In his closing argument, Li’s lawyer, Alan Libman, told Justice
Scurfield that there was “no contradictory evidence”
to NCR, and other people apparently had no trouble agreeing. They
were acting on the widely shared cultural premise that only mentally
ill persons commit heinous crimes in broad daylight. So prevalent
is this idea that anyone who believes otherwise invites being
dismissed as a loony or a vengeful sadist. How, then, could other
“evidence” have been presented?

The history of modern law and psychiatry suggests that we do
not want to understand the murderer’s mental state, which
requires us to identify with him, lest he seem more human to us
than we imagine him to be. Understanding a deed such as Li’s
requires paying attention to the defendant’s behavior, verbal
and nonverbal, and, if necessary, asking him to explain the reasons
for his lawlessness in his own words. But we do the opposite:
we do not let the defendant speak at all. Instead, we ask fake
experts, called “psychiatrists,” to explain the culprit’s
crime. They tell us what we want to hear, illustrating the adage,
“He who pays the piper calls the tune.” They reflexively
“discover” that, at the precise moment when the accused
committed the crime, he was “insane.” Thus, the crime
was not an act; it was an event, the “product of mental illness.”

Timing is all-important in this fable. The defendant must be
found to have been insane during the commission of the crime;
subsequently, he must be found “mentally fit” to stand
trial. Yet, though fit to stand trial, he cannot confess to his
crime and plead guilty. He must plead innocent, so that we can
declare him “not criminally responsible” (“not
guilty by reason of insanity”). Such are the rules of the
game by which he must play, and by which we must (mis)understand
him. Not surprisingly, his crime “makes no sense to us.”

Returning to the beheading, what kind of explanation do we look
for? The Jacobins beheaded people because they believed that those
beheaded deserved to be guillotined for their crimes against the
French people and state. But if Li said that his victim deserved
to be beheaded, we would interpret his statement as a symptom
of his own madness, not as an explanation for the beheading of
his victim. Hence, we must ask: what kinds of statements do we
accept, or not accept, as “explanations”? What kinds
of people are entitled to offer, or not entitled to offer, (credible)

Different people often have different views about what counts
as an explanation. In attempting to explain the development of
the human race, some people prefer naturalistic explanations (evolution);
others opt for supernatural ones (creationism). Similar principles
are often invoked to explain good or bad behaviors. It is remarkable,
however, that while in the natural sciences we use the same principles
to explain why airplanes fly and crash, or why drugs heal and
harm, in the “(mis)behavioral sciences” we use one set
of principles to explain ordinary behaviors, and another set to
explain extraordinary misbehaviors. We attribute the former to
free will, the latter to lack of free will, a feature intrinsic
to (severe) mental illness. In other words, we explain the ordinary
behavior by attributing it to the actor’s reason for it,
and extraordinary misbehavior by attributing (nonexistent) mental
illness as its cause.

The truth is, there are reasons for murder, but not for melanoma.
There are causes for melanoma, but not for murder. However, the
idea of insanity – and especially the insanity defense –
is a matter of law, not logic. “The life of the law,”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reminded us, “has not been logic;
it has been experience.”

For more than a half century I have maintained that “mental
illness” is a metaphor and that it is absurd to attribute
horrifying crimes to “it.” Gods, devils, and mental
illnesses do not cause murder or anything else. Under all circumstances
and at all times only we – ourselves – can be the agents
of our actions. Therein precisely lies the problem of the relationship
between law and psychiatry.

We attribute bad actions to possession by demons or disturbed
minds in order to relieve ourselves, and our fellow humans, of
the relentless responsibility we must bear for how we live. Because
mental illness performs this essential service, we cling to it
as we do to life itself. Declaring a defendant NCR masquerades
as a “determination” or “finding” by psychiatrists
and judges. In fact, it is a collective societal decision about
how we – the agents and agencies who control the culprit
– ought to deal with him. Saying that we will “treat”
him makes us feel better than acknowledging that we are punishing
him. American government psychiatrists have been “treating”
John Hinckley, Jr., President Reagan’s “hospitalized”
would-be assassin, for 25 years. They are still trying to cure
him. And Santa Claus still brings Christmas gifts.

Mental illness is often said to be mysterious. It is not. “There
is method in madness,” Shakespeare told us. But of course
we can’t see the method if we don’t want to see it.
Li and the press told us enough to understand what happened. A
Chinese immigrant, Vincent Li could not make a go of his life
in Canada, or in China. Years before the murder, hopeless, homeless,
penniless, Li left Toronto on foot, supposedly to walk back to
Manitoba. Picked up by the police and committed to a mental hospital,
he was given room and board, which he wanted, and treatment, which
he did not want. Although deemed psychotic and dangerous, he promptly
escaped. The authorities made no attempt to find him. Managing
a person like Li as if he were a medical patient is a pretense,
and everyone knows it is. However, in the Age of Folly, psychiatry
defines social reality, just as in the Age of Faith the Church
defined it.

Li’s liver or lungs did not fail him. His life did, and
he knew it. There is no medical treatment for failed lives. Beheading
a stranger on a bus, like “walking” from Ontario to
Manitoba in an emaciated state, was a message. What was Li saying?
Let us listen to him.

“Since his arrest,” reported the press, “Li has
declined to speak to prosecutors and his court-appointed attorney.
When asked again by the judge after the recess [in the proceedings]
if he wanted a lawyer, Li shook his head and then quietly said
‘please kill me.’ Li’s remark was heard by reporters
and confirmed by court clerks, but was not acknowledged by the
judge.” It was also not acknowledged by the doctors who “examined”
Li. Prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Yaren told the court
that “Li has a very strong chance to recover and was an otherwise
‘decent person’ who was clearly out of his mind when
he believed he was acting on God’s commands.”

Hopeless as his situation was before the murder, it is worse
than hopeless after it, and Li knows that too. Perhaps he hoped
to die on his failed death-march to Winnipeg. Perhaps he lacked
the courage to kill himself. In any case, he wants to die now
and does not say that God tells him that death is the proper punishment
for his deed.

Nothing and no one can bring back the dead. Nor can a deed like
Li’s be expiated or “treated.” In the past, people
understood tragedy. Today we choose to misunderstand it as a malady
– manifested by “meaningless” deeds.

This article was originally published in Liberty

18, 2009

Thomas Szasz
is professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at the State University of New
York Health Science Center in Syracuse, New York.

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