Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ron Smith: Terrorism, Murder, and Madness

Is James Holmes, the perpetrator of the Aurora (Denver) massacre, insane?  He has certainly been working hard at his arraignment to create that impression, with much eye-rolling and empty stares.  Is the man responsible for the Oslo killings of twelve months ago (Anders Breivic), insane?  He has been insisting that he is not.  Moreover, the families of his victims are also clear that he is not insane because they do not wish him to avoid punishment.  Both men committed mass murder but is there a plausible explanation for their behaviour, in either case, that might make it something other than madness?

The legal test for insanity in the Anglo-Saxon tradition is much as it was when first promulgated in 1843, in relation to the case of Daniel McNaughton, the so-called, ‘McNaughton Rules’.  To be acquitted by reason of insanity, a defendant needs to clearly prove that, at the time of committing the act, he was labouring under such ‘defect of reason’ as not to appreciate its ‘nature and quality’.  He did not know what he was doing, or if he did know, he did not know it was wrong. 
On the face of it, this applies to James Holmes but there may be other issues of public policy to consider in this case, and cases like it.  Evidence is now accumulating that the mental instability of James Holmes was well-known at the University of Colorado and that a University Psychiatrist, who was treating him may have been in a position to know what he was planning to do, or might do.  Insofar as this is so, there is an issue as to whether public policy settings, in regard to the protection of the public, are as they should be, in relation to the human rights of the mentally ill.  Recent New Zealand cases have also thrown up the same problem.

The case of Breivic is different.  Here the defendant not only denies insanity but he tells us exactly why he committed the crimes.  He was concerned, he said, about the corruption of Norwegian society caused by Islamic immigration, and he blamed left-leaning Norwegian politicians and governments for permitting and encouraging this.  That is why his targets were government offices and the young socialists’ camp, where most of the killing took place.  On the basis of this explanation of his behaviour, he is plausibly a terrorist.  Nineteenth-century theorists described terrorism as ‘the propaganda of the deed’.  It was a way of drawing attention to a political cause, via the commission of atrocity and, arguably, it was very successful in doing this.  As an aside, it might be observed that the Norwegian authorities greatly aided this project by giving Breivic an international audience for his views.  There are clearly two values here: the defendant’s right to put his case in an open legal process, and the public interest in avoiding a repeat of the 2011 Oslo massacre.  It may be that the Norwegian authorities got the balance wrong.

Either way, on this reading, Breivic is not insane.  He is a rational, political activist, who recognised no moral/legal restraint on his actions.  Lenin infamously said that the ‘means justify the ends’, by which he meant that there are some ends that are so valuable that any means may be used to achieve them.  In Lenin’s case it was the achievement of the communist society.  Whether liberating Norway from multiculturalism is a ‘higher value’ than the loss of life entailed, is a matter for judgement, but on the face of it, that is what Breivic appears to have believed.

There is another way of conceptualising terrorism that conforms more to the international/United Nations definition.  In this, the essence of terrorism is that violence is used against arbitrary civilians in order to intimidate (‘terrorise’) a wider population, who then put pressure on governments to do something.  The point of linking the definition of terrorism to civilian victimisation is to characterise it as never justified by any cause, which is what the UN position is.  The contrast here is with the killing of combatants in war, which may be justified by reference to the cause.  Terrorism is not insanity.  It is simply evil.

Seeing terrorism as an illegitimate means to some sort of political end, raises a question about how plausible that end needs to be for the action to be considered rational.  On the face of it, this is a hard test to apply.  Certainly (in the Breivic case), attention has been drawn to an issue, and arguably this has contributed, however marginally, to a Europe-wide debate on immigration.  Equally, the awful atrocity has had no perceptible effect on Norwegian Government policy, and perhaps it had no potential to do so, but that does not make Breivic’s actions irrational, or to use the concept that was central to the McNaughten case, ‘delusional’.

The question may even be asked in the case of James Holmes.  Would it be, in some sense ‘rational’ for him to be seeking (in the common cliché) his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, as a kind of compensation for the loss of a brilliant career as a neuroscience researcher?  On this reading he is no terrorist, and not mad but simply bad.


Brian said...

Murder most foul!
Dr Smith has posed an old problem “When is a Terrorist, not a Terrorist”? An answer that comes quickly to mind is “When he or she is on our side”! Although the lines I admit are blurred, and any demarcation is fixed by politics rather than by morality. But that is dangerous ground on which to tread.
The whole point of terrorism is to terrorise, and one has to admit that in this respect it works, both on an individual basis and certainly at an international level; most of the time. The conflict in Syria showing that “a government whether elected by democratic processes, or in this instance, by a dictatorship” is being threatened by “terrorist forces/freedom fighters who are striving for what they tell us is their liberty”. In this they are supported by the West, with the Syrian government being supported by Russia and China.
The problem then is that, by supporting such terrorist activities in one instance, and at the same time supporting “law and order” in Afghanistan; the spectre of hypocrisy rears its ugly head and has opened the West to criticism. Just where does one draw the line?
Already there are New Zealanders calling for the withdrawal of our forces from that theatre, especially since the death of two more of our soldiers; also giving them the opportunity to further oppose based on ideological differences.
Individual acts of killings by civilians will continue, despite the inane calls that by increasing the restrictions or even banning guns would alleviate this problem. Certainly this was shown not to be the case in the Urewera debacle saga.
One can but surmise the Defence in that case did not attempt to use the McNaughton rules, by implying that this “insurrection”/or peaceful display of arms/ was an insane act? As it turned out due to poorly ill framed laws, it was probably counter-productive in Governmental terms.
When, not if, individual terrorism arrives on our shores one just has to wonder what real action will be taken against those who consider themselves justified by a cause, to inflict carnage upon the rest of us.
Although in the final analysis the comment made last century by Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes would be more appropriate. “That the winner is always right”!

John Threlfall said...

I suppose the simple view (which I support) is that Holmes and Breivic are clearly and unequivocally guilty and should be executed without delay.I simply do not believe the much vaunted view that such punishment does not deter crime.