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Wednesday 18 July 2001

Murder and Insanity

It occurred to me a few years ago, during some not-guilty-by-reason-of-temporary-insanity TV coverage, that quite a bit of homicide is at the hands of insane people, not just the cases of I-killed-him-because-the-voices-told-me.

It ultimately comes down to a question of self-preservation.

Ayn Rand would probably have said that no self-preservative act can ever be insane, and that no ultimately self-destructive act can ever be sane.

(NOTE: That my base premise there is meta-quoted from Ayn Rand is to warn you that I think there might be some problems with this argument, not that I think it’s Gospel. Jesus. You can’t mention Ayn Rand in any context without people coming up, assuming you’re a lunatic, and explaining that Ayn Rand is full of shit. I could probably say, "You know that cover art on Anthem? It’s really ugly," and someone would march up and say, "Ayn Rand is full of shit, you know." It’s like there’s just some lizard-brain response to those syllables.)

So anyway, the question becomes: Is my life (or my genetic or cultural inheritance, which is the biological and instinctual purpose of my life’s existence) going to be better off as a result of killing this guy, or not?

I like this way of putting it, because it accounts nicely for war.

Example 1: An easy one. Someone comes up to you brandishing a knife, and says he’s going to kill you. You pull out your gun and shoot him. In a him-or-me situation, me is the only sane answer.

Example 2: Ex-con running from the police, after robbing the Quick-E-Mart. He shoots at the police. Not insane, just risky.

Example 3: Ex-con, whilst robbing Quick-E-Mart and wearing a mask, shoots clerk. Insane. Shooting the clerk does not produce any gain for our friend the criminal, and in fact it makes his position much worse.

Complicated example: Palestinians who blow up school buses and such are not insane. They (perhaps rightly) see their entire culture threatened with extinction; preservation of that is so important that nearly anything can be rationally justified.

More complicated example: Consider the Air Force bomber crews in the early hours of the Gulf "War". They were in no immediate danger from Iraq’s weapons. The U.S. was not in immediate danger. American culture, however, requires that oil be very plentiful and very cheap (which is why I never agreed with the people marching down Pennsylvania Avenue shouting, "No blood for oil!" Jesus, if there’s anything that’s worth the U.S. going to war over, it’s oil. Having a society that’s so dependent on a commodity we’ve got to import may well be insane: but once you’ve gone down the road of oil-addiction, going to war to ensure that it keeps flowing seems pretty rational to me), and the future of those soldiers’ families requires that the U.S. continues to be the world’s wealthiest country (The bomber crew would also have been sent to prison back in the U.S. had they not dropped the bombs as ordered; thus the military bureaucracy calls the self-preservation instincts of the crew to bear on the honchos’ assigned self-preserving plan of action.)

Logical conclusion that bothers me: KKK lynchings (and the assassination of MLK, etc.) were not insane, in that they were required to keep the blacks in fear and preserve Southern cracker culture.

Note that I’m not arguing that any of this stuff is necessarily lawful or just, only that it’s not necessarily insane.

I don’t know if war is necessarily crazy in and of itself, though. Louis XIV had "Ultima ratio regum" cast into the barrels of his cannons: The last argument of kings.

Members of a nation tend to believe — should believe — that their way of life, optimally lived, is better than others, and that their way of life should be propagated, even at the expense of others. A sort of me-or-them on a national scale. Sometimes this is incredibly obvious (colonization, religious missions, ethnic cleansing), but it’s always subtly going on.

War is a violent expression of this. German culture is on the skids because we’re being oppressed by all these non-German Europeans, so I’ll invade Poland. Iran still exists because I do not control the entire Persian Gulf, so I’ll invade Kuwait and then Saudi Arabia. Republicanism requires that states submit to control from Washington, so I’ll burn Atlanta to the ground. And so on. Generally only nations that are backed into a corner will initiate a war (which is why the present treatment of Iraq is not a good idea), because the alternative is the decline and possible eventual death of their culture.

And the purpose of fighting back, aside from immediate self-preservation when you’re invaded, is to raise the cost of that war so incredibly high that eventually the rational decision is to give up.

Saddam Hussein would like to control the Persian Gulf (the whole Kuwait thing was just a ruse; Saudi Arabia was the real goal there) because this would enable him to crush Iran, and it would put his culture in a position to rule the world.

The current rulers of the world don’t think much of that idea, because it would mean that our culture (and children, and selves) would be diminished. This is pointed out to Mr. Hussein. He decides that he doesn’t care about the relative position of the United States: he’s an Iraqi, and he wants to be on top of the heap. This is all perfectly rational thinking so far.

So the U.S. Air Force drops several hundred thousand pounds of high explosives on his country. This does two things. First, it diminishes Iraq’s ability to do fight, and it makes the cost of gaining control of the Persian Gulf so incredibly high that the rational decision in the interest of self-preservation is to back off. Ultima ratio regum.

So we see some circumstances where murder (or homicide, in any case) is a sane action.

I should point out here that I have been mixing two definitions of ‘insane’ throughout. The law defines you as insane if you’re unable to tell right from wrong at the time you committed the crime. The basis for this is the M’Naghten Rule. The rule is named for a Scotsman — who was himself named McNaughton, oddly enough — who, in 1843, shot and killed the secretary of Sir Robert Peel, at the time Prime Minister. (Yes, that was in England, and we’re talking about American law here; this isn’t the only place where English law leaks into the U.S.) Apparently McNaughton intended to kill Peel, and shot the secretary in a case of mistaken identity. In any case, the rule is that the accused can be found not guilty by reason of insanity if

…at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.

I’ve been using the word "insane" in the more colloquial sense, meaning something close to "irrational". However, even if one applies the M’Naghten Rule, it comes down to a definition of "wrong".

It seems pretty obvious, therefore, that anyone who kills someone else is insane when he pulls the trigger, even by the law’s definition. "Right" and "wrong" are defined, in the egocentric universe, as "good for me" and "bad for me". It’s hard to imagine a situation not included in the list above where killing someone would unambiguously improve the murderer’s situation. Ergo a large number of murders — possibly most of ‘em — are committed by people who are at least temporarily insane.

Posted by tino at 16:00 18.07.01
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