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Mad or bad?


Over the years I’ve been struck by how often the media, and the police, seek to reassure the public after some shocking act of violence by reporting that the perpetrators were mentally disturbed – the implication being that they were not religious fanatics. ‘Don’t worry, it was just some nutcase, not a terrorist.’

Frankly, I don’t see the difference – or see why it should matter. In my book, people who believe their religion gives them the right to kill or injure others are mentally disturbed by definition. Like schizophrenic murderers, they usually ‘hear voices’ – but in this case society affects to pretend along with them that the voices may be real, because they allegedly come from a god.

There are some that call this ‘prayer’, which to most people suggests the height of innocence. To me, it’s one of the most sinister words in the English language – because it is so often used as an excuse to shrug off normal human responsibility. To quote many a mawkish hymn, ‘the Good Lord tells me so’ – and that trumps all other principles, moral or otherwise. And more of the same: ‘I didn’t know what to do, so I prayed.’ ‘When all else fails, you can always turn to prayer.’ ‘The power of prayer.’ A pernicious practice that allows delusion to prevail over serious thought, and encourages people to think that’s a good thing.

I won’t go quite so far as to claim that anyone with religious faith – however well they treat their fellows – is by definition mentally disturbed; but I frankly can’t find any really good reason to think otherwise.

So when I read, or hear, that the perpetrators of some horror were mentally disturbed – rather than religious – I can’t help thinking ‘Cut the crap’. I don’t care what their reasons were, and the fact they might have been religious rather than anything else cuts no ice with me whatever. Assuming their guilt has been proven, these are dangerous people that need to be removed from society before they can do even more harm. Since I don’t believe in the death penalty – its ability to prevent crime is more than questionable, and its ability to put an end to falsely accused people’s lives is only too evident – this means locking them away, if necessary forever. Should justice later prove to have miscarried, they can at least be pardoned, released and allowed to live out however much remains of their lives in freedom, with financial compensation for their unwarranted suffering – small comfort, perhaps, but surely better than killing them and then having to say ‘Oops, wrong person.’

In recent history many killers have received theoretically more lenient punishments on the grounds that they were mentally disturbed, rather than ‘just evil’ – mad rather than bad. It is often hard to see where the boundary should be drawn; as medical knowledge progresses it has been shifting, and it is bound to remain somewhat arbitrary.

But, with the abolition of the death penalty in most civilised countries (one very notable exception springs to mind, raising the question of how civilised it really is), both the mad and the bad must be locked away somewhere. The only issue then is ‘in what type of institution’; and since institutions for the insane inevitably cost more to run than prisons (if only because the inmates of the former receive psychiatric treatment, in the hope that they may eventually be cured and become fit for release, whereas the inmates of the latter generally do not), there is a built-in financial brake on keeping killers out of prison. The more of them that get labelled ‘bad’ rather than ‘mad’, the better – or, at least, the cheaper. This may be an unavoidable fact of life; but society needs to know exactly what its motives and priorities are when choosing forms of punishment, rather than assume these are a given.

In view of all this, I don’t find the rush by the media and the police to label perpetrators of attacks as ‘mentally disturbed’ rather than religious fanatics either reassuring or helpful. These folks are all out of control, and – if found guilty – they all need to be put away for the time being. What happens to them then is another matter, but has little to do with the label. Just as schizophrenic killers may, with suitable treatment, be brought to the point where they can safely be released back into society, murderous religious fanatics may, with suitable counselling, be brought to the realisation that their beliefs are a danger to their fellows. With luck – but that’s just me – they may decide to abandon their religion altogether; and the world would surely be a better place for it.

Above all, I think the knee-jerk media and police distinction between ‘mentally disturbed’ and ‘religious’ killers gives the religious ones an inflated opinion of their own supposed importance, mission in life and ability to instil fear – especially since so many of them are young and still impressionable men and women, who may yet grow out of it. We should just make it clear to them that we think they’re all crackers, and that shouting Allahu akbar in a public place is no more, or less, crazy than shouting I’m Julius Caesar – or, for that matter, the Good Lord tells me so.


From → Media, Religion, Society

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