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The Insanity Of It All
by Steven D. Laib, J.D., M.S.
22 December 2003

If, by our definition the Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo is insane, then it follows that his mentor, already sentenced to death for participation in the same acts for the same reasons, is also insane. It would also logically follow that others who believe this same doctrine of Islamic fascism are insane as well within the parameters of modern society. We must then address the question of whether on not this whole phenomenon is a form of mass insanity.


The insanity defense is a time honored approach used by defense attorneys who want to either avoid a conviction or a death sentence in cases of aggravated homicide. It is one of those things that may get blamed when someone “gets off on a technicality.” But it is also something that originates within our concept of moral behavior. We accept that people should not be punished when they are not in control of their actions. The issue then becomes whether it is in society’s best interest to keep, for example, a Charles Manson, in the hospital for life instead of employing the death penalty.

The case of the Beltway Snipers now brings an interesting use of the insanity defense. Attorneys for defendant 18 year old Lee Boyd Malvo contend that dozens of drawings he sketched while in jail, replete with Islamic fundamentalism, are evidence of insanity. As the reader may know, the crux of any insanity defense is the contention that the defendant does not know the difference between right and wrong, or did not know at the time he acted. Malvo’s attorneys also contend that his mental state was affected by his association with fellow sniper John Allen Mohammed who was recently convicted and sentenced to death for two of the killings.

What makes this case especially unusual is that the defendants killed out of apparent devotion to a “religious” belief. Religion can be defined in many ways, but contentions regarding religion often walk a fine line. Take this example: If I were to walk up to a friend tomorrow and tell him that I had received a revelation from God, and that he was to follow my instructions or God wanted me to kill him it would be a sure bet he would think I’d gone crazy. However, because Muslims have the patina of centuries of history on their side, people rarely consider them crazy, even when they become homicidal in the name of religion.

Jews have never had this problem. They are essentially forbidden to recruit new members, and they even tend to discourage people who want to become Jews. Christians, once the Enlightenment took hold, gave up the idea of forcing religion on other people. It became recognized that you could not force someone to believe in or to profess a faith, which was not in their heart, and that providing a good example was a better tool to obtain converts than a gun or sword. Islam, on the other hand, was created as a warlike religion. At the fundamental level it has never rejected the idea of forcing others into their belief system. Forcing someone to submit to the will of man was acceptable if it led, in their minds, to submission to their god. But the entire concept of submission implies a lack of personal control or free will that is present in all aspects of Judeo-Christian tradition and in Eastern religions such as Buddhism as well. Submission also conceptually indicates a potential for violence against one who refuses.

When we note that the evidence Malvo’s attorneys intended to use to prove insanity consists in significant part of his violent, Islamic oriented art, it raises a question of exactly how we interpret the concepts of good and evil or right and wrong. Clearly, Osama Bin Laden considers himself one of the good guys. We can surely recall the Iranian mullahs addressing America as the “great Satan.” Malvo, as one who to all appearances follows this general belief as well, probably considers himself a good guy as well. He probably believes that the people he participated in killing deserved to die. His perspective may be warped from our point of view, but then he probably considers our point of view warped as well. Does this make him insane?

But there is another aspect of this discussion, and a more important one. If, by our definition Malvo is insane, then it follows that his mentor, already sentenced to death for participation in the same acts for the same reasons, is also insane. It would also logically follow that others who believe this same doctrine of Islamic fascism are insane as well within the parameters of modern society. We must then address the question of whether on not this whole phenomenon is a form of mass insanity.

In 1841 Charles MacKay addressed issues that relate to this in his well-known work, Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness Of Crowds. To the best of my knowledge, MacKay did not address Islam as an aspect of human gullibility. He did, however, comment on the Crusades, witch trials, fortune telling, millennialism, and of course, the infamous economic bubble phenomena that occurred in Europe during the industrial revolution and age of exploration. As he addressed all of this, at one point, he indicates that people in general have a great “love of the marvelous and a disbelief of the true.” It should not be so strange, then, to find that there are people who believe that the way to heaven is to kill others who don’t agree with them, or that a god expects them to engage in such homicidal acts.

We don’t need MacKay to tell us that the world is full of crazy people. Most of them are harmless. Others may not be. Their insanity can bring harm to themselves, or it can cause them to harm others who are, in fact, blameless, except in the eyes of these insane individuals. Strangely enough, MacKay addresses the Crusades as an example of mass insanity, while the Islamic fascists in their own modern insanity are still fighting against Crusaders who have been dead for over 5 centuries. The implication that flows directly from Malvo’s use of the insanity defense is that by modern American standards, we are now confronting some 100 Million crazy people, dedicated to killing us in the name of their supposed god. This means, in the end, potentially millions of Hannibal Lecters. The problem with people who are this crazy is that they don’t go away, they don’t stop killing, and they have horrendous potential when they are backed by billions in oil money.

There has been a lot of discussion in some circles about why the attacks of September 11. Much of it, particularly on the liberal side of things has been poorly informed typical America bashing. If someone out there is still looking for an answer as to why, I think Mr. Malvo’s lawyers have given us one.


Steven Laib is a practicing attorney
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