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.
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
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
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.
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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