Heinous criminals: evil or just plain crazy?
They are the most baffling criminals of all – the ones who seem to just not care. They are guys like John Allen Muhammad, the alleged serial sniper, or any rapist, molester or killer who is motivated by self-gratification. Every time one of these people strikes, the debate is renewed: can someone do these things and be sane?
Put a killer on the stand and ask him to explain why he did it, and sometimes the answer does make some sense. Even just individuals can comprehend, though not condone, crimes motivated by passion, desperation or obvious mental illness.
But to understand a killer, you have to be able to think like a killer, and that is why some motives defy explanation. People who see murder as reasonable obviously think differently than the non-murderous majority. However, that doesn’t mean that an uncaring criminal cannot reason or possesses reason clouded by insanity.
It’s a scary prospect, but some criminals are just plain mean. The sooner our society accepts that fact, the sooner we can stop being wishy-washy in dealing with repeat offenders and those who commit capital offenses.
Clinical and legal definitions of insanity vary, but sources in both fields seem to agree that most people who commit serious crimes suffer from some kind of mental disorder. They also agree that those disorders are not always responsible for the criminals’ behavior.
Dr. Fred Schloemer, a therapist at Counsel House in Corydon, uses suicide bombers as an example of a killer’s rationale that, while difficult to understand, isn’t necessarily the product of psychosis at all.
“My answer as a Westerner, an American, would be that anyone who would strap a bomb to their body and blow themselves up would have to be insane,” Schloemer said, but, “If you grew up in a world where you barely had enough to eat and everybody was poor and all you had to look forward to was a better life after death … you wouldn’t be crazy at all.”
In the case of these idealists, their extremism is the result of being marginalized and oppressed, Schloemer said.
And what about temporary insanity?
It’s roughly defined as the state a person enters when they’re stressed beyond their ability to cope. They lose their normal rational modes of function and temporarily lapse into uncharacteristic thinking and behavior patterns. Their social inhibitions come apart.
“Once they discharge that negative energy, they realize they’ve done something they shouldn’t,” Schloemer said.
Every time a criminal pleads temporary insanity, the public cringes. The perception is that the plea is widely abused if not completely fictitious. Temporary insanity really does exist, but, Schloemer said, as a defense it is most often no more than a legal strategy. Those who suffer this disorder usually need ongoing treatment; they were predisposed to it in some way.
As for Muhammad, whose killing spree seemingly has no beginning as ballistics tests continue connecting him to unsolved shootings, he is neither temporarily insane nor permanently psychotic. He has shown elements of personality disorders but has also been patient and methodical while murdering apparently for the sake of $10 million.
Schloemer believes the serial sniper had the capacity for rational thought and understood the consequences of his behavior. In other words, by the legal definition, Muhammad is a sane man.
But what good does that do us now?
Ted Bundy made us rethink what a murderer looks and sounds like. Maybe Muhammad will help us change our minds about how a murderer thinks.
After all, just how much nerve does it take to point a rifle at someone dozens, even hundreds, of yards away, who you know absolutely nothing about, and pull the trigger?
What reason would you need to do it?
It would take nothing short of war for some of us. John Allen Muhammad only needed $10 million dollars. He wasn’t at war with his own demons, just the world.