What is insanity, anyway?

I’ve long been suspicious of the power we grant psychologists to decide what ‘insane’ means, before allowing it to carry such vast legal weight. So it is a pleasant surprise to learn that – if Jeffrey Toobin is right, at least – American law defines insanity extremely narrowly indeed. He suggests that the Aurora shooting suspect will be deemed insane if and only if it can be proven that he acted under a delusion. That is, if he hallucinated. If he thought he was playing an action game, for instance, rather than murdering real people. If he was in a mental state tantamount to sleep-walking.

Leaving aside the question of how anybody could even begin to acquire such knowledge about another person’s mental state, it is at least reassuring that this is all insanity is taken in American law to mean. It doesn’t matter what we think of your motives for action. By necessity, anyone that has deemed it reasonable to commit such an atrocity will barely have reasons that make sense to us. But the mere fact that the shooter is insane in this sense – that he’s totally incomprehensible and repulsive – is not deemed sufficient grounds for him to escape legal responsibility.

That feels reassuring to me. And it’s far from the global situation on this tricky issue. From what I can tell, Norwegian law is such that if it can be proven that Breivik is a paranoid schizophrenic, that will suffice for a declaration of insanity ridding him of responsibility. It’s hard to get clear information on this, but that doesn’t sound to me like they will find him insane only if they believe he was hallucinating. It is enough, it seems, that Breivik considered himself a saviour on an obligatory one man mission against the terrors of Islam when he was not, for him to be ruled insane. He just needs to be shown to have acted on some whacky false beliefs. And that’s a bar that just feels far too low.


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