TRADING MORALITY FOR MUMBO-JUMBO
The people who monopolize the narrative of right and wrong in the culture were not pleased when a jury found Andrea Pia Yates guilty of murdering her five children. So they swung into action: The lawyers, mental-health agitators, academics, and journalists had a go at the jurors, denouncing them as Texan troglodytes. At the same time, the cultural cognoscenti continued to refer to Yates tenderly as "the Houston mother," something that is both technically incorrect and morally reprehensible, considering Yates' self-inflicted childless status.
Next came an attack on the Texas insanity defense. The law says that it's insufficient to show that a person is "mentally ill" to render her not guilty of murder by reason of insanity. It's necessary to also demonstrate that, at the time of the crime, she did not know right from wrong. The premise of this law is lucid—it bears the hallmark of natural law. Natural law is law arrived at through reason and not through the self-serving drive of special-interest groups, and certainly not with the aid of a science that is as valid as the practice of table turning by spirit mediums. By parity of reason, the natural law is immutably just. At times the law of the state coincides with the natural law. More often than not, natural justice has been buried under the rubble of legislation and statute.
By stating that "mental illness" is a necessary but insufficient condition for finding a person not guilty by reason of insanity, Texas' insanity defense acknowledges an unyielding truth: An individual's essential nature does not change because he suffers behavioral or mood problems. Most "mentally-ill" people choose never to commit murder. Why? Because mental peculiarities don't rob people of their moral nature. Texas law concurs by implying that even under extreme mental duress, a person is not without the capacity to reflect on his actions and thoughts and make choices. In every situation, no matter the constraints, one can exercise some free will, even if only to decide how to respond to a hopeless predicament.
This is what his experience in Auschwitz taught philosopher and distinguished psychiatrist, Viktor E. Frankl. "In the camps one lost everything," Frankl reiterated in a New York Times interview, "except the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way," a reality that makes Yates all the more contemptible, because many choices and supports were available to her. Despite that, mankind and his dog have decided that since Yates rejected her many privileges and options, and acted contrary to reason, she had no reasons for her actions.
Yet more nonsense. Yates explained that she had defiled her children with her devilish mothering. She decided that rather than, for instance, terminate herself—the source of all the evil—she would terminate the little people whom she had allegedly tainted. Is that not a decision? It's a terrible one, but it's a conscious decision. Yet people are too squeamish to stare into the maw of evil—they refuse to take Yates at her word.
Enter the insanity plea. It capitulates to the mistaken notion that, when crimes are too horrible to comprehend, medical concepts must replace moral concepts. The implications of the insanity plea are very odd indeed: To find her not guilty by reason of insanity, the jurors would have had to accept that it was not Yates, but her "disease" or some separate alter ego that tortured those children to death. Yates, moreover, would have been cast not as a victimizer, but as the innocent victim of her "affliction."
Rejected, thankfully, by the good Texan jurors, this bogus bifurcation flouts the Law of Identity: A person can't have done the deed, yet simultaneously be innocent of it! The 19th-century American philosopher Lysander Spooner put it thus: "Guilt is an intrinsic quality of actions, and can neither be created, destroyed or changed by legislation."
But not if the judicial activists have anything to say. They are now complaining that the law's standard for legal insanity must be broadened so that even on a determination that Yates knew right from wrong, it would still have been possible to find her innocent. In other words, a history of behavioral problems will suffice to render a killer not responsible for his actions.
The real bedlam lies in a society that allows the psychiatric articles of faith to replace morality.
© ILANA MERCER
March 20, 2002