Jewish World Review Jan. 19, 2011 14 Shevat, 5771
Is Loughner Nuts or Just Evil?
By Roger Simon
He is, according to the media, "an insane young man." And his "madness was shaped by a broader climate of paranoia."
"Get something straight," one media columnist wrote. "The lunatic in Tucson killed people because he was mentally ill." (And one would have to admit that anyone who covers the media for a living would know a thing or two about insanity.)
A newspaper that examined Loughner's webchat postings decided he was driven "by inner demons."
Time magazine began its story by saying: "Navigating the cluttered corridors of Jared Loughner's mind will take psychiatrists months or years. We will likely never know all the reasons he took a cab to that Safeway on Jan. 8, paid with a $20 bill, calmly got his change and then killed six people and wounded 14 others. ... Pinpointing the precise moment a mental illness takes root is guesswork at best."
Call me old-fashioned, but I come from the school of journalism that still requires phrases like he "allegedly" killed six people or he is a murder "suspect" (and the number of wounded is now recognized as 13). It's not that I personally doubt Loughner's guilt, it's just that I don't think newsmagazines should have the power to convict people.)
In any case, the Loughner is a loon. Bonkers. Nutso. Three fries short of a Happy Meal. The media have so ruled.
Which leaves me with just one question: Whatever happened to evil?
Why have we rushed to the judgment of insanity? Legally, very few defendants are found guilty of insanity. I covered virtually every day of the John Wayne Gacy trial, a guy who raped and murdered 33 young men and boys and buried 26 of them in the crawlspace of his home.
Any guy who does that has to be crazy, right? He has to be possessed of "inner demons" that cause his "madness," right? Because no sane person could do such a terrible thing, right? Except a sane person can. A jury said so, and Gacy was executed by lethal injection on May 22, 1994. (I interviewed him by phone in prison before he was executed, and he seemed normal to the point of being boring.)
Jeffrey Dahmer not only killed 17 men and boys but ate a few of them. Tell me that guy wasn't nuts. Yet a jury rejected his insanity plea and a judge sent him to prison, where he was murdered by a fellow inmate.
John Hinckley is one of the few exceptions. He shot President Ronald Reagan, James Brady, Thomas Delahanty and Timothy McCarthy in front of hundreds of witnesses (and on TV) in order to impress actress Jodie Foster, and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He still resides inside a mental institution, though he is allowed to leave to visit his mother on nine-day trips and has a driver's license.
But that is all just legal mumbo jumbo. We know that anybody who guns down innocent people or sticks dead bodies under his house or eats them, for pity's sake, has got to be crazy.
And we believe that because we do not want to believe, as our ancestors believed, in evil. Evil is even more frightening than madness. Madness can be treated. All we need is early intervention and clinics and more resources devoted to the problem.
We hope. We live in an age in which virtually all our problems have been medicalized. Not that long ago, compulsive drinking, compulsive gambling and even compulsive eating were looked upon as human weaknesses. Now, we treat them as medical problems.
Evil has been medicalized into insanity. But only up to a certain point. There seems to be a correlation between the number of people you kill and whether you are called insane or evil.
Loughner allegedly kills six and is insane.
Hitler kills more than 6 million, and he is evil. The same is true for Stalin and Mao. We don't say they needed the intervention of community health clinics, we say they were the ultimate examples of evil on earth because they murdered tens of millions of people.
Is the difference just numbers, however? You kill a certain number of people, and you are nuts — but you cross the line and kill more, and you are evil? Is that how it really works?
Or, in our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term "evil"? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious, or both.
And we would much rather believe that all sick people can be cured by medical intervention.
Because that is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.
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