Psycho Killer Not Psycho Enough

Back in June I posted a translation of a remarkable opinion piece written by two senior psychiatrists, commenting on their examination of a mentally ill man who had just committed his second murder. Today the papers report that Socialstyrelsens Rättsliga råd (“The judicial council of the social directorate”) has found the man insufficiently crazy to qualify for forced psychiatric treatment. This is bad news, because it means that he will likely be sentenced to jail, and Swedish jail terms for murder being surprisingly brief, he will probably be out again before long.

As I’ve written before, to my mind violent crime is a symptom of insanity.

Questions of the perpetrators’ sanity in cases of violent crime always have me shaking my head. To my mind, the ability to commit a highly violent crime is, in itself, a symptom of insanity for all societal intents and purposes. Insanity is defined by violent behaviour among other things. And as we have no sure methods of curing such insanity, we must simply keep violent madmen locked up and sedated indefinitely for safety’s sake. Whether this is called a jail sentence or a one-way commitment to a mental hospital is to my mind irrelevant.

My position is utilitarian: I don’t care much whether the criminal can be held philosophically responsible for the crime, and I see no point in society avenging itself on the criminal. My main priority is to minimise the risk of repeat offenses. (And many with me believe that jail time is highly counterproductive in this respect: it encourages repeat offences and a criminal career.)

A really drunk person is for society’s practical purposes insane. And people who get drunk and become violent rarely choose to do so only once. So we should keep them from drinking.

In the case of roid rage murders, we have the similar knowledge that certain individuals have taken steroids and gone nuts. This makes them a societal liability. We should make sure they don’t do it again.

Criminal “justice”, to me, should be seen as societal hygiene, health care and risk management.

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19 thoughts on “Psycho Killer Not Psycho Enough

  1. “A really drunk person is for society’s practical purposes insane”

    You’re stretching the definition of “insane” to fit your contention that violent crime is the result of insanity.


  2. I understand that you are deliberately defining ‘insanity’ very broadly here. However, I see a danger in that it blurs those who can be treated via medicine and those who cannot. The former should be treated differently, to my mind, than the latter. For example, a schizophrenic who kills because the voices told him to can be treated and even released safely into society, as long as precautions are taken to ensure continuing treatment. On the other hand, a hardened criminal who kills in the commission of robberies simply because it is convenient cannot be treated (by current medicine, anyway) and arguably cannot be released into society. By your definition, they are both insane (which is a reasonable argument), but I think there is a useful distinction to be made between them–the former is compelled by a mental disorder to kill, the latter chooses to kill. I refer to the latter as “evil”, not “insane”.


  3. Kap, I’m not saying that violent crime is a result of insanity. I’m saying that it’s one of the symptoms by which we may diagnose insanity. As for drunkeness, picture a person who perpetually behaved as if very drunk. He/she would of course be classified as severely mentally ill. Not that all drunks become violent.

    Doug, I agree about treatable mental illness. With regard to violent crime, though, we don’t really have to discuss schizophrenia, as very few sufferers are violent. I can’t accept “evil” as a classification, though, that’s just religious metaphysics. Evil is that crazy does.


  4. But Doug, in society’s perspective, is the gain in individual freedom worth the risk of releasing violently insane people with medication? Who’ll make sure they stay medicated?

    IMNSHO, the important aspect of society’s treatment of violent people of any stripe is not about individuals at all. Not about individual perps, not about individual victims, but about large-scale damage control and risk control.


  5. *BEEP* False syllogism. We don’t need to know how many serial killers are alcoholics, but how many alcoholics are killers compared to non-alcoholics. And of course, alcohol is implicated in a vast number of violent crimes. It’s a really crappy drug.


  6. True, you just presented some data. I should reciprocate!

    The capital of France is Paris.

    The lightest chemical element is hydrogen.

    Douglas Adams died of a heart attack.


  7. Alcohol is especially dangerous when used as a form of self-medication by some people who suffer from conditions like schizophrenia, and who prefer alcohol to their prescribed medications, sometimes to the point where they develop a dependency on alcohol, and never take their medication – and yet the health services are often unable to intervene until a crisis of some sort manifests itself. Not good.


  8. An interesting point about the sacrifice of individual liberty for the good of the state for mentally ill patients. My concern, as always, with giving the state the power to restrict individual liberties is that it will misuse the power. For example, in the US not many decades ago gays were classified as ‘mentally ill’, and could be institutionalized and ‘treated’. Whose to say whose definitions the government will use when decided who needs to be locked up?

    Regarding “evil”, I shouldn’t have used that word–I’m an athiest, I certainly didn’t mean any religious connatations, I just couldn’t think of a better word to describe a person who knowingly commits certain anti-social acts. “Immoral” presents the same problem as “evil.” “Corrupt”, perhaps?


  9. I’m certainly not suggesting that people should be locked away pre-emptively before they’ve even uttered a threat.

    The kind of callous, uninhibited, “businesslike” killers you mentioned exhibit behavior commonly known as “psychopathic”. I have a strong feeling that you can’t teach (or “corrupt”) a sane person that kind of behaviour without actually making them nuts. “Battle-hardened” is one word for this state of acquired homicidal insanity.


  10. What does it indicate that a murderer is locked away, then released, then commits another murder, and then (based on your description of sentencing) will be released again soon? That old saying (mangled by GW Bush) comes to mind: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.


  11. Until very recently, people could be declared psychiatric patients virtually at whim and, de facto lost all of their civil rights in the progress.

    There have been more protections put in place, but it’s still fairly easy to have someone committed for thirty days for psychiatric observation and evaluation. We don’t need to make it easier, or make the consequences more serious.

    The system will always fail in dramatic ways. That’s not a justification for granting massive power to the system.


  12. Is your response to any attempt at social reform “The system will always fail in dramatic ways”?

    No, only futile and pernicious attempts.


  13. Yes, I do think you Old Country folks tend to underestimate the importance of very competent institutions with long institutional memories.

    It’s possible to allow the state a good deal more power in theory when in practice you are pretty darn sure they will be accountable and competent in using it. There are some nations in which this may be a reasonable presumption. But frankly, us nortamericanos are rather skeptical of the entire idea.

    As justly proud as we are of our Constitutions – the fact that Constitutions are needed and need to be referred to often is a telling thing.

    Canada has a decent tradition of public service and a damn effective civil service. The US… doesn’t.

    But in both countries, the view that “the government that governs least governs best” is well illustrated by history, news and personal experience of government intruding where it didn’t belong, to at best no useful end at all.


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