Last week, a Saint Jerome boy, who coolly described how
he beat a classmate to death with a baseball bat, was described
by psychiatric experts as not responsible because he suffers
from a paranoid delusionary disorder. And in another Canadian
courtroom, an accused sex-killer was portrayed as a case of
multiple personality disorder. While prosecutors and the occasional
skeptic may express disbelief, the courts have become so accustomed
to listening to psychiatrists explain away hideous crimes,
these arguments often sway judges and juries.
When Rita Graveline shot her husband in the back while he
slept, psychiatrists testified she was the victim of "battered
wife syndrome" which had caused a momentary loss of consciousness
or "dissociative amnesia." When Andrew Leyshon-Hughes
thrust a carving knife 21 times into sleeping Nancy Eaton
and then raped her dying body, psychiatrists rooted back through
his history, found that he was a "blue baby" and
declared the cause to be his "crocodile brain."
Psychiatry has a long and winding history of describing criminal
behaviour in pseudo-medical terms. Since well before the 1978
"Twinkie" defense rationalized two cold-blooded
murders as temporary insanity due to the effects of eating
too much sugar, we've been swallowing this junk.
These days, there are very few cases in which psychiatrists
don't try to shift the focus from the facts of the crime to
the mind of the criminal. They were hard pressed to fit a
label to Paul Bernardo. And they had trouble finding anything
to say about Harold Shipman, the British physician who murdered
more than 150 patients. Some crimes, it seems, do still defy
This situation, however, is about to change. At last month's
annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in
New Orleans, Michael Welner, a clinical associate professor
of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, proposed
that the time has come for psychiatrists to assume responsibility
to detect evil. This would be an about-face for a profession
that has, for more than two centuries, been telling the courts
that vile and brutal acts are symptoms of mental diseases.
It wasn't long ago that psychologist Judith Becker, president
of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, stretched
our imagination when she diagnosed the mass-murderer Jeffrey
Dahlmer as suffering from "cannibalistic compulsions."
She even went so far as to suggest his problems might "have
been alleviated had he felt safe to seek help when his deviant
fantasies began in adolescence."
But Welner isn't interested in finding a cure. Instead of
offering to help the accused, he intends to help society uncover
the evil in our midst. Relying on language of a bygone moral
era, he would prefer to consider those like Dahlmer so depraved
and evil as to be beyond help -- and beyond mercy. And he
is offering his expertise not only to criminal courts but
also to family, civil, human rights and military courts. He
is prepared to expose "evil acts of evil parents"
and the wickedness in employees that causes disputes and disruptions
in the workplace. To lend an air of scientific credibility
to these value judgments, he has created a "Depravity
Scale," a measure that he claims will identify "evil
behaviours for the courts."
From time to time other psychiatrists, such as Scott Peck,
have talked about evil, but Welner is the first to make a
serious effort to sell the skill of detecting it. And what
makes his initiative particularly frightening is that he is
doing so at a time when the soil is ripe. Crime victims are
outraged when the punishment seems not to fit the crime. Words
like "monster" are being used to describe hunted
criminals and society is caught up in a fearful urge to rid
itself of violence.
I can understand the desire to distinguish Good and Evil.
And I think that long ago we should have cast aside the foolish
notion that evil acts are a sign of sickness. But I am not
willing to entrust the profession that brought us the Twinkie
defence and "crocodile brain" to tell us who is
"evil." I imagine, with dread, how far they might
take this power.
Until now, psychiatrists have remained within the bounds of
their medical profession. Whether we have believed them or
not, they have interpreted criminal behaviour in terms of
health and disease. Sometimes the illnesses, such as multiple
personality disorder or temporary insanity, were considered
curable. At other times, when diagnoses such as psychopathy
and pedophilia were used, the conditions were deemed less
amenable to treatment. However, whatever they did, like it
or not, they stayed within the domain of medicine.
In identifying evil, they are crossing the line into the practice
of religion, for "evil" is not an illness but rather
a moral state. Determining who is evil is a religious, not
a medical, act. By performing it, psychiatrists will become
the inquisitors of the 21st century.
In Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, and later in
North America, inquisitors traveled the country hunting out
evil using the Malleus Maleficarum, the famous manual
for witch-hunters, as their guide. Serving as the expert witnesses
at the witch trials, they distinguished diseases due to natural
causes from those caused by demons.
If Welner's idea takes hold, these inquisitors could rise
again, disguised as psychiatrists and using the Depravity
Scale as their guide.