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
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 explanation.
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.