Today Sarah (of Cat in a Dog’s World) pointed me to this Slate article about the present tendency to quickly assume someone is mentally ill if they commit an outrageous crime, such as the recent massacre in Tucson, Arizona. I posted (privately, although I’ve mentioned it here in the past) that I found it particularly irksome that, any time a murderer or other serious criminal is convicted (or sometimes just arrested, as in the recent case of Chris Jefferies, the man arrested over the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol and then released without charge), any salacious details the press can find about them are published, including any mental illnesses, conditions like Asperger’s syndrome or OCD, or any strange habits, regardless of how relevant they are to the murder.
There have been a number of cases (some of them under appeal) in which someone with Asperger’s has been convicted of a murder, but the one that springs to mind is that of Federico Arce Montes, the man convicted of murdering a British schoolgirl in France having acquired a string of convictions for attacking young girls and women in youth hostels across Europe. Those details are legitimate; what is less so is the detail that he had developed an obsession with personal hygiene in his teens, operating light-switches with a handkerchief and washing his food with mineral water (example here). This is irrelevant and serves only to heighten the sense that the man was a weirdo, which they also may do in anyone who displays that kind of behaviour. The fact is that this kind of behaviour occurs in many more people than those who sexually assault young girls.
There was no evidence in that case that Arce Montes’s actions were driven by mental illness. He was a criminal with a coincidental, mild mental disorder. We do not know if the person who carried out the Arizona massacre will be diagnosed with a mental illness (it does not seem that he has been already), but it is known that he was a pot smoker (and again, there are a lot more of those than mass murderers) and had various bizarre ideas, one of which formed the basis of a grudge against Congresswoman Giffords. But having ridiculous, ill-considered or vile political (or other) ideas is not mental illness. (Of course, when the offender is a Muslim, or is of anything like Muslim background, the assumption is that their religion was the driving factor, as with claims of “sudden jihad syndrome” or of Muslim attitudes to modesty making it OK to molest young girls, even if they are obviously mentally ill.)
It seems that some of us are not willing to accept that something is just evil — not necessarily that the person is, but that he or she acted according to desires, or misguided opinions, or a grudge they had been nursing for years, and did something that is just plain evil. In this case a lot of innocent people, not public figures at all (in one case a nine-year-old girl), were killed. To assume that someone who acted on the basis of ridiculous ideas is mentally ill, and when this appears in the popular press, it simply reinforces prejudice against those with the same conditions who aren’t murderers.
Image sourced from Wikipedia).
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