Viewpoint: The Insanity Offense


This is an essay about lunacy—that of a junta and a jury. I write on the evening that John Hinckley has been declared innocent of a crime millions saw him commit on television. The same news report brings an account of more raving and ranting from Buenos Aires. Hence this small complaint about a world convulsed with madness. Not grand, eloquent madness of "the daring pilots in extremity," which led Dryden to write that "great wits are sure to madness near alli'd." I write instead about a kind of whimpering, absent-minded irresponsibility.

It is trigger-happy.…fantastic…and awash in body juices. Both the Argentine generals and young Mr. Hinckley share, to a surprising degree, the same methods and purpose. Both sought to shoot their way onto the stage of history. And in a world where success is often measured by media exposure, by inches of newsprint and minutes of TV time, each has succeeded. Both pulled the trigger complaisantly. The hurt they caused was others'. They filled scrapbooks with clippings in which they denied all responsibility.

Hinckley blames the Secret Service, the Congress for not passing tough gun control laws, his psychiatrist, his parents. Galtieri blames America, technology, unfavorable winds. They are both snivelers whose behavior is rewarded by the world in which we live.

Galtieri had his way in a system in which the forms of law have been conveniently set aside. In his Argentina, it has for many years been true that the citizen has had no right that it was convenient for the government to abrogate. The Argentine version of Hinckley could hardly depend upon a trial in which to play upon the niceties of an insanity defense. He would have been lucky to have had a trial at all—or even an indictment. Tens of thousands of people have "disappeared," dropped from airplanes or dumped in rivers or out at sea; people's lives ended like clichés from a police report-last seen wearing.…"

Perhaps that sort of environment lends itself to insanity in a larger sense, in which whole cities full of people can lose touch with reality. The Wall Street Journal reported during the war that this nation, where rumors run rampant, was feasting on madcap hopes and illusions. Argentines on the street imagined that their troops had sunk the liner Canberra with 3,000 British troops lost. The owner of an art gallery was quoted, "We hit them from a Boeing 747 that we converted into a bomber." The bombs were said to have been dropped manually. Why not? The QEII had been sunk and hit. The HMS Hermes had been destroyed. The official lies made the common hallucinations credible by comparison.

In America, we have institutional protections that thus far have spared us from the unhappy experience of mass "disappearances." Persecution, at its worst, seems to involve dirty tricks or tax audits. Defendants are indicted. They have trials. The forms of law become so intricate that practically any defendant with a clever lawyer and a sufficiently large purse can shirk responsibility for real crimes. In contrast to the condition in Argentina, where decisive penalties are imposed upon individuals who have done nothing or whose behavior is not criminal, our system seems incapable of imposing decisive penalties even upon individuals who are unambiguously the perpetrators of violent crimes.

The decision of the Hinckley jury shows that the "common sense" of ordinary people is indeed a weak foundation for controlling the fantastic and the undesirable. Just as there seems to have been no "commonsense" reaction to the excesses of Argentine lawlessness, so there seems to have been no commonsense protection from the excesses of formality in law. In neither case do ordinary people appear to have had much success in penetrating the received mumbo-jumbo.

It may be that in the months and years to come a wholesome reaction will set in in both cases. The Argentines will pause to examine the bruises inflicted by their exercise in national chest thumping, and a more concerted effort may be made in the United States to reform the already discredited insanity defense. My guess, however, is that such a reaction, where it takes place, will come to very little. Argentina will still be a society crazy with lawlessness. America shares some of the same symptoms—crazy results, but in our case brought about by obsessive devotion to forms of law.

Neither society will prosper as it could until it finds the moorings needed to encourage humane and predictable behavior. For that to happen, a greater acceptance of responsibility is needed all around. Crimes of the state should be labeled as crimes, no less odious than those of individuals. Assignment of guilt for both should be clear-cut, not muddled. Punishment should be swift and sure. Only under such conditions, which reward responsible behavior and impose heavy costs upon the irresponsible, would we have any reason to expect that what we loosely, but meaningfully, call common sense would be more stalwart against what we loosely, but meaningfully, call the crazy.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.