Suspicious Minds

The government defends an accused terrorist's sanity.


It's clear to me that Zacarias Moussaoui is a raving lunatic. But then, so are Michael Jackson, Lyndon LaRouche, and a certain percentage of the people who e-mail me each week.

My assessments of these individuals are based on the bizarre things they say. I do not pretend to be making a medical judgment or a legal determination.

By contrast, Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers, who officially continue to serve as his advisers even though he refuses to speak to them, argue that the accused terrorist suffers from "serious psychopathology," making him incompetent to represent himself, and perhaps to stand trial at all. Meanwhile, his prosecutors, seeking to have him executed for conspiring in the attacks of September 11, are defending his sanity and his right to be his own lawyer.

This puzzling reversal of roles, with prosecutors acting as the defendant's advocates, occurs whenever defense attorneys defy the wishes of their ostensible clients by declaring them insane. Such struggles highlight the arbitrariness of the pseudoscientific diagnoses on which psychiatry's role in the courtroom depends.

Moussaoui's "actions and attitudes are not the product of mental illness, but are based on his view of the world," prosecutors told U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema last month, urging her to let him represent himself. "He is a fanatic, a jihadist, but he is not mentally incompetent to stand trial or waive his right to counsel."

The prosecutors cited the findings of Raymond Patterson, a court-appointed psychiatrist who interviewed Moussaoui for two hours. But the defense attorneys had experts of their own, psychologists who had not met Moussaoui but who speculated that his "decision to waive his right to counsel may be the product of a mental disease or defect rendering the decision involuntary."

Judge Brinkema believed Patterson, telling Moussaoui, "I'm satisfied that you understand what you're doing," while cautioning him that his choice was unwise. "I make this decision fully and freely," he affirmed.

But his attorneys refused to be fired, and Brinkema recently ruled that they may continue looking for evidence to impugn Moussaoui's sanity. Based on his statements in court and his handwritten filings, one of the defense team's psychologists has declared that Moussaoui's behavior is "far more consistent with a paranoid psychosis than with being an extremist Muslim."

This is a tricky distinction. Presumably, it's to be expected that Moussaoui would rail against Jews, Israel, and the United States, seeing them as orchestrators of a pervasive, malevolent conspiracy. It seems he crossed the line between fanaticism and mental illness by taking this worldview a little too seriously.

It was when Moussaoui made the political personal, calling his attorneys a "blood-sucking death team" of "Jewish zealots," that he convinced them of his mental incompetence. "I don't think it's my job to decide whether he's rational in the political beliefs that he holds," one of the lawyers said. "But if he thinks that defense counsel is a Trojan horse that's acting to carry out his demise, then that's an inherently irrational position for him to take."

Moussaoui has also suggested that Brinkema is part of the U.S.-Israeli conspiracy, despite her efforts to save him from his own ineptitude (as when he insisted on pleading "no contest," thinking this was the same as not entering a plea). Naturally, the FBI is in on it, too, concealing evidence that Moussaoui did not take part in the planning for September 11.

Moussaoui says the FBI knows he's innocent because it had him under surveillance prior to his arrest last August. He claims the bureau bugged his motel room by hiding a microphone in a fan that was "mysteriously left on my car."

In short, the defense team's consultants are right when they say "there is considerable evidence that Mr. Moussaoui's thinking is dominated by irrational and unrealistic persecutory beliefs." They are also probably right to suggest that he qualifies for a psychiatric diagnosis. He seems to fit the criteria for "paranoid personality disorder," for instance.

But so what? Under this heading psychiatrists have gathered a set of characteristics that would describe just about any conspiracy-minded extremist, especially in hostile surroundings.

Putting these traits on a list and giving them a scientific-sounding name does not make them symptoms of a disease, let alone a disease with the power to dictate someone's legal strategy. If the capacity to believe ridiculous things is a brain defect, it's one that's shared by the whole human race.