Sunday, July 22, 2012

Batman, Arkham and the Evil/Mental Illness Divide

I had a phone conversation with my dad the day after the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado (for those somehow unaware: a young man opened fire in a packed movie theater during the midnight showing of the latest Batman flick. He was wearing what amounted to full riot gear, and had four guns and two canisters of teargas with him; it appears to have been carefully orchestrated, and scores of people were wounded. A dozen were killed. His apartment was booby-trapped with multiple incendiary devices, apparently designed to kill anyone attempting to access his apartment). “It’s pure evil,” my father said. 

“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe. But I also read that he was in the process of dropping out of grad school because he’d been failing, and that he’d gotten pretty reclusive. For a guy in his early twenties, that sounds like it might be a schizophrenia case study to me—and schizophrenics aren’t evil, they’re sick.” He semi-conceded the point (my dad never just concedes anything) and said, “Well, you’re going to be the psychiatrist. It’s your job to figure out the difference, not mine.” This got me thinking: in the 21st century, with our knowledge of mental illness constantly expanding and our willingness to assign absolute values like good and evil diminishing, what does it mean to call someone evil—or, in a deterministic worldview, can we call anyone evil at all? Can an act be evil even if the doer is not? Can a mentally ill person be called evil, or is that the sole provenance of the sane? Do we judge different degrees of illness differently—ie, hold a depressed person morally accountable while excusing someone who’s psychotic? 

Sadly, we’ve seen this before—too many times before. In 2007, the National Review—I know, I know--published a symposium discussion with the title ‘Comprehending the Incomprehensible’ after the Virginia Tech shootings. The subtitle was “Evil is what this is, whatever else can be said about it.” One of the writers, Fr. Thomas Berg, commented:

We’ve had eight years to come to understand how our society produces angry young men like the Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. We’ve diagnosed them as the tragic by-products of practical nihilism — that mix of materialism, sensuality, and meaninglessness that drives young people to the brink. We know that tragically — if our diagnosis has been correct — this will not be the last time that a twenty-something nihilist tries to blow a hole in the world, a scream of existential defiance in the face of nothingness.

Of course, we know he was right—about the fact that there would be more sad, infuriating cases just like that one. On the other hand, I don’t know that we've yet come to ‘understand how society produces [these] angry young men.’ If we have, we sure as hell still don't know what to do about it.

I guess the best answer I can put forward is that we still need the word, the category, of evil to make sense of the world. There are some acts, some impulses and thoughts, that can’t be satisfactorily explained any other way. Perhaps mental illness, or an extreme lack of human empathy, or an overwhelming, angry sense of having been victimized (whether this victimhood is real or only in the perpetrator’s mind), or all of these in concert lead to actions like those we saw in Aurora. After all, in the Batman universe, the Joker is returned to Arkham Insane Asylum each time he’s apprehended, but that makes his crimes no less heinous and his status as villain no less sure.

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