Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Mother (or Father) of All Excuses

It seems obvious to me that any time someone murders someone else, there is at least some small bit of mental illness or incapacity involved. After all, the ability to take a life without hesitation should suggest that the murderer's brain chemistry is different that, say, mine. (Note here that I'm talking about murder, as opposed to self-defense, some aspects of warfare, accidentally running someone down with the car, and likely other ways of taking a life.)

The law, though, sets the bar pretty high in proving "mental disorder," and well they should. If everyone who killed got off light because their rafters weren't installed properly, we'd see even more murders. Do the crime, do the time, unless what ails you is so obvious and so egregious that the law can't help but notice and agree that psychiatric help is more appropriate.

It doesn't surprise me that Blair Donnelly got off with a finding of mental disorder. If you kill your teenage daughter and then insist that your god wanted you to do it, and if that excuse holds up under serious psychological scrutiny, it will raise enough eyebrows to bring on some serious doubts about your mental fitness.

The verdict does raise two questions in my mind, however, neither one of which I've seen in the (admittedly small cross-section of) news coverage I've seen. First, how is it that our society can see a visit by the Judeo-Christian god as - while not a valid excuse - a sign that someone is not thinking quite right and therefore as a get out of jail free card, but they can't see the demands made by a different culture (and, let's be honest, therefore religion) that tragically came to an almost identical result as anything other than a moment of legal guilt.

This is a double standard, although perhaps we should fault the defense lawyer in the earlier case for not playing up the demands that Sikh culture (tied inextricably to religion) make of its adherents. Certainly the vast majority of Sikhs do not lead their lives believing that they must murder their daughter if she crosses them, just as most Christians don't. But to set the standard for one and not the other shows just how far we haven't come from our supposed Christianist past.

Secondly, and this I think is even more interesting, does the Donnelly decision crack open the door to show that religious belief is indeed a mental disorder? If your god tells you to shoot dead an abortion provider or to blow yourself up in order to kill a couple dozen children from a competing sect, how does this differ from your god telling you to kill your child? Not a new story, by the way, the bible having given credence to that demand before.

Honestly, though, this crack will only show itself to people already leaning that way. The rest will blithely carry on, and perhaps even accuse Satan of having suckered Donnelly into committing his horrendous crime.

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