Ignoring is not ignorance

I HAD an acquaintance who killed a young man during a pub brawl by stabbing him with a knife.

He’d had a childhood of abuse and humiliation, which led to fear, over-reactivity and an anxiety disorder. He should never have been carrying a knife. But because of these factors the court was lenient, and so was I. I met him a few years after he’d served his time. He was an interesting artist, and I forged a friendship with him, until he did something very disturbing.

I won’t go into the details, but his actions made me ponder: is faulty wiring ever a justification for cruelty, abuse, pedophilia or acting in a criminal fashion? I know this man had suffered, and it affected his brain, but there are so many people who were also abused as children, or in war — Holocaust survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder — who became human rights activists, child protectors. Isn’t there always a choice?

The trial of Oscar Pistorius has brought all this up for me again. To oversimplify, if Pistorius is proved to have a certain condition, his trial may be dismissed. This prompted The Guardian’s David Shariatmadari to pose a question in an excellent opinion piece: should we be abandoning blame? Taking into account that there might be excessive “fight or flight” chemicals in a person with, say, anxiety: “Should that person not be held to ­account for any crime he may have committed?”

And if we start forgiving crimes on the basis of mental dysfunction, where do you draw the line? We now ­pathologise everything: a very shy person has GAD (general anxiety disorder) leading to over-vigilance; a chilled person has a pain-avoidant personality disorder. As The Guardian jokes: Did Heathcliff suffer from oppositional-defiant disorder?

The American Psychiatric Association now classifies grief as a disorder. “Your honour, I killed him because he took my car spot but I had impeded judgment because of Aunt Cathy’s death.” The rapist has histrionic personality disorder, the mass murderer is insane. So they are “not to blame”. They can’t distinguish “right” from “wrong”. Hmmmm, surely they’ve at least seen it on the telly?

Add to this sophisticated brain imaging like MRIs. Examine any of our brains and you’ll find damaged goods. A dodgy frontal cortex; an overactive pituitary gland; narrowed arteries (intracranial artery stenosis) due to high cholesterol from years of cheesecake abuse.

If the legal system goes too far, none of us will be culpable of anything in this age of psychobabble.

These issues will be thrashed out during the Pistorius trial. For me, my two years of friendship with a felon left a scar. Because I realised he did know “right” from “wrong” — he just chose to ignore it.


Twitter @OstrowRuth

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