Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Welcome to the face of insanity

      It says something that we haven't a proper term for what likely caused Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to do what he is accused of doing over there — the land where we sent him to war.

     If we just call it insanity, we risk implicating war itself. And that can't be.

     War is valorous, clear-eyed. If you blink at its potential and purpose, you've sold out. You hate your country.

     Post-traumatic stress disorder? That can't be the term for Bales' acts, we say, because — well, he hadn't yet hung up his helmet, his night goggles, his command. He wasn't post-anything when he is said to have killed 16 Afghan civilians in the middle of the night.

     Notice that some of the theories allege drink, as if grasping for something more sensible than 100-proof psychosis.

     It's amazing to see the extent that we attempt to parse the unfathomable in rational terms. He's a bad seed. He's a rogue soldier.

     Face it. This heavily armed, mentally and physically wounded soldier simply lost it.

     What do we do about it? I'm hoping that we (the military court) will acquit him on that basis, the basis of insanity — PTSD.

     I have an ulterior motive in hoping that such a defense works for Bales, and it has nothing to do with him, or with the Afghan war-athon. It has to do with something back home: the death penalty.

     This comes to mind because of a letter to the editor I read from a World War II veteran straining to explain the actions of someone else who seems to be the essence of the bad seed in the mold of Bruce Willis movies: Army Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, convicted last year of ordering subordinates to participate in a string of "thrill kills" against Afghan civilians.

     The World War II veteran whose letter I read mentioned his own lifetime battle with PTSD, and ventured how wartime strains might have warped the 26-year-old Gibbs' psyche.

     I admit having trouble wrapping my mind around such a plea for Gibbs, his acts being so calculated. But the PTSD defense seems to fit in the Bales case, the rampage being so spontaneous, so deranged.

     My real reason to pull for a successful PTSD defense for Bales, though, is to change attitudes back home — wrap the flag around, if you will, the insanity defense.

     In the last 30 years, in a blowback to celebrated cases like those of Reagan assailant John Hinckley, successful application of the insanity defense has become as rare as the Triple Crown in horse racing.

      One eight-state study found that the defense was used in only 1 percent of criminal cases, and only 26 percent of that 1 percent succeeded.

      Certainly when it comes to murder, that can't possibly reflect reality. We don't want to believe it, but people do simply go out of their skulls and kill — even if momentarily.

      That the insanity defense is effectively null and void is one good reason to abolish the death penalty.

      A society that rejects insanity as a defense for murder has lost its own ability to differentiate a right from a wrong.

     The other good reason to abolish the death penalty is the irrational assumption that government can always get guilt and innocence right.

     The irony: Distrust of government is one of the tenets of conservatives, the very people so inclined to salute the death penalty.

      In two areas — waging war and executing people, these same people would assert that government is inerrant.

      At minimum, if more people rise up to state that war is insane, and that it can result in insane soldiers and blame their acts on that, maybe we can acknowledge the same among civilians who kill, a fact that is undeniable.

      Here's hoping the trial of Sgt. Bales will demonstrate as much, and that his example will slap right-thinking Americans into seeing criminal insanity in a new, even patriotic, light.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

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