March 2013 Bar Bulletin
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March 2013 Bar Bulletin

Madness: An Abysmal, but Necessary, Science to Behold

By Robert W. Zierman


Last month in these pages I advocated for the need to discern the difference between those suffering from mental illness and those who are deranged. That piece further suggested the stigma of mental illness leaves its sufferers in life's "shadows" despite evidence that mental illness can be, and at times historically has been, beneficial. This month allows a continued attempt to unravel this topic by delving further into the subject of madness.

Friedrich Nietzsche has opined that "fear is the mother of morality." But, fear is an irrational emotion. More succinctly, fear - and in particular the fear of death - doesn't fit within the bounds of science.

Why is this important? Well, currently science, not religion, is where the majority of our culture appears to place its faith. So we ought to face our fears in general and death in particular through a completely rational lens. In doing so, we would find that death amounts to nothing more than the simple act of stepping into the void. This distilled view would allow us to give neither death nor life a shred of value.

Okay then, absent both the value of life and the fear of its elimination, how much contemplation should we afford to the taking of another's life? Criminal laws, which are already acknowledged as flawed,1 would seem a completely insufficient deterrent. In such a condition, but for cultural inertia and the rather indifferent pursuit of the legally circumscribed needs and desires which most people normally exert, our society would become completely disordered.

The reality however is we are all very irrational. More succinctly, death scares the pants off almost all of us.

Enter the madman. Reviewing some of the more sensational cases of the last few decades it appears that there are at least four general types. There is the rage killer - in the news recently - who lashes out in anger at family members or takes revenge against co-workers (past or present) in retribution for some perceived wrong, goes on the run, holes up and dares authorities to take him alive.

Then there is the madman who murderously labors under a delusional belief propelling him to fixate on a particular target. Examples here include Mark David Chapman, who shot and killed John Lennon in 1980; John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981; and Jared Lee Loughner, the attempted assassin of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011.

The third type is the apparently vainglorious shooter who randomly destroys the lives of others (often times at schools), knowing his own life will likely be taken, too. These include those responsible for the massacres at Columbine High School in 1999, in which two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded 21 before committing suicide; Virginia Tech in 2007, where the gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 before taking his own life; a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., last year in which 12 people were killed and 58 others injured; and, of course, most recently at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.2

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