• Dangerous passions 01 August 2016 | View comments

  • 30th July 2016 | By David Jolley

     

    Dreadful news of killings by young men in France and Germany – and there have been killings on ordinary streets elsewhere. Desperate young men who have sometimes been known to be troubled but those who knew did not intervene – often because they could not believe that someone so ordinary would actually do something so terrible. Perversely the perpetrator often believes they are acting as brave heroes for a cause.

    Thursday’s Guardian (28.7.16) carried a front page picture of the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life in 1981. Reagan survived the assassination attempt as did three others shot in the incidence, though one, James Brady, died 2014 and his death is said to have been a consequence of his injuries – death by homicide.

    This is front page news 35 years on because a federal judge, Paul Friedman, has ruled that John Hinckley Jr may be released from prison quite soon. Hinckley had been in treatment from Dr John Hopper, a psychiatrist, for five months before the shooting. He was found not guilty of charges because of insanity. The expert evidence seems to have considered him ill because of depression or schizophrenia or alternatively a frustrated young man who was used to getting his own way. Everyone agreed that his muddled motivation related to his infatuation with Jodie Foster and the story contained in the film Taxi Driver where a character plots to assassinate a candidate for the Presidency. The link between these threads was Hinckley’s determination to make himself interesting to Jodie Foster – killing the President would bring him from obscurity to fame of a sort.

    This is tortured logic whether it be driven by selfishness or psychosis. The question must be whether time and treatment have changed this man so much that he can now be deemed normal and not a threat to the safety of others.

    Strangely the front cover of the July issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry carries a portrait of Jonathan Martin http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/209/1.cover-expansion

    Martin became a Minister in the Methodist Church but developed dangerous thoughts about other churches. In 1818 he was committed to an asylum, having threatened to shoot the Bishop of Oxford. He escaped, returned to preaching but then set fire to York Cathedral with the belief that God wished him to cleanse that place because of the sins of its clergy. He was detained at The Bethlem for the rest of his days. It is reported that he: ‘conversed with propriety on most subjects’. But on matters of religion he remained convinced of the wickedness of some clergymen and declared he would take action against them of their churches.

    This must be the dilemma for Judge Friedman and his colleagues. Even though Hinckley is said to be remorseful and to speak without betraying any hostile, abnormal or dangerous thoughts – can we be sure of what he is thinking or may come to think in the future? Can we be sure he would share such thoughts if they recur?

    Hinckley’s case aroused great concern. There was examination of the concept of insanity and its relationship to responsibility and guilt. There was change in the law concerning the purchase of guns by people known to have mental health problems – a change supported by Ronald Reagan, but subsequently reversed, I understand, in response to pressures from the gun lobby.

    There are lessons to be learned from recent and distant events.

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