The God Squad: Can we forgive insane killers?

Q: In my local newspaper today, there were articles about Jared Loughner, who shot and killed six people and wounded 12 more in Arizona in 2011, and James Holmes, who is linked to the fatal shooting of 12 people and wounding of an additional 58 in a Colorado movie theater last year.

Both of these young men, and many (if not most) of the other mass shooters in recent years, seem to have had histories of serious mental illness. Loughner's family reported that he was constantly talking to people who weren't there and thought the government was out to get him — classic symptoms of severe paranoid schizophrenia.

Loughner has pleaded guilty and Holmes has offered to plead guilty to avoid the death penalty, but it appears doubtful whether either of them was sane under any medical definition. So what are we to make of a world where horrible acts are committed by people who lack free will? What do we say to the people who were injured, or to the families of the dead?

I believe we're commanded to forgive those who sin against us, and I would think the command applies especially in those circumstances where the "sinner" had no ability to control his mental condition. Not having suffered a loss of this kind, I can't presume to preach to the survivors, but surely we may ask God where free will was in these tragedies. — F., via

A: Thank you for your articulate, heartfelt, tragic and profound question. The central ethical issue is whether people who are mentally ill can be morally accountable. We generally and rightly assume that one must possess free will in order to be morally culpable.

If you rob a bank because someone has a gun to your head, we judge your actions differently than if you just decide to rob the bank to get the money. Mental illness is like an interior "gun." The legal problem is determining where criminal insanity ends and rational evil begins. The law requires rational and criminal intent, referred to by the Latin phrase for "guilty mind": mens rea.

I respect that legal debate, but I'm not particularly interested in it because whether criminally insane murderers are locked up for the rest of their lives or executed, society will be free from their predations in the future.

You raise a far deeper spiritual problem that goes far beyond the limits and Latin of the law. What you're asking is whether we can spiritually and morally blame such murderers at all, and, deeper still, whether we are, in fact, obligated to forgive them "for they know not what they do."

Because these killers are not repentant and because I'm not a survivor or family member of a survivor, I can't forgive them. I can understand them. I can work with all people of goodwill to improve resources for the treatment of mentally ill people, and I can work to keep deadly weapons out of their hands, but forgiving them is a step too far for me. Understanding does not compel forgiveness.

The moral and societal problems of caring for such killers require not just a renewed willingness to spend money on the treatment of mental illness, but also a new willingness to revisit the moral and legal balance between personal freedom and involuntary commitment.

The barriers faced by psychiatrists who know some of their patients pose an imminent threat are much higher now than in the past because we've become very sensitive to individual rights. Helping the mentally ill and protecting society will require a brave and controversial rethinking of the limits of human liberty.

An old rabbinic commentary (Talmudic tractate menachot 99b) on Moses' breaking the first set of tablets on Mount Sinai taught that God made Moses pick up all the pieces he shattered in anger at seeing the sin of the golden calf and put them into the ark that held a new whole set of tablets of the law.

The reason was to teach that, "The broken and the whole are together in the same ark." This has always been a powerful image and challenging lesson for me, and I hope it can reach you, as well. We are together in our society, in our societal ark, the broken and the whole together. And those we call broken are also holy. Like the pieces of the first tablets, they also bear the signature of God's love and sanctity. We must find a way to live with them and heal them.

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