The Murders in Arizona and Pakistan

January 9, 2011

I’m writing this on Sunday, January 9 at mid-day. I’m noting the time because I am going to be discussing the shooting in Tucson, Arizona and, as they say, the investigation of that incident is still pending. We don’t yet know what the killer’s motives were. But given the infinite range of possibilities, we shouldn’t be too surprised by anything. After all, John Hinckley tried to kill Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. Men have done many strange things to impress women, but Hinckley may have been the first to consider assassination a springboard for seduction.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. A common reaction of many to those who assassinate or try to assassinate political figures is to say they’re “crazy.” Over the last day, that has been the reaction of many to the shooting in Arizona, with the suspect, Jared Loughner, being called a “lunatic” or “insane.” If this is meant to be taken literally, as opposed to simply being an expression of incomprehension or bewildered disgust, it may not be an accurate assessment. Under federal law, a person is legally insane if she cannot appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of her actions. An easy case under this standard would be someone who shoots the president thinking the president is Jodie Foster. That person is crazy. But someone who shoots the president to impress Jodie Foster? Here the person is not so much mistaken about what he is doing as he is about the probable consequences of his action. How mistaken the person has to be about the probable chain of causation arising from his actions to earn the label “crazy” is unclear. Shooting someone to make the moon disappear is probably sufficient, but it can be difficult to draw the line between delusion and wishful thinking.

Nonetheless, legal technicalities aside, as explained below, the common reaction to political assassins in the U.S. as “crazy” may reveal an important truth about our political system.

And what about Loughner? Too early to say much about him, but whatever Loughner’s motives, they are likely to be so peculiar to him and his own life history that his actions  will not result in any fundamental shift in our practices or institutions, nor will they provide us with any significant insight into how we can prevent similar incidents in the future. (Well, we could have an effective nationwide ban on firearms, but let’s confine ourselves to the realm of the possible.) As of now, there is no indication that he was attempting to further a concrete political or religious goal or that he was responding to some set of stimuli that may provoke other killings. Some commentators have decried the overheated rhetoric of recent political campaigns and have suggested this had a close connection with Loughner’s actions. Color me dubious. For volatile individuals, just about anything can set them off, so I certainly can’t say at this stage that Loughner was not influenced by some of the denunciations of Congresswoman Giffords or other politicians, but the last election cycle was not the first one in which inflammatory language was used. Also, as suggested below, robust political debate may be something we should foster, rather than suppress.

I want to turn now to another assassination that took place a few days ago—the one of Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. (My colleague, Derek Araujo, has provided the key facts about this incident in his blog post.) In contrast with the killings in Arizona, this murder was committed by a seemingly rational individual, with understandable religious motives, and it may have the desired effect—namely the silencing of those critical of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. And of course those laws, in turn, have the purpose and effect of silencing any critic of Islam. Mumtaz Qadri, Taseer’s killer, is not crazy, except to the extent all religious fundamentalists are crazy.

Qadri is no loner alienated from society either. Many in Pakistan support his actions. In a chilling article, The Washington Post has detailed how Qadri was showered with rose petals when he appeared in court and how a group of 500 religious scholars praised him, observing that what he did “has made every Muslim proud.” Even some who questioned Qadri’s assassination of Taseer did so because they thought the state, not a private individual, should have taken action against Taseer “for issuing a highly irresponsible and objectionable statement on blasphemy.”

What conclusions can be drawn from these two different incidents? First, there is a huge difference between the realm of acceptable public discourse in the West and in many Islamic countries, such as Pakistan. Second, public support for personal freedom, especially the freedom to criticize religion, is weak in Pakistan, again, as it is in many Islamic countries. The United States and the West are not ideal societies in this regard either—there remain all too many social taboos on discussing religion critically—but it is undeniable there is much more latitude for free expression in the West than in the Islamic world. Third, in part because of the West’s strong support for fundamental freedoms, the West, in general, has more stable, democratic political systems, and this stability ensures that assassinations of political figures likely will be pointless. Of course, the killing of political figures could have some effect, but it almost surely would not result in significant change in political direction. This helps explain why we think killers or would-be assassins like Loughner are “crazy.” Even if not they are not technically insane, their actions seem to bear little relation to any concrete, realizable goal.

Unfortunately, in Pakistan and in other countries, assassinations may not be senseless. From the perspective of the killers and their supporters, they may make perfect sense. Where people are afraid to speak out, the silencing of one voice that dares to be heard can be quite effective.

We need to do what we can to support freedom, including freedom of expression, in Pakistan and elsewhere. Robust freedom of expression is essential for many things—human dignity, productive exchange of ideas, the smooth functioning of democracy, and, I believe, the elimination of violence as an effective political tool.


#1 L.Long (Guest) on Tuesday January 11, 2011 at 6:53am

If you are in the wild and a bear-lion-something kills a human it is itself killed because it killed a human.  Why is the animal killed? It does not know right from wrong so in the strict legal sense it is insane.  So what about the examples here, are they in capable of basic human interaction like the bear?

There is one fool proof way to tell if a person knows right from wrong.  Point a 44 at him and say he is insane and has no right to live and shoot him.  OK it has blanks loaded, but watch is body language and his words,  you will know instantly if he knows that killing others is wrong!

Move both examples to the USA ....
yes they are both crazy but they are sane!
Execute both.  But they are both guilty of MURDER not terrorism lets not make them into some sort of hero.

#2 gray1 on Friday January 14, 2011 at 3:50pm

And yet we manage to somehow discern a difference between murders committed “cold blooded” versus “heat of passion” as being totally different from that directed via some definition of mental illness?  I’m confused, so is that a mental illness condition or just the human status quo? 

Yet somehow I still feel that murder, even as a State directed retribution of death (which certainly falls in the category of “cold blooded”)is quite wrong.  Do not the lights dim as the switch is flipped?

#3 asanta on Sunday January 16, 2011 at 2:24am

It is just astonishing that the Pakistani Governor’s other body guards made no attempt to prevent him from emptying his magazine into him. His daughters continue to speak out against the blasphemy laws at grave risk to their lives. I can’t believe a true majority of the population supports this law.I CAN understand how they could be coerced and cowed by a minor thuggery contingent.

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