Our Take: Is alleged Arizona shooter evil or mentally ill?
January 17th, 2011
07:00 AM ET

Our Take: Is alleged Arizona shooter evil or mentally ill?

By Michael First and Jerome C. Wakefield, Special to CNN
Editor's Note: Michael First, M.D., a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, has worked as a forensic psychiatric expert in capital cases such as the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the convicted co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks, and is the editor of the current edition of the psychiatric diagnostic manual, DSM-IV-TR.
Jerome C. Wakefield is a university professor and professor of social work and psychiatry at New York University, and coauthor of The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder.

At last week's memorial service in Tucson for the victims of the Arizona shooting, President Obama said that “scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. “

It is tempting to view this heinous crime as purely an act of evil, with its senseless loss of innocent lives. However, as Obama went on to say, “we have to guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.” In one sense, any terrible harms that befall us are “evils in the world.” But are the suspected gunman’s alleged actions best understood as human evil, in light of evidence that the suspect has a mental disorder?

Whether a particular hurtful behavior, like the taking of a life, can be considered evil depends on the context in which it occurs and the intentions of the person committing the behavior.

Taking someone’s life because that person was about to kill one’s child would not be considered an act of evil. For a particular behavior to be considered evil, the person committing the act must be in a position to knowingly make a moral choice between doing something wrong and doing something right, choosing the bad action over the good.

Severe mental illness can compromise one’s ability to make moral choices in a variety of ways.

Psychotic states can be so severe that the person completely loses his grasp on reality and is completely unable to appreciate whether what he is doing is right or wrong, or even the nature of his own actions.

In other cases, a person might be able to appreciate that an action is morally wrong but because of severe psychosis, his ability to control his actions and resist harming others may be compromised. For example, a person who hears voices commanding him to kill his mother and eventually succumbs to their overwhelming power might understand that doing so is morally wrong but yet be unable to control his behavior.

More commonly and subtly, a mental disorder may so distort an individual’s beliefs that he may think he is doing right when in fact an act is terribly wrong - as, for example, when a person has the delusion that his wife has literally turned into a zombie and that shooting her is the only way to protect himself from being eaten alive, or an inpatient attacks the attendants on his ward when they come to take him to an appointment because he believes they are alien beings sent to kill him.

From such a person’s perspective, he is not doing anything wrong - he is acting in desperate self-defense.

Given the variable ways that mental illness may impact an individual’s functioning, it is important to understand that the mere presence of serious mental illness does not necessarily imply that it has compromised a person’s ability to make moral choices. Individuals with severe schizophrenia can lie, cheat, steal, and commit other crimes just like anybody else and have sometimes done so both before and after the onset of their illness.

Each case must be individually evaluated with respect to what degree and in what ways the mental illness might have impacted the person’s ability to make moral choices.

With respect to the alleged Arizona shooter, the picture that has emerged so far from the extensive media coverage is complex.

On the one hand, the suspect had a longstanding interest in guns, espoused angry extremist views about the government and its activities, and was attracted to the idea of creating chaos, factors in favor of the idea the that shootings were acts of evil. On the other hand, other information also points in the direction of serious mental illness, with symptoms such as aloofness, rambling and peculiar thinking, and disruptive inappropriate behavior,

The question of whether the shooting is best understood as an act of evil or as the product of a serious mental disorder is more than just a theological issue. It will in all likelihood be a pivotal legal issue as this case moves ahead, being a crucial determinant of whether the suspect should be considered criminally responsible for his behavior.

To the extent that the crime can be understood as a culmination of an extremist world view, then the perpetrator would be criminally responsible; to the extent that the criminal behavior was a product of a mental illness, he might be eligible for a defense of diminished capacity or not guilty by reason of insanity.

To take an extreme speculative possibility, the Arizona shooter, if mentally disturbed, may for all we know have had a delusion that Giffords was the leader of an elaborate secret government conspiracy against him, so that from his point of view, the shooting was an act of self-defense.

Any determination of the extent to which mental illness may have compromised the ability to act morally depends on detailed understanding the suspect’s state of mind at the time of the shooting, information which is currently unknown but that will likely emerge in the context of the forensic psychiatric examinations that will almost certainly be conducted in the future.

Until then, however appealing it may be, it is indeed prudent to avoid embracing simple explanations based solely on the tragic aftermath of this event.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael First and Jerome C. Wakefield.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Arizona • United States • Violence

soundoff (660 Responses)
  1. Mike

    I think Walmart just found their next greeter!

    February 8, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  2. Chicken 2011

    Although the man may had a mental illness , however it is still true that what he did violated the rule of the society that we live in today. When a man violates a rule that keeps this society together, he should no longer be part of the society since he broke the rules that are required. He took away a member of our world who could have done more good to this world than he did. In addition, by making such a chaos, he gave shock to those who were there... He is a threat and I think he needs to pay the price.

    January 21, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  3. anonymous

    So... He is ill? Some of u say dont kill him but if he will be free he will kill more ppl 😛 So i say that you must kill him 😛 no metter is he ill or not or just evil:P

    January 21, 2011 at 3:07 am |
  4. :D

    Omg ppl cry me a river 😀 Some ppl dead you will never get them back 😛

    January 21, 2011 at 3:04 am |
  5. Dominic Chan

    Both labels are wrong. This man has bigotry built into his nervous system just like Hitler. You can never educate such a person because issues like these are propaganda, ideology and theology. The only way the criminal justice system should do for him is have a speedy trial and sentence him to long term imprisonment. Thats all. Therapy is hopeless.

    January 20, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
  6. armando

    i am myself mentally ill, suffering from bi-polar disorder, and have had myself a couple of psychotic breaks, where i would do some really weird things, and to be quite frank, it feels alot like being under a hallucinogenic drug, everything is "real". and it feels as though there are no "boundaries" between things, NOW for those of you who are NOT mentally ill i find it cynical, and even disgusting that you may be able to cast judgment on ANY mentally ill person, (this man being an exception) . being mentally ill for the most part is NOT a choice, its what makes us who we are, whether we like it or not. and it is hard to say things that you have no knowledge of . and as for god man saying that mental illness is a form of possession.....he is partly correct. there will be more, and more mentally ill as time goes on. BUT it is a form of (in my opinion) growth, if instead we found ways to cope and create an understanding of the brain more clear we will find that these narcotics that we feed ourselves, (anti depressants, anti psychotics) are actually the cause and root for these episodes. listen to the commercials, they clearly state that while under these medications, DEPRESSION, AND/OR SUICIDAL THOUGHTS WILL PERSIST AND/OR INCREASE in a very short time.

    January 20, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • Mike

      thanks for the most insightful post here, and your personal story. Good luck with your health! You have my respect. Most of the people on these posts need some kind of medication. At least you know you have a problem

      February 8, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  7. Ernest

    What makes his act so evil is the fact he took it beyond a targeted political assassination to the wholesale slaughter of the completely innocent. It is my understanding he brought along three 30 clip magazines. He was there to kill and kill as many people as he could get away with. He wasn't shooting people in the act of fleeing the initial crime of shooting the first politician, but purposely killing a random section of society who just happened to be available. It appears his general "aim" was to become infamous. He succeeded.

    January 20, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  8. David

    Jonathan is right, Let Us Pray

    The closer we come to the end of the age, the more mental illness we will see. There is a difference between demonic influence and demonic possession. Demonic possession occurs when someone plays with their devils to long. Yes, Jared L. Laghner is possessed. Before the complete and total breakdown of society, (in the very near future) we will continue to see psychotic episodes like Arizona. In fact the will escalate. The Bible warns us of this.

    Lev 26:22 I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number

    God speaks to us today through metaphors. The term wild beast or beast represents “wild mental disorders” and cattle is a metaphor to “human emotional stability”

    So with this in mind, verse 22 actually says.
    “I will send wild mental illness among you, and these mental disorders will rob you of your children and devils will possess them, and these wild mental disorders will be all around you, and rob you of your own emotional stability. Making the simple things, like loving your neighbor as yourself, very, very difficult. The result of these things will make my people to be few in number, because they shall betray one another due to their own emotional instability, and panic and anxiety shall rule in their hearts.” Thus fulfill the words of Jesus Himself saying, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

    Thank about it. I believe the first 42 months of the Great 7 Year Tribulation started on 10/10/2010. The Number ten is God’s Symbol for Judgment. Examples; Noah, the man who built the great Ark, was born of the 10th generation after Adam.
    God sent 10 plagues into Egypt to set His people free. His people rebelled against God 10 times in the wilderness, Numbers 14:22. There were ten pillars of brass in the temple of God. Brass is a metal that is also used as a metaphor as judgment. Example: Lev. 26:19 "And I will break the pride of your power, and I will make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.” In fact the term "as brass" is mentioned in the bible 10 times. God gave Moses 10 Commandments. When King David drove the demons out of Saul, He used an instrument of 10 strings.

    Jared L, Laghner opened fire at 10:10 A.M. Coincidence? I don’t think so, its Judgment Day

    Pastor David

    January 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Mike


      February 8, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  9. googooly

    this guy is soooo hot. i must have him

    January 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  10. barbara butler

    Do NOT pass go. Save money and take him directly to the chair or better yet "do unto him" as he did to others, line him up against the wall and as a parent to the child l would gladly pull the trigger. WHY spend money on this evil person, save a buck and sentence him from the jail house, don't even go to trial. OH why does he even have the right to an attorney. Insane at the time of the crime, good copout. NOT

    January 20, 2011 at 5:50 am |
    • Mike

      Right to an attorney? How dare he? Wow, Barbara wants Nazi rule, pretty anti-American if you ask me. I think we should hang this nazi, without a trial, or an attorney. Who's with me? (just figure of speech, no real threat or personal attack is advocated on Barbara, for all you lawsuit happy, Attorney loving nazi's out there,lol)

      February 8, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  11. David

    Extreme actions should be met with equal consequence. There's NO excuse for taking innocent human life of any kind; no matter what your perspective may be.

    January 20, 2011 at 1:54 am |
    • barbara butler

      EXACTLY, my sentiments too.

      January 20, 2011 at 5:53 am |
    • Muneef

      Would you have said the same if the victim was a Muslim or would make excuses for him to get away with it??

      January 20, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Muneef

      Baroness Warsi: "Anti-Muslim hatred and bigotry is quite openly discussed"


      January 20, 2011 at 7:33 pm |
  12. TanksDaDa

    Spray Loughner with an AK47 and dump his corpse into alligator pit. Human rights activists whom bemoan the death
    penaly in these sorts of cases; and the aforementioned activists are truly Satan incarnate.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:00 pm |
    • Mike

      You show an in depth knowledge of the human experience, and your ability to discern deep things is astounding. I bet you have lots of friends that are as deep and broad minded, just as you are. I wish I had more friends like you. Better yet, why cant we get a thinker like you in the White House. People like you would know how to fix all the problems in the world with that kind of intellect.

      February 8, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  13. Muneef

    The truth was found up there from your comments;
    No faith lost stray.
    Drugs delusion live out of reality.
    Vilont Video Games replaced reality.
    Have read many stories about children killing their parents sisters brother in the same way as in the game specially that ice hooky thing...killing people with to score points and sure drugs with such games are behind most crimes...

    January 19, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  14. Melinda

    since when was evil or mentally-ill analogous? Aren't we all deep-thinkers here!

    January 19, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Adam

    Insanity is nothing but brainwash.

    January 19, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  16. aicax

    Young people play so many shooting video games. Drugs, junk food, lack of sleep will not help them distinguish right or wrong. If this is to continue, we are in big trouble.

    January 19, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Muneef

      Well done, Drugs and Violent Video Games has made those liven in different delusionery reality...

      January 19, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
  17. Janty

    This guy did it. He was caught after doing it with no doubt or uncertainty.
    I value the justice system but they should have just walked this guy around the corner to the side of the building and put a bullet in his head. Now we have to go through the same ol song and dance.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • barbara butler

      Oh we are so on the same page. Why waist $$$ on him.

      January 20, 2011 at 5:55 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.