A friendship died swiftly over dinner some 20 years ago, when I expressed the opinion to an octogenarian medical doctor that I was not against the death penalty. This was a man of intelligence, dignity, warmth, and gentle-disposition, whose best traits turned sour in the face of disagreement on certain topics such as this one. Another was the possession of firearms. When he had made a derogatory comment about the National Rifle Association at a psychiatric hospital staff meeting, he came to discover that more than a few of the doctors there were members and were quick to say so. This resulted in him having to force himself to stifle his righteous indignation.
I may have told him I owned a shotgun as we sat over dinner. If I did, I am sure I explained why. I likely explained that I was living alone over 20 miles from town in the middle of nowhere. The state police serviced that area and they had a lot of territory to cover to secure the peace. So, when a non-professional coworker felt offended by me for some perceived slight and responded with the words, “Wait until you see what happens next,” I had to consider my options. The best option that I could see was to buy a firearm. As I explain it now, if you consider that someone is making a statement by pointing a gun at you and even shooting it, you at least want to have the option of a reply. I’m a psychologist, after all. I believe in dialogue. Guns are a means of expression. The problem is they don’t have much of a vocabulary, but in certain situations that single word is needed, especially if you are forced to rely on someone else’s poor judgment.
But, getting back to the dinner…There was no discussion about the merits and faults of the death penalty. Rather, his response was without intelligence, dignity, warmth, or gentility. My physician friend was clearly not in a discussing mood. I guess at 80+ years he felt that he deserved submission and contrition rather than honesty.
Then, I imagined this man, whose gentle demeanor in most situations reflected the teachings of Jesus, standing in a prison pod surrounded by convicts, in a place where I knew he had worked, many of whom had undoubtedly been convicted of murder. I imagined this gentle soul tending to their medical needs, perhaps even washing their feet, without a care for their crimes, however heinous they might have been. Over dinner years ago, my opinion was not received with half as much kindness as I am sure he offered those convicts. Murder can be tolerated more easily than a differing point of view in certain situations.
And this is where a psychopath thrives, where rules are fluid. A psychopath will test rules to see how far authorities will go to ensure that they are enforced. The law can say, “Don’t cross this line,” but it is not so clear how eager institutions are to enforce the laws that cause lines to be drawn. This makes psychopathy look less like a mental disorder than something of a social experiment, almost like playing chess in the real world. “I do this. Now, what will you do? I’m just curious.” The psychopath is curious up until the point that his/her offense ceases to be experimental, that is, until such time as the infractions that were merely being experimented with are done with serious intent. Suddenly, the statement, “I didn’t mean it” becomes “I did mean it and what are you going to do about it? And fuck you!” But, even then, a lack of consistent response to offenses is an open invitation to repeat offenses and with the same impact as if the law did not exist at all. No different from Cliven Bundy grazing his cattle on public lands or the Koch brothers buying courts and Congress to relentlessly change the rules in their favor and against the common good. For Bundy, the response is, “What are you going to do about it? Nothing? I thought so. If you try to stop me, I’ll kill somebody.” For the Kochs, the response is, “What court can you go to and what Congress? We’ve bought and paid for them all.” This is how the rules are altered, along with any expectation of fairness, putting unfair burdens on the victims while leaving those who benefit to flourish.
It’s in this atmosphere that police, who are the first line arbiters of the law, essentially make the law by either enforcing or not enforcing, with the understanding that they are the law on the streets and in those places where commerce occurs. It is also how financiers make the rules of wealth, allowing them to walk roughshod over local governments, influence states’ governments, and buy the Federal government at a fraction of the amount of what they earn by doing this.
As I am writing this, still another example of rule infringement was reported in the Daily Beast, this time by prosecutors in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Is this psychopathy? It’s arguable if you rely on the DSM-5. By eroding any expectation of fairness, the psychopathic social experiment invites a growing number of people to see what they can get away with and the rest to ponder what they can or intend to do about it, leaving the rule of might and deceit over right and those who are victimized to consider the responses available to them. The burden is on the victim in these cases and pray for the law to help them. If this is the new norm, then at least one of the DSM diagnostic criteria is sacrificed as we lose the expectation of fairness. Psychopathy is an open disregard of rules, laws, or the rights of others as the Diagnostic Manual would tell us. So, how can these actions or non-actions even by authorities be considered otherwise? Still further, how can these issues fall in the domain of mental illness? Rather, it begins to seem increasingly like an undesirable part of human nature to flout the rules and the laws in the exploitation of others, but it is not mental illness.
So, what about the death penalty? That punishment is usually applied to those who take a life. I have sat face-to-face across a table from people who were visibly indifferent about the prospect of killing me or anyone. Their expressions are almost uniformly cold, their eyes lifeless.
Weighing most heavily against the death penalty as punishment are those who are unfairly targeted and convicted. And creating even more nebulousness and uncertainty are perversions like Stand Your Ground Laws, where the enforcement of the law leaves the average citizen wondering who exactly was standing whose ground in the Trayvon Martin case. Was it Trayvon Martin who was being pursued by a white man and who defended himself with his fists or George Zimmerman who pulled out a gun and shot the young man who was punching him? Who was pursuing whom exactly? Whose ground was it anyway?
This could be a psychiatric diagnostic issue if the playing field were level and the rules applied fairly. Otherwise, psychopathy should not be considered as anything but a crime and the diagnosis nothing more than experimental, anticipating a successful treatment to produce compassionate, fair-minded citizens who are offended by wrong-doing.