Jared Lee Laughner and the mystery of iniquity

By Alan Bean

Jared Lee Loughner, the man responsible for the Tucson shooting spree that left six dead and twelve, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, badly wounded, has been declared incompetent to stand trial.  Authorities now have four months to restore Loughner to competency.  How are they supposed to do that?

In a Slate article, Jeremy Singer-Vine gives us the answer: anti-psychotic drugs. 

A competent defendant must be able to understand the legal proceedings against him and to cooperate with his lawyer, according to the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Dusky v. United States. Two experts have diagnosed Loughner as a schizophrenic, a condition that can prevent a defendant from meeting these criteria. When a defendant is ordered into a treatment program, he may receive some education about the trial process and talk therapy, but anti-psychotic drugs are by far the most common and most effective treatment.


If Loughner refuses to take the drugs—which have quite a few severe side effects, such as muscle spasms and blurred vision—the government could try to force the issue. One way would be to show that an unmedicated Loughner is a safety risk to himself or other inmates. The Supreme Court has also allowed the government to medicate incompetent defendants against their will if the feds can demonstrate four things: a compelling reason for medicating, a good chance the drugs will work, proof that the drugs are necessary, and a lack of other options. Involuntary medication doesn’t always mean the inmate receives forced injections or has pills shoved down his throat; often he’ll simply agree to take the drugs after a court rules that he must.

Although there is a peculiar ring to all of this, the legal logic is relatively straightforward.  Even if a defendant was legally sane at the time of the alleged crime, if he cannot understand legal proceedings he can’t defend himself.  Although lawyers do all the heavy lifting in the courtroom, they are, at least in theory, surrogates representing the accused.  Ultimately, all defendants defend themselves–that’s why they are called “defendants”.  If the accused is intellectually defenseless, the reasoning goes, he cannot be properly tried or credibly convicted.

The comments section at the end of Singer-Vine’s Slate article reveal that legal amateurs like myself are having a hard time with Wednesday’s ruling.  Predictably, there is a lot of “I say, fry the creep, crazy or not!” rhetoric.  Others ask if anyone who intentionally takes a life isn’t a little bit crazy.  Most readers aren’t quite sure why Loughner’s sanity or lack thereof is relevant: if the man pulled the trigger (and we’ve got good video of the crimes he committed) he needs to face the consequences.

There is zero chance that Jared Lee Loughner will breathe in the free world any time soon.  If he can’t be restored to competency (a subjective call for sure) he will spend his remaining days in a high-security mental facility virtually indistinguishable from prison.

The Loughner case brings us face-to-face with what the Apostle Paul called “the mystery of iniquity”.  Why are human beings capable of despicable acts, and why do the best of us occasionally behave very, very badly?  Since Cain slew Abel, human beings have been traumatized by our own behavior.  “How could somebody do that?” we ask.  Maybe Jared Lee Loughner went on a shooting spree for the same reason he has been judged incompetent to stand trial–he’s crazy.

But that just impales us on the horns of a dilemma: If we do bad things because we’re wrong in the head, no one can be held responsible for anything; but if only some bad deeds are the fruit of mental illness, who adjudicates between the crazy and the sane?  If sanity and insanity blur together, what do we do with the folks in the middle range of the continuum?

It could also be argued that, if madness forced Jared Lee Loughner to discharge his stock of weaponry, his behavior can’t be blamed on a poisonous political environment.  Loughner paid a visit to the gun-and-ammo shop because his synapses weren’t firing properly–end of story.

But surely that’s too simple an explanation.  Loughner’s insanity could have expressed itself in a wide variety of ways, some violent, others non-violent.  Exposure to bizarre and hateful ideas can exacerbate mental illness.  A crazy person living in an atmosphere of care and compassion will react less violently than a person struggling with a toxic environment.  The poisoned political atmosphere in Arizona (and the rest of these United States) did not make Jared Lee Loughner crazy; but it may well have influenced the way his craziness expressed itself.

In the end, we are left with far more questions than answers.  Paul didn’t call iniquity (lawlessness) a mystery for nothing.  How do we account for the madness of individuals, the madness of crowds and the madness of entire populations (think of Nazi Germany or the lynch-culture of the postbellum South)?  The New Testament attributes violent craziness to demon possession.  Two thousand years later, we haven’t produced an explanation that is markedly better.

Theologians like Walter Wink, in all seriousness, use Pauline phrases like “spiritual wickedness in high places” to elucidate the corporate evil at work in the Roman Empire and the empires of our present age.  It isn’t just a matter of faulty mental wiring–there is a spiritual component to human wickedness that no amount of drugs can cure.

Am I saying that Jared Lee Laughner is demon possessed?  No, I am not.  I am saying that Laughner lives in a demon-haunted world and that, in some twisted way I dimly understand, the demons in his own head conspired with the demons inhabiting the dark places of American culture to produce a result that left us gasping.  If there is a strong spiritual component to the disease, it will take more than drugs to work a cure.  No pills gonna cure our ills.  Whether Jared Lee Laughner stands trial or not, the mystery of iniquity remains.