Beheading on a Bus

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In August 2008, Canadians were shocked to learn that Edmonton resident Vincent Li had stabbed to death and decapitated a stranger on a bus. On March 4, 2009, Li was declared “not criminally responsible,” that is, not guilty by reason of insanity.

Why did Li commit this crime? Queen’s Bench Justice John Scurfield answered: “These grotesque acts are appalling. However, the acts themselves and the context in which they were committed are strongly suggestive of a mental disorder. He did not appreciate the actions he committed were morally wrong.”

That interpretation was contradicted by Li’s behavior when he was arrested, immediately after the killing. Li apologized, asking police to kill him – evidence that he knew what he had done and that he knew it was wrong. The authorities, however, wanted to treat him as a madman. Defense and prosecution alike called for a finding of NCR, “not criminally responsible.” In his closing argument, Li’s lawyer, Alan Libman, told Justice Scurfield that there was “no contradictory evidence” to NCR, and other people apparently had no trouble agreeing. They were acting on the widely shared cultural premise that only mentally ill persons commit heinous crimes in broad daylight. So prevalent is this idea that anyone who believes otherwise invites being dismissed as a loony or a vengeful sadist. How, then, could other “evidence” have been presented?

The history of modem law and psychiatry suggests that we do not want to understand the murderer’s mental state, which requires us to identify with him, lest he seem more human to us than we imagine him to be. Understanding a deed such as Li’s requires paying attention to the defendant’s behavior, verbal and nonverbal, and, if necessary, asking him to explain the reasons for his lawlessness in his own words. But we do the opposite: we do not let the defendant speak at all. Instead, we ask fake experts, called “psychiatrists,” to explain the culprit’s crime. They tell us what we want to hear, illustrating the adage, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” They reflexively “discover” that, at the precise moment when the accused committed the crime, he was “insane.” Thus, the crime was not an act; it was an event, the “product of mental illness.”

Timing is all-important in this fable. The defendant must be found to have been insane during the commission of the crime; subsequently, he must be found “mentally fit” to stand trial. Yet, though fit to stand trial, he cannot confess to his crime and plead guilty. He must plead innocent, so that we can declare him “not criminally responsible” (“not guilty by reason of insanity”). Such are the rules of the game by which he must play, and by which we must (mis)understand him. Not surprisingly, his crime “makes no sense to us.”

Returning to the beheading, what kind of explanation do we look for? The Jacobins beheaded people because they believed that those beheaded deserved to be guillotined for their crimes against the French people and state. But if Li said

Only we – ourselves – can be the agents of our actions. Therein lies the problem of the relationship between law and psychiatry.


that his victim deserved to be beheaded, we would interpret his statement as a symptom of his own madness, not as an explanation for the beheading of his victim. Hence, we must ask: what kinds of statements do we accept, or not accept, as “explanations”? What kinds of people are entitled to offer, or not entitled to offer, (credible) explanations?

Different people often have different views about what counts as an explanation. In attempting to explain the development of the human race, some people prefer naturalistic explanations (evolution); others opt for supernatural ones (creationism). Similar principles are often invoked to explain good or bad behaviors. It is remarkable, however, that while in the natural sciences we use the same principles to explain why airplanes fly and crash, or why drugs heal and harm, in the “(mis)behavioral sciences” we use one set of principles to explain ordinary behaviors, and another set to explain extraordinary misbehaviors. We attribute the former to free will, the latter to lack of free will, a feature intrinsic to (severe) mental illness. In other words, we explain the ordinary behavior by attributing it to the actor’s reason for it, and extraordinary misbehavior by attributing (nonexistent) mental illness as its cause.

The truth is, there are reasons for murder, but not for melanoma. There are causes for melanoma, but not for murder. However, the idea of insanity – and especially the insanity defense – is a matter of law, not logic. “The life of the law,” Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. reminded us, “has not been logic; it has been experience.”

For more than a half century I have maintained that “mental illness” is a metaphor and that it is absurd to attribute horrifying crimes to “it.” Gods, devils, and mental illnesses do not cause murder or anything else. Under all circumstances and at all times only we – ourselves – can be the agents of our actions. Therein precisely lies the problem of the relation- ship between law and psychiatry.

We attribute bad actions to possession by demons or disturbed minds in order to relieve ourselves, and our fellow humans, of the relentless responsibility we must bear for how we live. Because mental illness performs this essential service, we cling to it as we do to life itself. Declaring a defendant NCR masquerades as a “determination” or “finding” by psychiatrists and judges. In fact, it is a collective societal decision about how we – the agents and agencies who control the culprit – ought to deal with him. Saying that we will “treat” him makes us feel better than acknowledging that we are punishing him. American government psychiatrists have been “treating” John Hinckley, Jr., President Reagan’s “hospitalized” would-be assassin, for 25 years. They are still trying to cure him. And Santa Claus still brings Christmas gifts.

Mental illness is often said to be mysterious. It is not. “There is method in madness,” Shakespeare told us. But of course we can’t see the method if we don’t want to see it. Li and the press told us enough to understand what happened. A Chinese immigrant, Vincent Li could not make a go of his life in Canada, or in China. Years before the murder, hopeless, homeless, penniless, Li left Toronto on foot, supposedly to walk back to Manitoba. Picked up by the police and commit- ted to a mental hospital, he was given room and board, which he wanted, and treatment, which he did not want. Although deemed psychotic and dangerous, he promptly escaped. The authorities made no attempt to find him. Managing a per- son like Li as if he were a medical patient is a pretense, and everyone knows it is. However, in the Age of Folly, psychiatry defines social reality, just as in the Age of Faith the Church defined it.

Li’s liver or lungs did not fail him. His life did, and he knew it. There is no medical treatment for failed lives. Beheading a stranger on a bus, like “walking” from Ontario to Manitoba in an emaciated state, was a message. What was Li saying? Let us listen to him.

“Since his arrest,” reported the press, “Li has declined to speak to prosecutors and his court-appointed attorney. When asked again by the judge after the recess [in the proceedings] if he wanted a lawyer, Li shook his head and then quietly said ‘please kill me.’ Li’s remark was heard by reporters and confirmed by court clerks, but was not acknowledged by the judge.” It was also not acknowledged by the doctors who “examined” Li. Prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Yaren told the court that “Li has a very strong chance to recover and was an otherwise ‘decent person’ who was dearly out of his mind when he believed he was acting on God’s commands.”

Hopeless as his situation was before the murder, it is worse than hopeless after it, and Li knows that too. Perhaps he hoped to die on his failed death-march to Winnipeg. Perhaps

In the Age of Folly, psychiatry defines social reality, just as in the Age of Faith the Church defined it.


he lacked the courage to kill himself. In any case, he wants to die now and does not say that God tells him that death is the proper punishment for his deed.

Nothing and no one can bring back the dead. Nor can a deed like Li’s be expiated or “treated.” In the past, people understood tragedy. Today we choose to misunderstand it as a malady – manifested by “meaningless” deeds.

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