Is it time to revisit the subject of Free will and Personal Responsibility?
We all make poor decisions and poor choices at one time or another in our lives.
As a psychiatrist, my job is not to “fix” anyone. No one can do that. My job is to help my patients in making better decisions and in accepting personal responsibility for the decisions they make. Frequently, patients are overly selfcritical and blame themselves or feel guilty for things that they cannot control.
They often need to learn how to be more forgiving of themselves or, as they say in AA, they “need to let go and let God.”
What does any of this have to do with James Holmes, the perpetrator of the tragedy in Aurora?
First, a disclaimer: I am not and will not, in any way, be involved in the case of James Holmes. So, I am not presuming to be judge, jury or expert witness on this case. I am, however, responding to this tragedy as a psychiatrist with a profound respect for the relevance of ethics to human behavior – even when the protagonist may be mentally ill and perhaps living out a complex fantasy fueled by the ready availability and accessibility of both internet virtual violence and semi-automatic weapons.
This op-ed piece has been written to stimulate a thoughtful consideration by readers of this column on the issues of free will and personal responsibility in a highly volatile case which has been tightly sealed, as the case awaits the legal process.
Perhaps it is outrageous for me to even comment on James Holmes, since I know no more about him than any reasonably informed citizen. However, since I will play no part in his evaluation or treatment I, for the moment, will throw caution to the wind and say: I personally think that Holmes made a choice and a decision and is personally responsible for the disastrous choice he made. I think he chose to “play God” and to decide, himself, who would live and who would die. As the facts emerge, perhaps I will eat these words along with my banana bread and coffee as I watch “Morning Joe.”
I am not going to enter into another debate about gun control and blame the NRA. Nor am I going to blame the University of Colorado and their Department of Psychiatry. My assumption is that if Holmes had talked about his plan to murder people he would have been hospitalized involuntarily. My guess is that he kept the details to himself – another decision and choice that HE made.
I am also not going to blame his decision on his mental illness. If indeed he had a thought disorder, so do millions of other Americans who never harm another soul, least of all a group of total strangers. In fact, a few years ago, researchers from the University of New South Wales joined with colleagues in Canada, Finland and the Netherlands to look into this issue and found that the rate of homicides of strangers by people with schizophrenia is about one in fourteen million; “the same as that of winning the lottery.”
Another question is whether Holmes might have made a different decision if he had been properly medicated. Perhaps the answer is yes, but again that was his decision. He was a well-educated student of the mind, not a naïve individual who knew nothing about the highly evolved science of psychopharmacology. I believe that James Holmes acted of his own free will and is personally responsible for his actions.
Sure he was having a tough time dealing with his life, but so are millions of others with far less opportunities than he had. Indeed, many of the young men Holmes’ age who I watched compete in the Olympics had far less opportunities than Holmes. They made huge sacrifices to compete on an equal footing with the best in the world. When the best of the best finally emerged victorious and stood on a pedestal representing themselves, their sport and their nation, they had much to be proud of. We all watched them with profound respect and awe. They demonstrated not only their athletic excellence, but an extraordinary capacity for self-control.
As I watched them, I was reminded of the words of the great Taoist philosopher who said 2,500 years ago “He who conquers others is strong; He who conquers himself is mighty.” The same sentiment has been echoed in all of the major religions. The Book of Proverbs 16.32 said, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who conquers his spirit is more powerful than he who conquers a city.”
Holmes clearly wanted the spotlight. As he emerged from the shadows of a poorly lit movie theatre, guns blazing, I believe he felt he would show everyone how “powerful” he was. I can imagine how powerless and inadequate he must have felt to drive him to such a demonic degree of “overcompensation.”
I am more interested in considering the fact that he indeed chose to spend endless hours creating and then implementing an elaborate plan intending to murder and then actually murdering a large number of helpless people. Holmes’ “Olympics” involved no competition. Instead, he chose to act like the Roman Emperor, the Supreme Dictator who would take the life of whomever he chose. Like the Commandant in the movie Schlindler’s List, he would stand in total safety, shooting innocent victims in the concentration camp so that he could feel powerful.
Fantasies are very different than reality. We can all fantasize about being Olympic medalists but very few work that hard and many fewer achieve that goal. In a far less lofty way, people who are not afraid of their own impulses are able to enjoy a violent film or entertain a violent fantasy without the slightest possibility that they would ever put that fantasy into action. This reminds me of Jimmy Carter who was interviewed by Playboy magazine a number of years ago and indicated that many times he had “lusted in his heart.” Clearly, neither lusting nor murdering “in your heart,” or merely in your imagination, violates either the law or the Ten Commandments. The law relates to actual behavior, not fantasy. Holmes crossed the line. Now he will be compelled to face consequences in reality.
There will undoubtedly be an extensive legal and psychiatric debate on whether Holmes was responsible at the time of his obscene act. The survivors of this tragedy will have to deal with their pain forever, but it may be slightly diminished if Holmes acknowledges his responsibility and his guilt. My hope is that the “Joker” this time will choose to make the decision to “man up” and, by so doing, act a bit more like Batman.
In conclusion, perhaps if he had chosen a different role model who was more protective and less destructive of others, Holmes might have dealt with his own pain by signing up for an EMT training program and attempted to save lives and rescue others in pain rather than choosing to take lives and inflict unbearable pain on endless innocent victims and their surviving loved ones.
John S. Tamerin, M.D. lives and practices Psychiatry in Greenwich. Dr. Tamerin is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/Weill School of Medicine and a member of the Board of Scholars of the Vail Leadership Institute.