Only in the land of Either/Or does the John Hinckley verdict make any sense. Things are either right or wrong. They are either moral or immoral. They are either true or false and following that logic Hinckley had to be either insane or guilty. The fact that he could be both is something the law, in its wisdom, would not allow.
But this, after all, is the cry that is coming from the streets. This, after all, is what the people, who also have some wisdom, are saying. They would not quarrel with the notion that a man who shoots the president to gain the attention of a movie actress he had never met is crazy. They would say, though, that he is also guilty.
It is the either/or quality to the thing that so offends the public and that, in the end, will do irreparable damage. The law now looks like a fool because it has insisted that to be crazy somehow means that you are not also guilty. It provided the jurors with some sort of horrible true-false question in which both propositions were true, but they had to choose just one.
This is very often the trouble with the law and why, in fact, even lawyers like to keep certain problems out of its clutches. People dealing with medical ethics, for instance, would prefer that decisions about when it is permissible to let someone die be made informally. Once judges rule or legislatures make laws, things tend to get set in concrete.
In the Hinckley case, it is fashionable to dump all over psychiatry and, of course, the liberal judiciary that helped formulate the criminal insanity rules. But liberals do not have a monopoly when it comes to painting society into exquisite either/or situations. At the moment, for instance, the so-called right-to-life movement is doing the same thing when it comes to abortion. If it had its way, abortion would always and under all circumstances be illegal. Like demons they chase every case they can into court. Rules we will all regret will follow.
The insanity defense is more either/or nonsense. It not only demands a choice, but it confuses two different concepts: being sane and being moral. John Hinckley was neither. His pursuit of Jodie Foster, an actress, was the pathetic fantasy of a man who had lost touch with reality. He was Media Man, a modern-day abomination who lived his life through television and movies and in his own imagination. When he needed a girlfriend, he made one up and when he fell in love, it was with an actress he had never met.
Hinckley saw the movie "Taxi Driver" something like 15 times. When he lived alone, which was often, he did little more than go to movies and watch television. Little wonder, then, that when the trial became too much for him, when the shrinks he trusted talked about him as the specimen they had really only been paid to look at, he bolted from the courtroom and watched the proceedings on television. That he could handle. This is the way he handled the world.
All that is sick. Poor Hinckley. Poor parents and, of course, poor victims. But that does not mean that what he did was not wrong. It was both sick and wrong and Hinckley knew that. No one ever said he did not know right from wrong. They only said that he couldn't help himself. He had these urges. He has these compulsions. He bought a gun. He bought bullets. He found himself standing outside the Hilton Hotel, the gun in his pocket, the president coming out and then--bang! bang! There is nothing in all that about him thinking he was doing the right thing.
It would be wrong to conclude from all this that psychiatry is a joke. We need both law and psychiatry and we especially need the notion of legal insanity. A totally deluded man who stabs a melon only to find out later it is a baby is too crazy to be held accountable for his actions. It is a hard concept to live with, but there really are times when no one is at fault.
But the shooting of Reagan et al is not one of those examples. Hinckley knew exactly whom he was shooting, why he was doing the shooting and that it was wrong. Still, his crime was presented to the jury as an either/or proposition. It was nothing of the sort and either the law will be changed or the public will lose faith in the entire criminal justice system. And that is the ultimate either/or proposition of them all.