With the dramatic unfolding of events after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, even his bitterest critics were forced to concede that his behavior under fire was courageous and inspiring. Veritably, Reagan seemed to possess all of the virtues of the Western hero he had portrayed so often and so well on the screen. Unfortunately, on April 22, in the first interview he gave the press since the shooting, he fell off his horse and didn't even seem to know it. Quite unwittingly, Reagan offered some comments about John W. Hinckley Jr. that were, in my opinion, unfounded and misguided and that have gravely prejudged his trial.

What President Reagan said was this: "I hope, indeed I pray, that he can find an answer to his problem. He seems to a very disturbed young man. He comes from a fine family. They must be devastated by this. And I hope he'll get well, too."

I believe that these remarks are important enough to justify my taking them one sentence at a time.

"I hope, indeed I pray, that he can find an answer to his problem." In the old Westerns, if memory doesn't deceive me, the good men first hanged the bad men and only then did they pray for their souls. Elsewhere in the same interview Reagan also said that he prays daily for Brady's recovery. As I do not pray, I grant that my views on prayer may be impious and "incorrect." Nevertheless, I believe that the dignity of prayer is cheapened when it is bestowed as indiscriminately as this. Is there anyone for whom Reagan would not pray? Would he pray for Brezhnev's health? For Stalin's soul? If not, then why for Hinckley? Surely, Solzhenitsyn is no less pious than Reagan, but I do not recall Solzhenitsyn's ever mentioning that he prays for communist murderers. Perhaps capitalist would-be murderers who fail to kill anyone and succeed only in lobotomizing a press secretary are more deserving.

One more comment on this brief but psychiatrically significant sentence needs to be added here. President Reagan's statements implies that Hinckley has a "problem" and is looking to "find an answer" to it. But I think Reagan (and the conventional psychiatric mind-set he so naively displays) may have got this backward. Hinckley had a problem before the assassination attempt. The criminal act was his solution to it. Now other people, especailly poor Jim Brady and his family, have got a problem. I, for one, find the compassion for Hinckley premature. Like the men Reagan used to impersonate, I believe that Hinckley deserves punishment first, compassion and forgiveness later, if ever.

"He [Hinckley] seems to be a very disturbed young man." Anyone with any respect for language -- and without such repect there can be neither truth not justice -- must realize that while this my be a piece of received psychiatric truth, it is a big lie nevertheless. tHinckley is not disturbed, he is distrubing. He is not sick, he is sickening.

"He [Hinckley] come from a fine family." How does Reagan know this? All we were told so far is that Hinckley comes from a wealthy family.

There is one more thing we know, and I cannot emphasize its importance enough: namely, that Hinckley has not been allowed to speak for himself. In effect, he has been muzzled, he has been silenced, while everyone, including the president of the United States, is busy explaining that he is "disturbed." For all we know, Hinckley may now feel quite undisturbed.

"They [Hinckley's family] must be devastated by this." That is likely and is probably one of the reasons for Hinckley's dastardly deed. But this is a speculation. And so it the possibility that the Hinckley family might have preferred George Bush for president. But that is heresy. We treasure our received psychiatric truths about mentally ill assassins precisely in order to banish such thoughts from our collective consciousness. In America, political motives for the murder of the high and mighty exist only in the half-forgotten pages of Shakespeare's tragedies.

"And I hope he'll get well, too." By thus acknowledging that Hinckley is ill, Reagan here implicitly supports an insanity defense for him. Should Hinckley plead insanity his lawyers would be able to appeal to the "expert testimony" of the president of the United States to support the contention that Hinckley is innocent because he was insane when he wounded Reagan instead of killing him.

President Reagan made a mistake in answering any questions about Hinckley at all. Respect for the law should have made him say, quite simply, that Hinckley's fate -- and in particular the question of whether he is disturbed or depraved -- will be for the jury to determine. The fact is that the distinction between disturbance and depravity -- between madness and badness, between mental illness and criminality, call it what you will -- is not a specialized or technical judgment doctors can make because they posses an MD degree; or psychiatrists can make because they possess training in diagnosing and treating mental illness; or the president of the United States can make because he occupies a lofty office. That distinction is a moral judgment, which is why a jury, and no one else, is supposed to make it. If we forget that, we might as well forget about America.