For the past century and more, the insanity defense--now in the public eye again in connection with the case of John Hinckley--has been debated ad nauseam. These debates have been fruitless because they focus on the abstract concepts of insanity and reponsibility and because they treat the insanity defense in isolation. In the context of the insanity defense, the abstract notions of insanity and responsibility effectively distract attention from the obvious social-psychological function of this so-called defense, a function I will presently describe. In addition, by treating the insanity defense in isolation we fail to consider its relations to other social strategies of claiming and disclaiming, accepting and rejecting an actor's responsibility for his act.
To illustrate both points, consider the case of modern political terrorism. Typically, we are here confronted with murders committed by stealth so that the killers are unknown and are likely to remain so. As a rule, the terrorists do not want to be captured but do want to get credit for their deed. They accomplish this by anonymous messages delivered to the media in which they claim responsibility for their act. The result is that news accounts of bombings and shootings carried out by terrorists are now usually followed by the stock phrase that "such-and-such a group or organization has claimed responsibility" for them. This public acknowledgment of the terrorists' responsibility for their deeds implies respect for them as human beings and recognition of the legitimacy (at least in their own eyes) of their aims and of the violent tactics with which they seek to attain them.
All this stands in sharp contrast to the instant, almost reflexive response of the press to crimes of violence carried out by individuals deemed to be insane. The media immediately label an Oswald or a Hinckley crazy, thus implying that because of their insanity, such persons are not responsible for their violent acts. This view satisfies a collective urge--to which the media cater--to deny that such persons are fully human and that their "abnormal" acts do not differ fundamentally from those of "normal" persons.
"A normal person does not kill the president" is what the normal person tells himself. At the same time, this hypothetical normal person does not doubt for a minute that an Irish, Italian or Palestinian terrorist who kills many persons is quite normal. This drama of recognizing or rejecting the meaning of certain violent acts, and of dignifying or disdaining certain violent actors is now performed through the images and vocabularies of politics and psychiatry. Political actors are recognized as sane and their deeds are dignified as responsible acts, whereas psychiatric actors are rejected as insane and their deeds are demeaned as non-reponsible.
The labeling of Soviet citizens who defy the Communist system illustrates this theme. In America, such persons are viewed as responsible--engaging in political protest --and are hailed as heroic "activists" and "dissidents." In Russia, the same persons are viewed as irresponsible--engaging in the psychotic slander of the state--and are diagnosed as schizophrenics requiring psychiatric confinement and treatment.
It would be fair to say, then, that the insanity defense, despite its name, has nothing to do with insanity; nor, despite the legal emphasis put on it, does it have anything to do with criminal responsibility. What it does have to do with is whether or not we want to take a particular person charged with a crime seriously. If we do not want to take him seriously, we will support his "acquittal" as insane and will, in general, be favorably disposed toward the retention of this legal-psychiatric mechanism. On the other hand, if we want to take a particular defendant seriously, we will support his conviction for the crime he has committed. And if we want to take everyone seriously, then we will support the abolition of the insanity defense.