The atrocity committed last sunday in Afghanistan where Sgt Robert Bales allegedly murdered 16 incident civilians, of whom nine were children, is destined to be become one of the worst acts of senseless brutality in recent years. Of course, more have been killed in various incidences such as the suicide car bombs but there is something so shocking about a senior officer, a married father with two children of his own, losing control and going on a bloody rampage.
It is still too early to know and I guess that this blog is yet another example of premature speculation, but I was preparing a lecture on “The Self Illusion” where I discuss the case of Charles Whitman, the Texas sniper. For 96 minutes on a hot summer’s afternoon in 1966, Whitman killed students on the University of Texas campus at Austen before he was eventually shot dead by police. What makes his rampage so unusual was that Whitman believed that he was not thinking rationally and that there was something making him commit the murders. He wrote in his suicide note,
“I don’t quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I don’t really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts. These thoughts constantly recur and it requires a tremendous mental effort to concentrate on useful and progressive tasks…… After my death I wish that an autopsy would be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder.”
And there was. His autopsy revealed a tumour in his limbic system that would have been consistent with rage and sudden mood swings. Other cases, I talk about in the book, include a pedophile who was discovered to have a tumor in his frontal lobes that would have impaired his impulse control. When the tumor was removed – his sexual perversion abated. However, when he started taking a sexual interest in children two years later, a brain scan revealed that his tumor had returned.
The lawyers acting for Sgt Robert Bales have begun to piece together a defense claiming that he was suffering from brain damage following a head injury that he sustained on a tour of duty in Iraq. It is not clear whether this will turn out to be correct. It may be that no such pathological evidence will show up in scans or neurophysiological measures. Even if there is some physical evidence of a disorder, will that make him less culpable? I expect most of us would regard brain damage as mitigating circumstances but what of others who suddenly lose control? Are they any less guilty? These are difficult questions about neuroethics but I doubt that any explanation is going to satisfy the Afghan people’s demand for justice.