Will Robert Bales Be Another Charles Whitman?

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.


Filed under In the News

14 responses to “Will Robert Bales Be Another Charles Whitman?

  1. These types of medical posts bring out the hypochondriac in some people; bad mood = brain tumor?? (Just kidding although I do worry about an untreated head injury from a few years ago……..) 😉

    I think people need to sort out the two issues surrounding justice. People should never be locked away merely out of revenge. They’re being locked up to keep people safe. Therefore it does not matter why they committed the crime. If it is to “teach them a lesson”, maybe the prisons should work more on studying if and how they can make good citizens out of criminals.

    I’m sure if we dig around enough, we could find some sort of reason that criminals act the way they do (early abuse, etc) but I find it ironic that the more inherent the problem (and the less curable, like a tumor) the more likely we are to have minimum security in a psychiatric ward but if it’s an act from a “normal” person who could change they’re more likely to get life in prison.

  2. Rocks

    When a poor woman tried to assassinate George III with a table knife, he was very quick to view a low intellect or mild mental illness as mitigating circumstances.

    The harm that has been done here goes far beyond the brain of the NCO (not senior officer) concerned, and the Americans were totally wrong and unsubtle in deciding that justice should not be done in the country where the crime happened. This is even less clever than allowing their embassy’s many employees in London not to pay the London Congestion Charge for bringing their cars into central London, like everyone else. Of course everyone resents the idea that Americans are above the law of the land.

    These two paragraphs may seem to conflict, because if he was tried in Afghanistan, mitigating circumstances are less likely to be found and the man treated humanely. However, this is not for us to decide, it is for the Afghan justice system to decide.

    Away from home, the system does not allow me to be Rox.

  3. Anonymous

    @ Rocks: The “law of the land”- in Adghanistan? Where women are stoned to death for adultery? Come now…

    And you’re comparing this situation to American embassy employees being allowed to drive their cars in central London? Where’s your sense of proportionality?

    More America-bashing on Bruce Hood’s blog.

    Boring and tedious…

    I wonder if the hundreds of Islamist suicide bombers all had brain rumors? Or maybe something’s in the water over there?

  4. I don’t think that a mild to moderate traumatic brain injury could have any plausible bearing on an act as grotesque as that: there is nothing about cognitive processes involved in traumatic brain injury which could any more be linked to such behaviour than many other disorders – anxiety disorders for instance. The original notion that avoidance of criminal responsibility requires a dramatic distortion of reality such that normal moral judgments cannot be made is a necessarily high, and, i think, correct bar to set. Brain tumours are rare, and most serial murderers have no such pathology. It would be more plausible to attribute the behaviour to cultural templates – vivid examples of similar acts – which an emotionally disturbed person can readily access from their memory and emulate because they are so vividly described and portrayed in fact and fiction. Let’s resist the trend to over-biologising the explanations of human behaviour.

    • brucehood

      Wow – Ian, I am so flattered you have visited and left a comment. Yes, I think the search for mitigating circumstances in neurology is always going to be a long shot. I agree, the more I learn about Robert Bales, the more he seems to be less the normal guy cracking under pressure. Still, if he was brutalized by events or life’s experiences, then clearly he did not think his actions were ‘unreasonable.’ It is an interesting account that we are dependent on life experiences in shaping our moral compass to the extent of not knowing the difference between right and wrong or if knowing the difference, not caring about the consequences

  5. Rocks

    If Americans don’t want to be bashed for ignoring the laws of other countries, they should not ignore the laws of other countries, for small things or large. Of course they would not be stoned to death for not paying the congestion charge, but they should pay the usual fines. And anybody who kills 14 people in Germany, or Uganda, or Brazil, must expect to be tried according to the laws of Germany, Uganda, or Brazil. The punishment will usually be in proportion to the act. So too will adultery be dealt with according to the laws of each country. I don’t quite know how Anonymous would propose to change the laws of Afghanistan on this, or with what right. They might want to change the laws of his country, but he wouldn’t like that. His country or state almost certainly has laws on homosexuality and abortion which are different from those in some other countries, both civilised and “uncivilised”. Would he insist that all countries conform to what has been decided in his country or state ? Why ?

    I wonder where this “over there” is that all these Islamist suicide bombers are supposed to come from, with or without their brain “rumors” or polluted water. Some of them actually come from places as exotic as Luton.

  6. Anonymous

    @Rocks: Now that you’ve pointed
    Out my typo and thrown the American system of justice in with some barbaric form of Sharia, what will be your next feat? To attach the tail of whale to a guppy?

    Your obvious moral relativism and utter lack of a reasonable  frame of reference betrays you. But keep going. I like it when people who say stupid things hate America.

  7. Rocks

    No, I don’t hate America, but it still remains true that you can’t impose “the American system of justice” , which not everybody is very keen on, on very different countries with very different traditions. How do you propose to do this, anyway ?

    I don’t feel at all “betrayed” if I have got through to you the concept that things like this are relative, not absolute, even if you are not convinced. You seem to be saying that American “justice” is absolute rather than relative, I suppose because you claim it is based on the Bible (although there are other countries with a Christian past too), whereas anything based on the Koran and accompanying books is “barbaric” . This doesn’t really hold water. [And if it’s not that American justice is based on the Bible, what is it exactly that makes it not relative ? ].

    Certainly most human beings would abhor some practices of either system (stoning to death, long imprisonment in a sort of limbo territory without trial, cutting off hands, making innocent people wear leg-irons in court, torture and humiliation) , but if you think that the United Nations should impose a fair system based on universally agreed human rights in the whole world, you need to think a bit about how this is going to be done.

    My main point was and remains: “anybody who kills 14 people in Germany, or Uganda, or Brazil, must expect to be tried according to the laws of Germany, Uganda, or Brazil.” Why is that a stupid thing to say ?

  8. Rocks

    By the way, you may think that congestion charges are trivial, but the American Embassy now owes the local authority more than £50 million (more than US$79 million), which is enough to buy 260 new buses. Russia and Nigeria haven’t paid either. I suppose they each have their own absolutely correct system of justice too.

    • Anonymous

      Hey there, Rocks, you must be slacking- you missed a couple of my typos.

      BTW, while you’re checking for typos, go ahead and check the military code of justice in any modern, developed country and see if they allow soldiers in active combat who committ crimes to be tried in the country where they’re fighting a war.

      Are you actually defending the Taliban version of Sharia?

  9. Rocks

    1) You are probably right about military codes of justice in modern developed countries. The American embassy makes some kind of case for not paying the London congestion charge. But even those who normally seek to impose such unfair codes can waive them, and in cases like this it is wrong and unsubtle not to do so. I think “wrong and unsubtle” were words I used in the first place.

    2) I am not defending every detail of the Taliban version of Sharia,. but I have asked several times how you would impose something more to your taste in their country. I can’t liberalise the laws in some American states either. I recognise that.

    3) I am not going to continue with this purely for the benefit of Anonymous, but I find that I have posed quite a number of questions which he has made no attempt to answer.

  10. jacarandamimosifolia

    Let’s just focus on typos…it’s less dull. Bruce, I’m guessing that Robert Bales was a Texan sniper, not a Texas snipper (hairdresser?) Whatever, it’s fascinating that his guess of a physical cause of his behaviour was correct…

    • brucehood

      Of course, with the power editorial control, I can instantly make your comment seem redundant. Reading through the Self Illusion for the audio book, I am now painfully reminded how poor my editing skills are (let alone grammar and spelling) Oh well details, details.

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