October 28, 2004
A debate is developing over whether state governments should take a person who committed a crime when he was sixteen or seventeen, strap him onto a table, and kill him. The American Medical Association says it shouldn't be done because the brains of such persons were still developing at the time they provoked the states' desire to kill them. In particular, the doctors argue that the front part of the brain, where processes of restraint and judgment are located, are not completely formed until a person is well into his twenties. Consequently, impulses that we normally call thoughtless are much harder to resist by teenagers than they are by mature people. This is a complete revelation, isn't it?
I was once in the miserable condition of having to decide what to do with students who had committed stupid acts. Fortunately, I didn't have the power to kill them. But I could do things they found unpleasant, like kicking them out of school. Whenever I was confronted with a person like that I always asked him why he had done it. And the answer, invariably, was the same. The only answer I ever got was, "I don't know." Over time, for me, the evidence, became incontrovertible -- they really don't know.
It would take a metaphysician more accomplished than I am to say whether not knowing why someone does a thing is at least a partial excuse for having done it. It seems to be generally accepted by society that if someone knows why he did something bad it's a lot worse than if he didn't know. But why that should be the case is just one of those little questions that never gets brought up.
The puzzle I'm struggling with today is why, if a condition that existed in one's brain at the time a crime was committed, is a reason not to take him, years later, when his brain is doubtless different, and strap him down, helpless, on a table, and stick a needle in one of his veins, and then pump poison through that needle, then, why, as I say, shouldn't that prohibition apply to everybody?
Surely, everyone who commits a crime has a brain, and every brain has a condition. If what we've been told about physiology is true, the brain directs everything we do. So, every crime must be caused by a brain with a condition.
Why certain conditions justify strapping down on tables and killing, whereas other conditions don't, is a mystery beyond solution. Of course, one could argue that the condition of the brain doesn't matter, that certain crimes should result in table strapping and poison pumping no matter what. But, I'm afraid we've gone so far away from that position that we can't ever get back to it. I doubt that even Justice Scalia would want to go there.
The brain condition that intrigues me more than that of criminals is that of those who like the idea of table strapping and poison pumping. I wish I could get the AMA to study them. I'll bet we'd find something even more peculiar than the brains of teenagers.
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