The scientific community has evolved at a much faster rate than our moral development and oftentimes views the causes of violent behavior differently. For centuries, neuroscientists have studied the physical structure, chemical makeup and biological effects of one’s environment on human behavior. We are concerned with violent male inmates housed in maximum-security or supermax facilities. What is society’s moral responsibility to inmates who commit violent crimes? What do we do with them? History indicates that our nation is content to lock them away in unsavory conditions; breeding places for further violence and more mental illness, with little hope for rehabilitation. When inmates are released, they are often more violent than before.
For centuries, personal behavior in Western societies has been based on the premise that human beings have the God-given gift of “free will;” the choice between good and evil, moral and criminal responsibility, and the power to exercise independence and self-control. A righteous choice earns pubic acceptance, while a violent one brings punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court has called “free will” a universal foundation for our system of law, distinct from a deterministic view of human behavior that is inconsistent with the fundamental assumptions of our criminal system. In the United States v. Grayson 1978, the Supreme Court wrote that any intellectual development that threatened “free will” would seem to place the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question. “Free will,” as the doctrine that society has espoused, covers morality, law, politics, religion, public policy, intimate relationships and the psychology that governs life’s moral compass. If society suddenly believed that “free will” were an illusion, would we become a rudderless world without moral direction?
The deterministic view from the scientific community believes that human behavior is based on a combination of our biological makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nurture. Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup, our DNA, that determines who we are in many fundamental ways. Nurture is a product of the countless life experiences that form our core. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment, causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood and finally, to death.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) are two of the many brain scanners used to peer inside a living person’s skull, revealing intricate networks of neurons that are shaped by both genes and environment. A large portion of the scientific community believes that the firing of neurons determines all of our thoughts, hopes memories and dreams. We now know that changes in brain chemistry and the physical properties of the gray matter can alter human behavior.
March 31, 1981. Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, finished a speech pushing his economic program, and deploring the rising violent crime in the inner cities. Surrounded by Secret Service agents, metropolitan police, and White House staff, Reagan left the Washington Hilton Hotel and hurried through a light rain toward a limousine parked 12 feet away. It was 2:25 p.m., when Reagan, looking very presidential with his Reaganistic smile, and a slightly cocked head that was a staple in his movies, waved to 100 or so well-wishers standing behind a roped-off area. Reporters readied for a story; cameramen wanted that special photo; and a patchwork of people waited for a glimpse of their President. It was a scene that would be replayed countless times on the daily news, and discussed on every talk show across the nation.
It was sudden, like a flock of black birds in startled flight. Six gunshots pierced the air. Bang, bang, then a pause, followed by four successive shots fired from within the crowd. It appeared as though the President had not been hit. But an eyewitness, as reported by Lou Cannon of the Washington Post, said it all, “The President winced. The smile just sort of washed off his face.” Three men fell to the ground — Timothy J. McCarthy, a Secret Service agent, Thomas Delahanty, a metropolitan policeman, and James Brady, the likeable press secretary who friends called “the bear.” While McCarthy and Delahanty each had flesh wounds, Brady took a bullet to the head. Rain washed puddles of blood down the sidewalk and onto the road. Agents pounced upon a white, blond-haired man, later identified as John Hinckley, a 29-year-old dressed in a raincoat, blue shirt and dark trousers, who gripped a handgun while they wrestled him to the ground. Hinckley was subdued and whisked off to jail. The President’s limousine and police cars raced to George Washington University Hospital.
President Reagan’s wound was serious: a .22 slug penetrated his chest, ricocheted off a rib, and entered his lung, resting about one inch from his heart. An 80-minute surgery followed by 12 days in the hospital led to a full recovery. McCarthy and Delahanty recuperated, as well. But Brady was not as fortunate. The bullet seemed to explode in his head, causing permanent brain damage.
Initial public expectation centered on whether Hinckley would spend the rest of his life in prison, or if he would be put to death. But as days passed, Hinckley’s future became less certain. His mental state began to unfold. In 1976, five years before the shooting, Hinkley bad become obsessed with the movie Taxi Driver, where a psychotic taxi driver, Travis Bickle (played by Robert DeNiro), contemplates political assassination and then rescues a young prostitute, Iris (played by Jodi Foster), from a pimp. Hinckley took on the mannerisms — the army fatigue jacket, the fascination with guns, and even the taste for peach brandy — of the Bickle character. Hinckley’s infatuation with Iris developed into a full-fledged imaginary love for Jodi Foster, so much that he sent her love letters and stalked her on the Yale university campus. It was later revealed that Hinckley had even stalked President Carter and planned to assassinate him to impress Jodi Foster. But each time, he was unable to follow through on his original intent. A love letter sent to foster just hours before he carried out his assassination attempt of Ronald Reagan showed the depth of Hinckley’s mental illness.
There is a definite possibility that I will be killed in my attempt to get Reagan. It is for this very reason that I am writing you this letter now.
As you well know by now I love you very much. Over the past seven months I’ve left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself. Besides my shyness, I honestly did not wish to bother you with my constant presence. I know the many messages left at your door and in your mailbox were a nuisance, but I felt that it was the most painless way for me to express my love for you.
Jodi, I would abandon this idea of getting Reagan in a second if I could only win your heart and live out the rest of my life with you whether it be in total obscurity or whatever.
I will admit to you that the reason I’m going ahead with this attempt now is because I just cannot wait any longer to impress you. I’ve got to do something now to make you understand, in no uncertain terms, that I am doing all of this for your sake. By sacrificing my freedom and possibly my life, I hope to change your mind about me. This letter is being written only an hour before I leave for the Hilton Hotel. Jodi, I’m asking you to please look into your heart and at least give me the chance with this historical deed, to gain your respect and love.
I love you forever,
This is an excerpt from one of my books — “Supermax Prison: Controlling the most dangerous criminals.”
Check out my latest book — “Victims Make the Best Birdhouses”