I have to credit Sam Harris with this ‘thought experiment’ (although I’m not sure if he’s the originator), sufficed to say I heard this from him first.
Enter Charles Whitman.
Also known at the Texas University Sniper.
On August 1, 1966, he used knives in the slayings of his mother and his wife in their respective homes and then went to the University of Texas in Austin with multiple firearms and began shooting people. He fatally shot three people inside the university tower. He then went to the tower’s 28th-floor observation deck, where he fired at random people for some 96 minutes, killing an additional 11 people, including an unborn child, and wounding 31 others before he was shot dead by Austin police officers Ramiro Martinez and Houston McCoy. A total of 17 people were killed; the 17th victim died 35 years later from injuries sustained in the attack.
In a note… Whitman asked that an autopsy be performed on him. He suspected something was wrong with him that was making him act all crazy. Its turns out that he had “pecan-sized” brain tumor, the result on…
‘…Whitman’s actions cannot be established with clarity. However, the tumor conceivably could have contributed to his inability to control his emotions and actions, while the neurologists and neuropathologists concluded: “The application of existing knowledge of organic brain function does not enable us to explain the actions of Whitman on August first.” Forensic investigators have theorized that the tumor pressed against Whitman’s amygdala, a part of the brain related to anxiety and fight-or-flight responses.
The thought experiment is as follows.
Imagine that Whitman is captured by police. The tumor is removed by a surgeon and it is proved that the tumor pressing on his brain is what caused him to kill all these people. Whitman is incredibly repentant after the fact… mortified that his actions led to the death of all these people.
Should Charles Whitman be charged, tired and sentenced? Or should he be forgiven? What if you happen to be ‘Charles Whitman’ in this situation?
In any event… I wouldn’t want to be a victim, perpetrator, juror or judge in a case like this. I just like to think about it academically. What would justice or indeed restorative justice look like in this case?
Assuming it can be proved reasonable that Whitman wasn’t in control of his actions and if he seemed genuinely remorseful… and if pressed for a decision I would likely say that Whitman should be released (even if that doesn’t ‘feel’ completely right). Assuming my pregnant wife and child weren’t gunned down… I’d likely find forgiveness harder to mete out in this case.