The Salem Witch Trial

July 17, 2015

In the most recent season of HBO's comedy Veep, there is a scene in which a Vice-Presidential candidate, reflecting on the nature of mental illness, expresses sympathy for the family of a mass killer during a press conference. His handlers backstage are apoplectic: in opening this vein of compassion he is blowing the election. Sure enough, the candidate spends a good bit of the rest of the episode back peddling, seeking salvation from the faux pas.

It's a very funny sequence, mainly because of the underlying truth it spoofs: woe be the one who views victims of mental illness or addiction through a caring lens.

*****

"As the judge began reading the verdicts — guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour, for each count of murder and attempted murder, the families sobbed quietly, clutched one another’s shoulders and nodded along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear."

Thus reads the second paragraph in The New York Times' article announcing James Holmes' guilt in the "Aurora Attack."

(I leave thinking about that choice phrase—"Aurora Attack"—to my reader.)

But to the paragraph: Where is our gaze directed? To the families, who "sobbed quietly" and "clutched one another's shoulders." We are invited into their pain, and implicitly asked to be on their side.

(I have no beef with that—I too know the hurt of losing a daughter and having a man stand accused of murder. Not James Holmes, but someone else sitting in a jail cell, my daughter now dust.)

But then: "nodding along to a recitation of guilt that many had been waiting nearly three years to hear." And (the voice of Justice): “guilty, guilty, guilty — repeated 165 times over an entire hour.”

(A person is so easy to blame.)

*****

More than a year later, Sean still waits for his trial date.

Here’s what I know:

A guilty verdict will not restore Elisif’s breath.

A guilty verdict will not change that Elisif died from addiction, nor that Sean too suffered from addiction.

A guilty verdict points the finger the wrong way.

*****

"Depraved and rotten to the core" is how The Times suggests the prosecution would like to paint James Holmes as they seek the death penalty. The role mental illness plays in Holmes' behavior is what the defense hopes to illuminate as they seek instead a life sentence.

Here’s what I know:

A sentence of death does not change families’ unbearable anguish.

A sentence of death does not change James Holmes experienced a psychotic break, as wrapped in mystery as that may be.

A sentence of death is the likeliest of outcomes.

*****

From The Psychiatric Times:

“Mental illness was considered by the Greeks to be an organic problem. However, this naturalistic point of view changed in the Middle Ages after the Black Plague epidemic that wiped out about 30 million people—half the population of Europe. After that devastation, disease was no longer seen as the result of natural causes but of supernatural forces or malignant spirits that physicians were not able to deal with. At the end of the Middle Ages, but more precisely, during the Renaissance, the blame fell on witches and diabolical possession. All the tragedies and calamities of humanity were the fault of witches because no one was capable of doing such things if not under the power of the devil. Therefore, these perpetrators should be severely punished.”

Has anything changed?

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