Whenever someone commits violent crime, news-watchers are inundated with the standard line that individual in question must be mentally deranged. Mental-health professionals are interviewed in the hopes that they can provide some kind of “explanation” that will help people understand, and thereby, regain a sense of control over the chaotic event. As C.S. Lewis has shown, such an understanding of criminal behavior is dangerous to human liberty.
In God in the Dock, Lewis explains how suggesting that criminals are “sick” transforms them from victimizers to victims. Once we treat them as victims, we can then “help” them by taking away their freedom in the name of protecting their interests. Some of you may be nodding in agreement. Treatment, you say, not vengeance is the answer to these people.
Not so fast. If we treat criminals as mentally ill, then we cannot release them from confinement until they are cured. How does one know when they are cured? If we treat criminals on the basis of their behavior, then their punishments must relate to the crime. There is an endpoint. I also have another reason to oppose the psychologization of crime. It relates to the way Christians were treated in the former Soviet Union. Christians were diagnosed as mentally ill and thereby sent to asylums for treatment thereby losing the few rights they might have had if they were designated as criminals.
As Lewis pointed out, criminals have rights. Sick people don’t. Think about that the next time you hear someone saying that a criminal needs treatment rather than punishment.
Stephen M. Vantassel is a tutor at King’s Evangelical Divinity School
Copyright, 2009 Stephen Vantassel.