What does it even mean nowadays to plead insanity, a la Donna Hatchett and (probably) Joseph Fritzl? Legally, the logic seems to be that any sufficiently appalling crime must have been committed by a madman, because normal human beings don’t go in for that sort of thing. I say unto this perspective: wrong. Be you religious or irreligious, innate awfulness and a predeliction for cruelty are part and parcel of the human condition. The fact that someone can distort their own perception of reality to such a degree that they start a-killin’ doesn’t mean their biology is flawed; just that they’ve deluded themselves.
Medically and socially speaking, insanity is about brain chemical imbalances, misfiring synapses, missing chromosones or a history of being so broken by circumstance that the consequences are manifested behaviourally. Note I say consequences, which term implies not only a direct link between what the offender suffered and what they went on to do, but because the one must preceed the other. Emotionally, we might expect victims of abuse to be preternaturally compassionate: having undergone horror, they should strive not to inflict the same on others. But past a certain point, this doesn’t work: injury gives way to damage, and the psyche is altered – perhaps irreversibly.
Which leads us back to insanity pleas. If you are depressed, like Donna Hatchett, this is not the same as being insane. Depression alters our behaviour and emotional priorities; it should not alter our ability to discern right and wrong – at least as regards others. For this reason, there is an awful, crucial difference between those who murder to escape their circumstances, and those who suicide: the former believe that removing someone else will solve their problems, while the latter can think only of removing themselves. Society is capable of leniency towards those who take life out of genuine desperate necessity: had Elizabeth Fritzl killed her father in order to escape, it would be a heartless jury who laid blame. But in the case of Donna Hatchett, we offer no such consideration, because we can objectively discern that less bloody options were manifold.
And Fritzl? He’s no more insane than Stalin, which is to say: cunning, brutal, authoritarian, cruel and merciless. Sadly, these are all human traits. No broken brain is required for them to be present – not even in confluence.