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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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GOOD PEOPLE BEHAVING BADLY

Bad Behavior No Matter What

Roger N. Meyer

Copyright 2004-2005 All Rights Reserved®

 

 

 

[The following post is a modified, later edited version of a response first sent to a listserv specializing in adult Asperger Syndrome issues.  It was sparked by a lively discussion concerning AS adults caught in criminal entanglements, and the rush to their defense of some individuals in the disability support community.]

 

     Over the past couple of weeks, there have been a few posts dealing with AS individuals who have found themselves "on the other side of the law."

 

     Newspapers and the media love sensationalism, and there's nothing quite as juicy as a tie-in between mental health conditions and aberrant behavior.  The only problem in dealing with AS or autism, generally, is that reporters simply don't take the time to become fully informed about the individual's particular flavor of the condition.  Further, in their rush to get the story out, reporters rarely cover background other than what adds to titillation and sensationalism.  Such sloppy but highly focused reporting guarantees readership and returns to the story in search of even more juicy details as a case progresses through the legal system.

 

     None of this has anything to do with public education about autism.  It has all to do with reporters and stringers keeping their jobs, and climbing up the illuminated ladder of journalism through authorship of feature articles masquerading as news stories.  While these articles can be called news, they are far more accurately characterized as further curious bits of titillation for ill-informed readers.

 

     A recent story about a Asperger Syndrome Danish young adult who repeatedly and unlawfully accessed and disabled telephone systems was sympathetically received by a few readers of an adult list serv dedicated to furtherance of partner and family understanding about Asperger Syndrome.  Early responses to the news story revealed more knee jerk sympathy with the perpetrator than with his victims.

 

     More recently, an AS young man, Darius McCollum with a life-long perseveration with the New York Metro subway system was arrested, charged, and convicted of his umpteenth offense of breaking through the security system in the train yards dressed as a Metro employee, with a copy of the ignition key to the trains in his pocket.  This last mistake of his -- multiple acts, really -- took place during a heightened security alert, post 9/11.  Pleas by Asperger Syndrome adult advocates urging leniency or understanding  of his "special condition" directed to public security authorities including Federal Homeland Security officials, fell on deaf ears.  He was sentenced to over three years in state prison -- not his first prison incarceration for related past breaches, one of which involved literally driving a subway train full of passengers through several stops and being caught only as the train did a return turn-around.  He may be eventually released to the custody of his mother in North Carolina, a parent who had basically given up on her son's recalcitrant behavior.  His most recent offenses, according to the New York Times of June 14, 2004, included "'attempted grand larceny, criminal impersonation, possession of stolen property, trespassing and possession of burglar tools.' McCollum has been arrested 20 times before, most daringly as a 15 year-old who took the E train six stops to the World Trade Center.'"

 

     Providing the person has the capacity, it's possible to take someone with normal aberrant behavior, move them towards remediation and acknowledgment of the wrongness of their behavior, rehabilitate them, and ultimately put them to service in the industry they've hacked or harmed.

 

     But here we're dealing with behavior which is truly, and by every public and private test, pathological.

 

     For and with individuals acting in this manner, there is little understanding by the individual himself of the true criminal nature of his behavior.  His compulsive conduct was anything but harmless to others.  Whether obsessive or compulsive or autistic, the results were the same.  In most such cases -- and they are rare-- the individual has been found to be constitutionally incapable of appreciating the consequences of his behavior.  In this man's case, there was a determination by prosecutors as well as mental health professionals that the malefactor is incapable of redemption and must be removed from society because he appears incapable of correcting his course of action, or even appreciating the consequences of what he's done.  McNaughton Rule or no, remember that the other half of the social formula for isolating such individuals from further opportunity to repeat unconscionable conduct is the expression, "Harm to others."

 

     It's easy to spray pity about, like one would take a few squeezes on the atomizer bulb of a room freshener, but folks interested in spreading pity or sanitation around really do themselves little credit, and the perpetrator of these harmful acts much good.  Yes, it leads the sympathizer to a "feel good" experience, but most sympathizers don't have to daily deal with the detritus and wreckage that such individuals leave in their wake.  For the most part, the pity party-goers are latecomers to the game, given to easy tugging of their heartstrings, with little true understanding of the background of individuals on whose behalf they offer the balm of a soft landing in the social blame game department.

 

     To put it neatly, there are pathologues amongst us, just as there are in the general population.  In fact, and taking remarks slightly out of context, Stephen Shore frequently says -- when asked about AS individuals -- what distinguishes us from others, he says that we are just like everyone else, only more so.

 

     While there's humor to this come back, there's also a strong element of truth.  However, there comes a point in behavior where "more so" crosses the line into true pathology.  This is the line not often observed by those offering public exculpatory remarks on the behalf of individuals they neither know nor understand.

 

     One of the reasons I decided to suspend my Social Security practice for a full year was out of concern that my personal feelings about some of my AS clients were becoming far more cynical than warranted by the client's individual situation.  A year earlier, I started to conduct extensive family histories on behalf of my clients, unearthing facts and tidbits about their families of origin on both sides.  The results were astounding.  They explained the client's conduct and extent of impairment.  In many instances, the client didn't know better because the family didn't appear to know or do any better.  Family histories often provided an unflattering picture of multiple acts of wrongdoing, not just of good people behaving badly, but also of bad behavior occurring with such frequency that cause and source began to blur and blend into an explanation about the distant past -- and by extension to the present -- that explained the client's peculiar condition.  I was able to construct arguments convincing to Social Security.  As I became increasingly proficient in proposing the inevitability of the client's impairment, I began to despair about the human condition generally.

 

     As I unearthed family of origin dynamics and delved into multiple generations of AS in my clients' extended families, it became more difficult to remain neutral about the extent to which uncritical, unknowing defenders of their conduct endorsed acts of unspeakable insensitivity invoking Asperger Syndrome as a sole justification for unacceptable behavior towards others.

 

     It was then that I decided to take a year's vacation from my Social Security practice. I needed to regain some sense of balance to my judgment regarding good people behaving badly.  If I were to take up social security cases again, I needed that time to heal my conscience.

 

Danger to oneself and danger to society

 

     These are words that mean many things to many people, but to those who count, those who define danger in real terms by looking at the harm and the true injury and costs of repeated acts of unacceptable behavior, things must have a beginning point and an ending point.  Justice demands conclusive not inconclusive results, and does not tolerate incessant calls to keep the book of judgment open.  Society needs to close the circle, to officially provide opportunities to victims to experience closure.  This is true of victims at many levels, whether they be individuals, or particular industries, or society as a whole.  Civic culture demands that we all concern ourselves about our safety, security, welfare, and the integrity of our own privacy and personal spaces.

 

     When individuals such as the Danish phone hacker or Darius McCollum present themselves in our midst, we at once acknowledge their cleverness, as most of us have fairly unsophisticated feelings (akin to being Luddites) about technology and the individual genius of persons able to defeat it.  But in the case of this hacker, as in the case of the New York Subway perseverant, we hover at the edge of credulity when do-gooders amongst us ask society as a whole to either indulge, or coddle, or, in instances of both perpetrators, urge their employment in the very elements of industry or service they appear to have little if any moral compunctions about continually violating.

 

     That's where rubber meets the road.  It's no longer funny or admirable if safe crackers move after your personal bank accounts or your safety deposit box, or your unlisted telephone number, or your credit card accounts.  Does it truly make a difference to the victim whether or not the perpetrator of multiple acts of boundary violation can form criminal intent, or appreciates the consequences of his behavior?  All persons' desires to assure their personal safety, security and privacy attend to a basic need to be free from threats or harmful acts.

 

     Persons who ritualize violations of individual or collective senses of safety, security and privacy out of their own preservative need to perpetuate a routine for themselves must be isolated and first dealt with as miscreants, not as victims of their own developmental or cognitive shortcomings.

 

     Some individuals can't form criminal intent, even if they repeatedly act in ways that are harmful to others.  Other individuals are deficient in the mechanisms of tying their behavior to the consequences they leave in the wake of their repeated, obsessive and public misconduct.

 

     And for these folks, remediation should be the last thing society looks at, not the first thing.  Just as with the mayhem threatened when you put a dangerous weapon into the hands of a severely impaired person, or the innocent but nonetheless awful consequences of putting dangerous weapons into the hands of infants or children, so, with those of our own utterly incapable of appreciating the calculus of their misbehavior, or weighing the moral probity of their impulses, there is a demand for those injured, first of all, to be acknowledged.

 

     In First Aid, you first divert oncoming traffic around an accident scene.  Then you stop the bleeding.  Then you call the medics.  Finally, once the scene has been cleared, you conduct a thorough post-mortem on the event.  That's the time you look for cause, and in so doing, you also weigh consequences.

 

     Social order demands this.

 

     This the "excusers" rarely do.  In my estimation, their eyes are on the wrong prize.  Not that they are incapable of a more comprehensive perspective, but most folks who first offer sympathy for the offender rarely know the full story of the harm caused by the offender's misconduct.  It's an almost parent-like knee jerk response akin to "defend my kid no matter what."

 

     Sometimes this is a response that's well warranted, especially when there's been little premonition about the person's inclination to act unacceptably.  But where there is knowledge, indulgence, and -- ultimately -- enabling, that's where things have gone seriously off the track.  Based upon a comprehensive social post-mortem, in nearly all cases, there were unmistakable prior warning signs.  Deals and bargains are routinely discovered that have had the effect of keeping the individual out of the limelight.  Such behavior becomes ritualized in families protective of their aberrant members.  Family rituals of denial and enablement continue long beyond the initial event, often leading to protecting the malefactor from the consequences of the increasingly weighty damage of his behavior.

 

     If the individual's family of origin is highly dysfunctional, social institutions designed to protect vulnerable individuals often perpetuate the same denial and enabling further pathological behavior, this time as a matter of public policy, often with official secrecy and confidentiality attached to outrageous individual acts of misconduct that have had widespread public impact.  Applying the bigger public bandage on an open wound may at first appear to be a humane act, but it may also be poor medicine.  It may be just as poor a fix as prior efforts if public caretakers fail to undertake an equal responsibility to guarantee public safekeeping to the society upon whom they eventually unleash charges earlier thrust into their care.

 

     Public outrage against public agencies and institutions demonstrating apparent uncaring policies and practices result in hammerlock calls for zero tolerance policies, mandatory sentencing guidelines, three strikes and you're out, and other Draconian and invariably ineffectual public safety measures.

 

     In the case of the New York subway miscreant, his prior behavior was well documented.  As his tale and his record grew curioser and curioser, each time he was discovered and dealt a modicum of public rebuke, and in each and every prior instance there was no further diminution of the malefactor's conduct.  In fact, after successive periods of incarceration his behavior became increasingly calculated and an even clearer provocation to public authorities concerned about public safety and security from his preservations.  Because he utterly failed to see a connection between his conduct and danger or a sense of danger to others, the ultimate act of charging him for the full consequences -- intended or not -- of his behavior fell upon those the public charges to see to society's sense of safety and security.

 

     Not to individual parents or family members.  Not to sometime sympathetic supporters.  Not to individual clinicians or counselors.

 

     But to the full weight of the law and the criminal justice system.  This time:  the heavy hammer fell, and from the outset, there was little likelihood of a defense of any type of diminished capacity being successful.  Common sense and good legal judgment, even in the hands of a skilled defense attorney, militated against it.  And for good reason.  Such defense wears thin quickly, often leaving those on whose behalf it is successfully argued in worse shape, not better.  Society is no better shape either, nor is the public's already cynical view of the legal profession.

 

     The biggest problem to creating public legends, or contributing to public myth about such eccentric miscreants, is that doing so really does teach those less capable of appreciating the moral consequences of misbehavior a valuable lesson.  When uncritical admiration continues to flow from us, children and adults with less than fully formed senses of justice or morality fail to get the point.

 

     If we don't personally teach the teachable those lessons and remind ourselves of their value, upon whom does society ultimately rely as the arbiter of acceptable conduct?

 

     Certainly not those whose conscience and whose own personal sense of justice and social well being fail to provide a safe example for the least of us.

 

     Our cries of dismay are perceived as cries of "Wolf!"

 

The Asperger Syndrome Defense?

 

     A defense just as likely to suffer the fate of Dan White's "Twinkies Defense."  Dan White was the demented firefighter and former San Francisco City Councilman so unhinged by gay rights that he murdered the mayor of San Francisco and his personal nemesis, Harvey Milk over the mayor's refusal to rescind his impulsive resignation from public office.  White was acquitted by a knee-jerk jury based upon the Twinkies Defense.  Several years after his public exculpation, White took his own life, much more quietly, one may add, than with the fanfare by which he took two others.

 

     Powerless to preserve society against repeated assaults by those amongst us least capable of forming responsible notions of personal accountability, we become ridiculous apologists for equally ridiculous -- and dangerous --conduct.

 

     Let the Twinkies Defense be a lesson to us all:

 

     We reap what we sow.

 

Copyright Issues

 

     This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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