Charley had been in the mental institution for years but the psychiatrists felt he was making progress. One day, Charley rescued a fellow patient who had tried to drown himself in a bathtub. That proved he was cured, and a few days later he was a free man. After he left, one of the nurses commented: “You know, it’s a shame the patient he saved hanged himself later.” And Charley, walking down the street, suddenly stopped short and realized: “You know, I forgot to take that man down after I hung him out to dry.”
Something of this sort happens every time the United States sends diplomats to reason with Kim Jong-il. Before the ink is dry on the joint communique, he’s back pressing the buttons on his Dungeons and Dragons game, equipped with real missiles. He does not understand any law, not even the Law of the Jungle; the Law of Jong-il is about as close as he gets, and that is wavery at best, phantasmagoric at worst. The man is a fruitcake of such density that even Ma Barker would not have sent it out for Christmas. Speaking of which, he’s about three branches and some sap short of a tree, and when someone steps on his missile toe, watch out for the kiss-off!
President Bush reaffirmed this weekend his commitment to the process of diplomacy. A laudable sentiment, except when sent to a mental patient. Kim Jong-il is not competent to conclude a bargain, even with an administration incompetent enough to offer him one. Punchy and paunchy, he lunches and launches while we sit hunched on our haunches.
What a to-do! What to do?
LET US LEAVE that question for the nonce. Today’s subject is moral and psychological. Namely, whether insane monsters of the Jong-il ilk are responsible agents who can be held in scorn for their actions. Or are they beneath contempt, literally, because there is not enough there there for us to remonstrate more harshly than “There, there”?
We all grew up hearing, then saying, that Hitler was a madman. Stories of his raving, raging frenzies abounded, describing such scenes as his lying full-length on the floor, punching, biting and clawing at the carpet. Should we then assume that he is not roasting in perduring perdition, that some lawyer in Hell got him off for diminished capacity? Is he up there in the big group therapy session in the sky, explaining that he associated Jews with the spiders that were crawling up his body?
There is an important principle that needs to be enunciated, then internalized. The type of insanity that these individuals “suffer” from is self-imposed and self-created. It is the product of their evil rather than its cause.
The person is an entity, or an essence, that must be trained to operate within certain limits. Trained first by parents and teachers, then by one’s own intellect and conscience; the limits on behavior become habituated through practiced restraint. These limits can be dictated by various elements, usually in combination. Elements such as a religious and/or intellectual moral standard, social mores, the law of the land, loyalty to friends, parents, siblings and spouses, parental obligations to children, rules and requirements of a military unit or workplace, and rational self-interest — both short and long-term.
As goodness and rightness require limits, so too sanity. What we describe as sanity is a healthy recognition of the limits of the physically possible, as well as the bounds of the socially appropriate. It is the incorporation of a blend of realism and respect for convention into the consciousness. Consequently, when a personality surrenders to the call of pure evil, there is a violation of normalcy as well as of virtue.
In my own life I knew a few people who went insane. Some could not balance the expectations of society with the limits of their abilities. Others were victims of abuse, who lost the sense of security provided by observing their limits because others were crossing the line into their territory. Still others had become paralyzed by a sense that the limits kept collapsing in on them and shrinking their options, until their only escape was to throw off the yoke of civility.
The Hitlers and Kim Jong-ils become crazy because they live in a world without the word “No.” Any impulse to receive pleasure or inflict pain is a chip that can be cashed in immediately. Kim Jong-il plucks mistresses out of his society at will, with thirteen known illegitimate children. He can, and does, torture and kill anyone who is causing him the slightest irritation. There are no limits to his power, and having allowed himself full rein of the immoral options, he has taken himself to a radical place within human experience that segues from pure evil directly into insanity.
Full responsibility attends to such insanity, for its owner has purchased it by persistent erosions of the line that separates good from bad, that very line which at some point separates sane from mad.