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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Society

The Devil Made Me Do It

Freedom, responsibility, and the media

by Thomas M. Sipos

On December 7, 1982, Richard Delmer Boyer of El Monte murdered an elderly Fullerton couple, stabbing Francis Harbitz 24 times, and Harbitz’s wife, Aileen, 19 times. During his trial, Boyer blamed his actions on drugs and horror films. In addition to consuming whiskey, speed, marijuana, and cocaine on the day of the murders, he said that while visiting the Harbitz's (his employers), he'd experienced, he said, an LSD flashback of the horror movie Halloween 2, rendering him unable to distinguish between reality and the slasher film.

Boyer was convicted in 1984 and again in 1992 (the first conviction having been overturned on appeal).

Boyer's excuse continued a long tradition of Americans blaming the media in court when called to account for their actions. In 1928, Robert Williams killed his maid, saying he'd been possessed by a vision of horror actor Lon Chaney from London After Midnight. More recently, after the 1999 Columbine massacre, some of the victims' families sued Time Warner, Palm Pictures, and 11 videogame makers, claiming that The Basketball Diaries and the videogames Doom, Duke Nukem, and Redneck Rampage contributed to bringing on Harris and Klebold's school shootings.

The Basketball Diaries, the videogames Quake, Doom, and Castle Wolfenstein, and porn websites were also blamed for a less famous 1997 school shooting by gunman Michael Carneal.

Blaming the media rarely works in court, but blaming Hollywood is no less rational than other "devil made me do it" defenses, whether the devil takes the form of drugs, guns, or psychological "syndromes." It's not that the devil in question hasn't influenced or facilitated the violent crime. It's that . . . so what?

Actually, media products---like drugs and guns and cars and much else---probably can kill. Advertisers spend tens of billions yearly in their belief that their 30 second ads will influence our behavior. Activists present media awards for positive plugs. Minority groups monitor the media to discourage negative portrayals of their constituents.

Clearly, everyone understands that media products influence behavior, so it's disingenuous for media executives or performers to whine, "Hey, if you don't like it, just change the channel!" They only believe that until it's their pet group that's being gored.

The issue is not whether the media affect behavior; they obviously do. The real issue is liberty, and what goes with it. There is a flip side to the claim that individuals have a right to consume whatever media---and ingest whatever drugs, and possess whatever firearms---they wish. The flip side is responsibility. Rapists and murderers should not be permitted to blame porn sites or slasher films or guns or psychological "syndromes" for their violent crimes, even if these elements were used before or during the commission of the crime.

It would be silly, after all, to ban horror films just because Boyer claims to have thought that he was reenacting Halloween 2, or to ban cars because Texas housewife Clara Harris intentionally ran down and killed her husband. Nor does it make sense to ban otherwise useful items such as drugs or guns just because some individuals misuse them.

Rosie O'Donnell disagrees. She has said that if banning guns "saves even one life" it'd be worth it. Yet banning all cars (emergency vehicles excepted) would result in vastly more lives saved---but at what cost to liberty?

Unfortunately, Americans increasingly shun responsibility. We demand freedom, but when some of us misuse these freedoms, we are quick to blame drugs (legal and illegal), guns, postpartum depression (Andrea Yates's excuse for murdering her children), videogames, porn sites, slasher films, Adopted Child Syndrome, Chronic Lateness Syndrome, UFO Survivor Syndrome (I'm not making those up; visit here for dozens of "syndromes" used in American courtrooms so far), anything to evade blame.

Even victims and their families often pretend to accept criminals' ridiculous excuses, so that they can seek deeper pockets in the ensuing lawsuits. Lawyers and therapists likewise support this nonsense, the latter earning money as "expert witnesses" and scribblers of the next trend in psychobabble books. Worst of all, government is quick to intervene, eroding our freedoms in order to ban or regulate something else for the "safety of the children."

If we are to preserve our liberty, if we are to prevent government from transforming our society into a padded playpen for adults, where bad things are confiscated by the teacher and no child is punished for being bad, then we must demand that everyone take responsibility for their actions.

If the devil is omnipresent, if people are weak and prone to syndromes and easily forced by Satan to do bad things, then it follows that the state must be likewise omnipresent to protect us weak mortals. Conversely, if people do have free will, if we are ultimately free to choose the best course within the limits of our circumstances, then we can be trusted with grown-up things. The key is to hold individuals responsible when they do wrong, regardless of their ingenuity in creating excuses for listening to the worse angels of their nature. •

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