In New York City a man has been convicted of conspiring to kidnap and could be sentenced to life imprisonment. He did not in fact kidnap or hurt anyone, but did type extensively about his desire to do so. It is conceivable that this 28-year old man could spend the rest of his life in prison for having creepy thoughts. This in a land in which people who’ve been convicted of actual crimes serve their time and are released. What in the world does it mean for thoughts to be illegal?
Was the fact that this man a N.Y. police officer too emotionally charged for the jury? Was the jury swayed by the graphic nature of the defendant’s writing? Was the fact that the writing occurred in cyberspace perceived as more threatening than a handwritten journal? Was it that the defendant engaged with other typists in these fantastical plans? Something must have clouded the jury’s vision to render such a verdict. Is there reason to be concerned about the judgement of this police officer? Absolutely, but that’s a personnel issue, no? Were the messages so convincing that the jury was concerned about imminent danger? Perhaps, but that is why probation, monitoring and court mandated treatment were invented.
By equating thought with action we set a dangerous precedent. What does this mean for all crime writers for example? What does it mean for anyone who’s ever put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard)? And what of those who engage with the dangerous writing? Are book clubs or theatre audiences aiding and abetting these dark thinkers? While no one will ever confuse Sweeney Todd with the contents of a chat room, the overarching premise is the same. The fact that the chatting, posting, emailing and texting wasn’t particularly well written or the least bit musically engaging doesn’t mean it wasn’t an exercise in creative writing. Creative writing by a man of questionable mental health of course.
But questionable mental health is not a crime. Do we want people with questionable mental health to be carrying a gun and be charged with protecting people? No. Do we want real and meaningful treatment for those who are not entirely well and who harbor violent thoughts? Without a doubt. Imprisoning (for any length of time) because of mentally illness is a black eye for us all. It is an ugly bruise of a reminder of how inept and misguided we are in matters of mental health.