Friday, 31 July 2009

First they came for the communists...

Autism seems like a hot potato in the news at the moment...or maybe it isn't and I'm just noticing it more because I'm looking for it more. Mainly we have the case of Gary McKinnon...a "computer geek" with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) who got caught hacking the computers of the American government and, upon realising the crime carries 70 years in jail, is grasping at any straw that is floating by; grabbing at the doorframe in a last desperate attempt to extend his time by any moments he can muster. If I'm honest I'd do the same, and so would you. If I was facing 70 years in an American jail I'd put underpants on my head and pencils up my nose if I thought it would save me.

Now don't get me wrong, the intended punishment far outstrips the crime and it does seem like the Americans want to make an example. Even ignoring the AS angle, I'd still support any effort to see him tried and punished in the UK. As much as I think the Americans are looking to make an example, I also think Team McKinnon is deliberately misrepresenting the AS side of this story to make him more a victim than he actually is as an attempt to get an eleventh hour pardon.

Trans-Atlantic chess aside, the main issue here is to what extent should people with AS be excused from their actions? Or shielded from the consequences? To what extent does having AS mitigate the seriousness of your behaviour? Ok…Gary might have had an obsession…a compulsion…to investigate UFO activity - but he still knows right from wrong. He's autistic, not psychotic.

Whatever way you look at it and whatever side of the fence you're on it's an interesting case. This one is slightly more worrying though;

Men guilty of parents murder plot

"They said Monks [who sought to have his parents killed] suffered from an autism spectrum disorder and had difficulty in separating fantasy from reality."

"Professor Digby Tantam, a consultant psychiatrist and autism expert, said he believed the defendant had an autistic spectrum disorder which could impair his understanding on the outcome of actions and the feelings of others."

I'll say it again…autistic, not psychotic.

As these stories come out and people look to their autism to excuse their behaviour is the tide of human opinion going to ebb further out from us? Are we going to end up being seen in the same light as un-treated schizophrenics, turfed out to kill in the community in the name of care in the community? Are we slowly being turned into the new bogeymen? Will mothers hurry their children inside and slam the window shutters when they see us coming? How long before we've overtaken the paedophiles? How long until Jonathan King is blogging about how vile we are?

If people keep misrepresenting autism as a defence against criminal behaviour then that's a two-way street; the public will start to believe it. So is the autistic community digging its own mass grave? By siding with the likes of Gary McKinnon instead of saying "I have sympathy for Gary, but autism is no excuse, if you break the law you should be punished" we're all jumping in the handcart and it's slowly rolling down the hill, but fast gathering momentum.


Catana said...

I fully agree with you. For those defending autism as a condition, sympathy seems to win out over common sense. For those looking for any way to avoid punishing someone for a crime, any excuse will do, including making a condition seem to be something it isn't. A psychiatrist who is supposedly an autism expert has no justification for saying that sutism makes it more difficult to distinguish fantasy from reality. Autism advocates don't need that kind of "expert."

LivingLifeBackwards said...

As an American I say he needs to be charged in American court or the UK can & America should come to some sort of agreement on what the punishment should be. 70 years is ridiculous and he will never spend that amount of time. What they should do is offer the man a job.

AMEN-- Autistic, not psychotic.

Anonymous said...

He should not be tried in an American court because the U.S. does not have the presumption of innocence, in practice. They also tried to spring on him a dirty trick, telling him that if he admitted to charges he would get a reduced sentence - then they refused to put that in writing. There are millions of things wrong with the U.S. court system, and for that reason there ought not to be an extradition. They are infamous for piling on charges and making false claims in order to get people to confess in a bid to get out of eternal prison time... why on TV there was the story of the con artist with the fake sniffer dog who successfully had people put away forever for murder - and he was never punished. This is not the only such case... there are people still alive who fabricated evidence who are never punished for that. Prosecutors were also caught in Florida promising less prison time in return for testifying against people they didn't even know...

As for AS, there is one relevant fact here and it's that of the guilty mind and the intention. That is, it helps establish that entering the computers was not done as an attack on the United States or to gain information to help its adversaries or to scam anyone...

I somehow get the feeling that had McKinnon claimed that he entered the computers for Israel to send it secrets that he would get more sympathy from the American authorities and the British ones as well.

AS-4-L said...

The concept of the guilty mind ("mens rea") is related to the act itself rather than what he intended to do with the "proceeds" of the act. The fact that he had to deliberately circumvent computer security, something he knew was wrong to do and knew was illegal, establishes mens rea. The fact that he was looking for UFO info and not state secrets to sell to China doesn't bare much relevance.

I suppose the ultimate irony in all of this is that there were no crashed UFOs at Roswell, no captured alien technology so in a way it was all for nothing.