Friday, 23 May 2008

It’s OK - he’s not evil, he’s just mad

The police reaction to the apparent attempt by Nicky Reilly, said to be a convert to Islam, to explode a bomb or bombs in Exeter is clearly meant to calm public fears. “It’s OK,” seems to be the message, “Because this is a man with a ‘history of mental illness.’”

So it was the work of a madman. Nothing to worry about there, then.

Personally, I’m not quite as reassured as I’m clearly meant to be. The real issue here is whether, as the police are suggesting it, ideas were planted in Mr Reilly’s head not by his ‘madness’ but by people who want to bomb family restaurants in cities across the country.

I would further be interested to know the nature of Mr Reilly’s ‘historic’ mental illness. Has he been treated for schizophrenia or depression? Either is very unpleasant, but whereas the former involves a detachment from reality, the latter is more an exaggerated, but normal, reaction to real life — and is, moreover, very common. In other words, Mr Reilly may not be what we would popularly characterize as ‘mad’, but actually completely sane.

The myth that suicide bombers (of any stripe, Muslim, Tamil, Bushido, etc) are ‘mad’ is the way people who don’t understand their motivation try to protect themselves from the unpalatable truth. ‘Madmen’ who want to take over the world are actually far less frightening than entirely sane people who want to do the same (unless wanting to take over the world is seen as definitive of madness).

The bottom line, though, is that when it comes to evil ambition we’re all a bit ‘mad’ that way. I remember vividly a conversation with the Australian artist, George Gittoes, who was actually present with an Australian Defence Forces medical team at the Kibeho camp during the Rwandan massacres. What he saw there, and depicted subsequently in his paintings, would make any ‘sane’ person plead for the God of heaven to come down in wrath and burn up the evildoers.

What I can’t forget, though, is his observation that both those who were massacred and those doing the massacring went to church that morning.

George Gittoes is a remarkable man (and slightly scary), not least because he is a man of faith. (He once painted the Dalai Lama’s portrait, at his request, and said it was very strange trying to hold a conversation on spiritual matters with a religious leader who doesn’t believe in God.) Most remarkable of all, though, is his ability to see goodness in situations where most of us would despair of God’s existence at all: the preacher, bringing comfort to those about to be killed, as he himself undoubtedly was; the badly injured woman who carried the wounded to the first-aid post until she died.

The point is, any one of us could be any one of those people. We could be the person who hid in the camp cess-pit (the ‘shitter’ as George called it), driven literally mad with fear. We could be the army commander who oversaw the massacre but ‘allowed’ the Australian medics (armed only with a few rifles) to treat anyone who wasn’t actually left dead. We could be the men with the machetes. We could be the victims, or the medical team. Press the right (or wrong) buttons, and you get out the most astonishing good, or the purest evil.

I’m not sure where this is taking me, except to reflect once again on how little we care to think about reality. Much better that we should be threatened by madmen than the sane. Let nothing disturb us, so we can sit in front of the TV watching ‘reality TV’ (an oxymoron of the first order), like ‘I’d do anything’, and wondering desperately who will be the next Nancy. At least we’re not hurting anyone else. But then we’re not exactly reflecting the image of God, either, I think.

The other thing, I suppose, is that salvation is not a ‘bonus prize’ awarded to those who aren’t the ‘evil’ people exploiting the poor or using up the world’s oil. Inside each of us is something that we really would rather not see. Salvation is not just to fullness of life, it is from our own sinfulness, which is held in check by our veneer of civilization, but which, given the opportunity, would result in something that would make ‘madness’ the best excuse we could offer.

Revd John P Richardson
23 May 2008

PS George Gittoes allowed me free use of ‘The Preacher’ on the front of my book, Revelation Unwrapped. He has never asked a penny in return and got quite cross when I tried to offer him some!

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1 comment:

  1. I gather that he has Asperger's syndrome and a mental age of 10, which by themselves may mean a certain detachment from reality, and there also appears to be a history of suspected schizophrenia.

    Unfortunately, religious extremists do have a habit of preying on the vulnerable.

    Mike Homfray