So, was J.D. Salinger to blame for the murder of John Lennon?
It’s an absurd question, on the face of it: of course he wasn’t. But as Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s killer, stood waiting to fire the fatal bullets, he had a copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye on his person, and cited it later as the inspiration for his crime:
At some point, Chapman became obsessed with The Catcher in the Rye after rereading it for the first time since high school. He was particularly influenced by protagonist Holden Caulfield’s polemics against “phoniness” in society, and the need to protect people, especially children. He was holding a copy of the book when he murdered Lennon, in which he had written “This is my statement.” After his arrest, he wrote a letter to the media urging everyone to read the “extraordinary book” that may “help many to understand what has happened.” When asked if he wanted to address the court at his sentencing, Chapman read a passage from The Catcher in the Rye that describes Holden Caulfield’s fantasy of being on the edge of a cliff and having to catch all children from falling. A psychiatrist at the sentencing, Daniel W. Schwartz, said that Chapman wanted to kill Lennon because he viewed him as a “phony.” Chapman later said that he thought the murder would turn him into a Holden Caulfield, a “quasi-savior” and “guardian angel.”
I’m not sure whether there has ever been a case of a book being implicated so explicitly in a murder. And yet there is little doubt that Salinger was innocent of all wrongdoing. For Chapman to have connected the dots—to have gone from Salinger’s depiction of a troubled teenager adrift in Manhattan, who rails against “phonies” and who wants to protect children from growing up and losing their innocence, to murder—required a special disorder of the mind that for the sake of brevity we’ll call madness but that we really don’t understand very well. Let’s just say there was no logical connection between Salinger’s work and Chapman’s behavior, except in Chapman’s own disordered psyche.
Salinger’s lack of culpability is clear, because the connection between his book and Chapman’s act was so obviously tenuous. But what of political violence, such as the acts of Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator in Oslo and on Utoya? Is it any surprise that many on the left have blamed the right—and especially some bloggers on the right whose works Breivik quoted approvingly in his magnum opus manifesto—for inspiring Breivik to commit his heinous and cold-blooded murders?
But rational discussions of a problem, or its artistic treatment—whether the subject be some negative consequences of the influx of immigrants to European countries, the moral questions involved in abortion, or the interface between adolescent angst and phonies in the New York of the 1940s—are not responsible for causing violence to be committed in their name. Twisted minds are responsible for doing that—although calls for violence can exacerbate those twisted minds. But the bloggers’ critics are not accusing them of explicit calls for violence, although that is the distinguishing factor that would lead to some form of responsibility. In fact, those bloggers have explicitly condemned Breivik’s violence and its ilk.
And what of Islamicist terrorism? Is Islam itself to blame for those acts, or all Muslims? No. Even if Islam is a religion that contains elements which modern western culture abhors, such as restrictions on the freedom of women, it is not automatically culpable for violence committed in its name. But a religion would bear some culpability for such acts to the extent that it dictates violence, as would those adherents who advocate violence to further the Islamicist cause—especially clerics who explicitly call for war against the infidel in the name of the deity, and who glorify the martyrdom of those who wage it—almost as responsible as those who recruit, supply, and train terrorists. And, unfortunately, in some portions of the Muslim world, such actions have become all too common.
As more facts emerge about the Oslo killer, the closest parallels to Breivik’s act appear to have been two Americans. The first is Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (from whom Breivik cribbed a significant portion of his manifesto), and the second is abolitionist John Brown of Harper’s Ferry infamy. John Brown was a fanatic who took a good cause and turned it into a justification for murder; Kaczynski took a cause that was at least arguably well-intentioned and turned did likewise, although Brown had followers and Kaczynski was a loner. In both cases, as with Breivik, they thought their acts would inspire others to do the same. They were both mistaken. The consensus of opinion is that they both were somewhat unbalanced, and had became untethered from the views of more moderate advocates of their causes, although they were still capable of logical thought and organized action. That seems to be the case for Breivik, as well.
But being unbalanced is not at all the same as having diminished criminal responsibility. That defense should be reserved for someone with a history of full-blown schizophrenia or some other profound psychosis that dictated his or her crime, the old “I heard voices that told me to do it.” But the “voices” cannot be those of bloggers such as Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller, nor Gates of Vienna (nor of classical liberal John Stuart Mill, whom Breivik also quoted approvingly). And, unless new information comes to light that indicates psychosis of this type, Breivik should bear the full and complete responsibility for his acts. He, and he alone, hatched his plans for years in the secrecy of his mind and heart, and executed them with his own hands.