Murderers are pretty adept at finding excuses for themselves and also at blaming others. For example, on learning that her father had just died from the stab wound that she had inflicted upon him, a female parricide of my acquaintance exclaimed, “How could he do this to me!” It was as if, in dying, he were being supremely selfish and deliberately trying to mess up her life. She seemed to think that her father might not have bled so torrentially had he tried just a little harder not to do so after she stabbed him in the spleen.

The argument advanced by Richard Jasper, defense attorney for Lemrick Nelson, on trial for having violated Yankel Rosenbaum’s civil rights, is scarcely more creditable from the moral point of view, though it is no doubt legally plausible. Nelson stabbed Rosenbaum to death during the infamous 1991 Crown Heights riots but originally proclaimed his total innocence of the crime. A jury acquitted him, against all the evidence, for reasons of racial solidarity. Indeed, members of the jury later openly celebrated with him after his dishonest acquittal. However, the verdict was so perverse that it caused understandable outrage in New York, and federal officials later charged Nelson with violating Rosenbaum’s federally protected civil rights.

Nelson can be convicted of having violated those rights only if he murdered Rosenbaum from a racial motive—in other words, because Rosenbaum was an Orthodox Jew. If he killed him for any other reason, he is not guilty of the civil rights violation with which he is now charged. Now that he can no longer be tried for murder, Nelson has calmly admitted to what he denied for years—that he did, in fact, stab Rosenbaum to death. But Nelson’s lawyer has argued that his client killed not for racial reasons but only because “he was swept up in an angry mob after drinking 40 ounce bottles of beer all day.”

Of course, if drunkenness and membership in an angry mob count as defenses against breaking the law, surely the law must be a very foolish one. But the lawyer’s argument—contradicted by other testimony, which suggests that Nelson was perfectly sober—is interesting for what it tells us about modern theories of human action. After all, the lawyer wouldn’t have used it unless he thought it had prima facie plausibility for the jury. Nelson, it seems, was mere flotsam bobbing helplessly on a vast ocean, whose violent movements were beyond his control. Nor was he even responsible for joining the mob in the first place. He didn’t join it; he was carried away in, or by, it.

Of course, every other member of the angry mob could claim the same. Thus the actions of the angry mob were entirely without human agency, and no member of the mob was responsible for anything the mob actually did. We seem to have forgotten that willingly to consort with evil is itself an evil act.

As for drunkenness, even if Nelson were in fact drunk at the time he murdered Rosenbaum, it should be viewed as an aggravating, not a mitigating, circumstance. It was Aristotle who said that a man who committed a crime because of intoxication was doubly guilty: both of the crime itself and of bringing about his loss of self-control. A world in which having been a drunken member of an angry mob can protect against the legal consequences of murder, or indeed of anything else, is one in which we all have reason to feel profound unease.

By now, Lemrick Nelson—a man caught holding the knife used to stab Rosenbaum, identified by the victim before he died as the attacker, and placed by witnesses in a crowd of young blacks baying “Get the Jew” at the victim before the killing—probably believes that for someone in a state of drunken excitement to stab another person to death is to be just as innocent of murder as someone who stabs no one to death. It wasn’t me: it was the beer and the people I was with.

Here moral irresponsibility hits bottom.


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