Just when was it that so many of us became so heartless? Where did we slip across the line and take up with a hard-bitten contempt for our erring brothers and sisters?
Two current cases illustrate — Andrea Yates' trial for drowning her five little children and 15-year-old Charles Bishop's bizarre aerial suicide.
In Yates' case, the defense is preparing to argue that the mother was suffering post-partum psychosis. In Bishop's case, there is a nagging suspicion that the acne drug Accutane might be implicated. Its maker argues forcefully otherwise, but the medication has long been suspected of producing depression and suicidal impulses in a rare few of its users.
Both claims have set off what have become, by now, the usual sneers and ridicule: Invoking mental illness and drug side-effects is just more trendy blather and cry-babying, gimmicked up by the soft-headed to excuse crime, alibi evil and exempt plainly bad people from taking responsibility for their actions.
Well, maybe. We remember, with a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, the silly Twinkie defense, which sought to blame a homicide on a sugar overload. Please.
It doesn't follow, though, that every effort to understand grave misbehaviors is an effort to dismiss them.
Shouldn't the very incomprehensibility of Yates' act stand as presumptive evidence that the woman was deeply ill? She had been treated repeatedly for the problem. There is a clear case history. Science knows that the fairly common post-partum "blues" can, in some, deteriorate into full psychosis.
We are misled here, and in many criminal cases, by the law's stubborn refusal to give up the simple, indeed simple-minded, standard that insanity is measured solely by an inability to know the difference between right and wrong. That's 19th century thinking and not even enlightened 19th century thinking at that.
In fact, people can know that difference and still be compelled by their illness to act contrary to it.
Bishop serves up another puzzler. OK, maybe he was just a bad kid all along, with evil up his sleeve. But in fact, by most testimony, he was an accomplished youth, pleasant and patriotic in a routine sort of way.
One day, bam, he declares for Osama bin Laden, steals a plane and flies it into a building. There is a glib comfort in supposing, as many noisily do, that he got what was coming to him, but, alternatively, why not pause, wonder about the sudden change in him and at least toy with the idea that the loss of a promising young life might be attributable to something other than its own perversity?
(Another case in point: the clamor to rush Taliban grunt John Walker before a firing squad skips the old-fashioned bother of first finding out what he actually did in a war that he signed up for before America even entered it.)
At the end, yes, we are all responsible for our own acts, but some among us are acting out of dark drives that we did not seek, do not want and can't shake.
The rush to condemn tramples the chance to understand.
Tom Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers, who is based in Atlanta. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.