When human rights activist Terry Waite spoke recently in support of Gary McKinnon, the noted Pentagon hacker, it made quite a stir. Waite is a former Beirut hostage, imprisoned for four years in Lebanon in the 1980s. Waite told the press that the U.S. should thank McKinnon for “exposing the fragility” of the Pentagon’s computer system.
Waite does not condone McKinnon’s illegal Internet activity. However, he does believe that McKinnon should not be held to the same standards as other international criminals because he suffers from the developmental disorder Asperger Syndrome. Other celebrities and legal experts also have announced their backing of McKinnon, but Waite’s statements have more emotional appeal, considering the personal trauma he endured as a hostage.
Should McKinnon, a UK citizen, be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial for his crimes against the American government? If so, should the U.S. government consider his diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome a mitigating factor? I am not a legal expert and certainly not a celebrity. I am an American psychologist who treats individuals and families with Asperger Syndrome. The fate of Gary McKinnon could change the way Asperger Syndrome is treated all over the world. I for one am not sure anyone fully grasps the depth of the problems when a mental disorder becomes a political issue. Gary McKinnon is just one man fighting for his freedom, but in the process thousands of people with Asperger Syndrome and their families will be judged.
Eminent Psychologist Says Hacker Has a Disability
Asperger Syndrome is not a mental illness per se, but a developmental disorder on the Autism Spectrum. In fact McKinnon was diagnosed by Cambridge Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a well-known expert on adult Asperger Syndrome. Along with Terry Waite, Baron-Cohen believes that McKinnon should not be treated as an ordinary criminal but as someone with a disability.
According to Professor Baron-Cohen, McKinnon is obsessed with finding the truth, which is why he penetrated the NASA and U.S. military computer systems in search of information on extraterrestrials. McKinnon believed that information on UFO technology was being suppressed by the U.S. government. Furthermore, he claims to have found proof.
This obsession with the truth is taken to an extreme by those with Asperger Syndrome because they have a characteristic called “mind blindness,” according to Baron-Cohen. “Mind blindness” is a complex theory, but in a nutshell McKinnon’s “mind blindness” prevented him from fully understanding the social consequences of his actions, in spite of his obvious intellectual giftedness.
Is McKinnon a cyber-terrorist?
So who did Gary McKinnon hurt by his actions? There are some estimates that it cost the U.S. government $700,000 to track him down, not to mention the hundreds of thousands being spent to litigate the case. Certainly he embarrassed NASA and the Pentagon by using simple hacker tools, including a dial-up modem and software that generates passwords. But are there other injuries? I can only imagine that others followed Mr. McKinnon through the portals he created. In fact, he openly admits to watching other hackers at work during his “research.” Were these others just as obsessed with the truth as McKinnon, or did they have other motives? Not everyone hacking into the Pentagon computers is interested in extraterrestrials. There are undoubtedly many innocent lives at stake as a result of this type of cyber-crime.
Cyber-crime is a new frontier that is baffling local policing authorities, not just the CIA and FBI. I have had a personal experience with this phenomenon that is more than unnerving. I received a string of anonymous and threatening emails over a two-year span from a stalker who claimed he wanted to expose the truth too (just like Gary McKinnon). He said he was watching me, had been to my house, determined that my daughter was a “retard,” and that we both deserved to be driven from the community . . . because he considered me a “liar” and a “roach.” Needless to say I was frightened and sought protection from the local police for myself and my family.
I don’t know if my personal stalker has Asperger Syndrome. When he was finally tracked down and identified he admitted that he was angry with me for prevailing in a lawsuit his grandmother had filed against me. He told the police that his actions were perfectly justified, which sounds pretty obsessed to me. The city prosecutor was not impressed by the stalker’s logic and determined that he was guilty of cyber-stalking and sentenced him to a year of diversion, fines and anger management therapy.
Is Gary McKinnon’s hacking somehow less dangerous than my private stalker? My stalker was certainly obsessed with me (and is still on a mission to prove the “truth”), so does that mean if a person is obsessed they are disabled and shouldn’t be tried for the crime? Dr. Baron-Cohen suggests leniency since McKinnon is “disabled.” Terry Waite suggests that the end justifies the means since McKinnon’s hacking exposed the frailty of U.S. security. With this logic I suppose this means that some stalking is OK and other stalking is not, but who decides — the stalker?
Should Asperger Syndrome Be Used as a Defense?
There are those in the Asperger community who suggest that Asperger Syndrome should not be considered a psychiatric diagnosis at all. Using the term “neurodiversity” they assert that Asperger Syndrome, although atypical, is a normal human difference. Individuals with Asperger Syndrome should be respected for their differences according to these advocates.
So where does that leave Gary McKinnon and his obsession? According to the neurodiversity model, Mr. McKinnon should be treated as any other cyber-terrorist. (I presume the other side of being respected for being different is being responsible for one’s actions.) Under the extradition treaty between the U.S. and the UK, he should be extradited to the U.S. and stand trial for the crimes he committed. And if found guilty, I presume the judge and jury would determine a punishment that suits the severity of the crime, even prison. However, even if Asperger Syndrome is used as a mitigating factor, what are those mitigating circumstances? If he was obsessed and didn’t fully comprehend the social consequences of his actions, didn’t he still commit a crime? Didn’t he still harm people?
Another question that comes to mind is whether prison will rehabilitate Mr. McKinnon. Whether he has a developmental disorder or is just a little different than the norm group, won’t he be the same computer hacker he was before he went to prison, still unable to fathom the social world?
The tragedy of allowing the justice system to make judgments about a mental disorder really came home to me when I recently treated a young man with Asperger Syndrome for a brief time, before he was arrested, tried and imprisoned. His life has been a series of unimaginable bad luck as a result of living on the edge of society. He has never been able to secure full-time employment because of his poor interpersonal skills and “mind blindness.” He was alienated from his family years before he was arrested. He lived alone in a small dingy apartment, friendless and trying to survive on a very limited income. His only crime was befriending a young teenage boy who complained of abuse by his parents. The teen’s parents retaliated by accusing the man of molesting the boy. Although this man passed the polygraph and tests for pedophilia, he was convicted and sent to prison anyway because the court psychologist reported he had “no remorse.”
First of all, it is hard to have remorse for a crime you didn’t commit. Secondly, a classic characteristic of Asperger Syndrome is the inability to convey one’s feelings to others. No doubt this man was depressed and frightened, but all he could do was sit motionless in the examining psychologist’s office. Now he sits in prison.
Does McKinnon Need a Doctor or Prison?
I wish I could tell you that I had the answers to this dilemma. I do believe that Asperger Syndrome is a developmental disorder, worthy of diagnosis and treatment. There is a lot of suffering among those in this population, including their loved ones. And there are psychological treatments that alleviate some of this suffering, with inspiring new research breaking ground daily. So I would hate to see people continue to suffer simply because this diagnosis is part of a political debate.
Likewise it is just too simple to turn over to the justice system an individual who is disabled by the peculiarities of Asperger Syndrome. Gary McKinnon did commit a crime. He has publicly admitted to everything, though he didn’t come forward until he was caught. He engaged in subterfuge to hide his identity, so he was capable of comprehending that what he was doing was wrong, or at the very least could get him caught. Yet he persisted to engage in those actions because he was obsessed beyond common sense, a classic characteristic of Asperger Syndrome. Like Howard Hughes (who some suggest had Asperger Syndrome) in his obsessive search for ever more efficient airplanes, McKinnon was determined to uncover the truth — that the U.S. military is holding out evidence of anti-gravity propulsion systems. Would an ordinary person risk going to prison over UFOs?
The bottom line is intention. If the news stories are accurate McKinnon did not set out to harm anyone. Neither did my unfortunate client, and he is hardly a threat to anyone. So the legal experts need to determine how to protect the citizenry from people who commit crimes, whether intended or not, and whether people like Gary McKinnon are really a threat to society. And the mental health experts need to determine how to successfully treat those with Asperger Syndrome. But what do you do when these two worlds collide?
Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist in the “antipsychiatry” movement, wrote an article in 1960 entitled “The Myth of Mental Illness,” wherein he proposes that it is dangerous to make mental health care a political issue. You can only imagine the ramifications if the government controls who is mentally fit. According to Szasz’s controversial view, Gary McKinnon needs a doctor and he should be held accountable for his actions, regardless of whether he fully understood the outcome or was obsessed with his mission. And at the other end of this continuum, if mental health care and the justice system were separate, as they should be, my young client would not be in prison for the non-crime of having poor interpersonal skills.
Baron-Cohen, Simon and Frith, Leslie (1985). “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?” Cognition 21 (1): 37–46.
Espiner, Tom. (March 17, 2009). “Terry Waite speaks for NASA hacker.” CNET News: http://news.cnet.com
Hancock, Simon. (March 2009). “Clock ticking for hacker McKinnon.” BBC News.
Seidel, Kathleen. www.neurodiversity.com
Szasz, Thomas. (1960, February). “The Myth of Mental Illness.” American Psychologist 21, 113-118.
Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and author of the recently released book, Life with a partner or spouse with Asperger Syndrome: GOING OVER THE EDGE? (2009, Autism Asperger Publishing Co., USA). Dr. Marshack was also recently interviewed by USA Today on the subject of adults with Asperger Syndrome. Visit her website at www.kmarshack.com.
Marshack, K. (2009). Obsessed: Should a Computer Hacker with Asperger Syndrome Go to Prison?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 24, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/obsessed-should-a-computer-hacker-with-asperger-syndrome-go-to-prison/0002111
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Jan 2013
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