Express Line Rage

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a woman pushed her grocery cart into the store's express line -- nothing unusual about that. But the problem was she had more items than she was supposed to have -- only one extra item, but that was enough to infuriate the woman in line behind her.   The two customers had words. Out in the parking lot, they had a few more. And then, Customer Number Two -- who has a long criminal record -- lost it. She allegedly grabbed Customer Number One by the hair and beat her senseless.   On a radio talk show, the host referred to the incident as "Express Line Rage." Some callers actually applauded the attacker. Now, I'll be the first to admit that shoppers who abuse express lines are incredibly rude, but that's no excuse for beating people up.   Unbelievably, some people, however, want to provide an excuse. They want us to believe that people who lose their tempers are not obnoxious or criminal -- they're just (sadly) sick.   Examples of this trend are everywhere. For instance, a few years ago a psychologist told Congress that road rage is a "certifiable mental illness" -- one from which more than half of all Americans suffer. And last year, a journal called Monitor on Psychology wrote about "counterproductive workplace behavior" -- otherwise known as "desk" rage. If you've ever pounded on your keyboard and shouted some obscenities, the men in the white coats may come looking for you.   But what happens when we redefine all unacceptable behavior as mental illness?  
  1. S. Lewis anticipated this shift in the modern view of crime and punishment in a brilliant essay called "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment." Traditionally, Lewis wrote, punishment is understood as a matter of balancing the scales of justice. But the "humanitarian theory of punishment" throws that standard out.
  Denying that punishment is an objective matter of justice, this theory removes criminal activity from the realm of morality and applies a therapeutic response. So new theories have attempted to justify punishment as a cure or a deterrent.   Well, these theories have failed to cure or deter crime, and Lewis explains that punishment without a sense of objective morality ultimately sows the seeds of Orwellian tyranny.   "If crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing," he says, "it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call 'disease' can be treated as a crime; and compulsorily cured."   Lewis's warning has become horrifyingly real in North Korea, where Christian believers are considered mentally ill; the government attempts to torture them into "sanity."   That's why we Christians must help our neighbors to understand the dangers of redefining every crime -- and, indeed, all sin -- as mental disorder. When someone beats up an express line shopper for sneaking an extra bag of Doritos into the line, we ought to call this attack by its proper name: Not a mental illness to be treated, but a crime to be punished.         Sources:   "Register Rage Suspect Claims She Was Victim," WCVB- TV Boston, 22 February 2002.   "Checkout Rage Suspect Pleads Not Guilty," WCVB-TV Boston, 25 February 2002.   Jennifer Daw, "Road rage, air rage and now 'desk rage,'" Monitor on Psychology vol. 32, no. 7 (July/August 2001).   Leah Garchik, "Don't Get Mad, Just Stick on a New Label," San Francisco Chronicle, 26 October 1997.   For further reading:  
  1. S. Lewis, "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," from God in the Dock, 1970.
  Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, The Problem of Evil (Tyndale House, 1999).   BreakPoint Commentary No. 020301, "Eyewitness to Atrocity: Calling Evil By Its Name."


Chuck Colson



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