New York police arrested a 31 year-old woman suspected of murdering a man in Queens by pushing him in the path of an oncoming subway train a few days ago. Though she fled the scene, she was found and taken into custody today thanks to video footage of her that was aired. The statements she made to police caused the prosecutor to charge her with second-degree murder as a hate crime:
The woman, Erika Menendez, selected her victim because she believed him to be a Muslim or a Hindu, Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said.
…[He quoted her] as having told the police: “I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”
Sunando Sen, the murder victim, was actually a Hindu native of India who’d lived in the U.S. for 20 years. He owned a New York printing company, and his was the classic American story of the immigrant striving to make good for himself and his family. The murderer not only confused his dark complexion, believing he was Muslim; she also didn’t realize Hindus had nothing to do with 9/11.
Her error is made even more tragic by this statement from one of Sen’s Muslim roommates:
Ar Suman, a Muslim, and one of three roommates who shared a small first-floor apartment with Mr. Sen in Elmhurst, said he and Mr. Sen often discussed religion.
Though they were of different faiths, Mr. Suman said, he admired the respect that Mr. Sen showed for those who saw the world differently than he did. Mr. Suman said he once asked Mr. Sen why he was not more active in his faith and it resulted in a long philosophical discussion.
“He was so gentle,” Mr. Suman said. “He said in this world a lot of people are dying, killing over religious things.”
This story offers another perspective on the professionalism and patience Sen exhibited in working with the author on a family photographic project.
Sen’s native India is riven by ethnic-religious strife between nationalist Hindus and Muslims which have cost over a million lives since the establishment of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s. Such killings continue even to this day. It is also the same type of hatred that motivates some of those who kill in the name of their respective God’s and religions in Israel-Palestine.
Though the Times report says Menendez’ mental status was not known, other sources allege she is bi-polar with a history homelessness:
“All I know is that she’s bipolar…” said a cousin of the suspect…
No doubt we will eventually discover a long record of treatment at various mental facilities at which she was prescribed drugs which she may’ve taken for a time, until she either refused or just stopped taking them. We may find she was part of a social worker’s caseload who supervised her for a time, until Menendez dropped through the cracks as so many do.
As in the case of the Newtown massacre, it’s fairly obvious that someone who would commit such a horrific, unmotivated crime would very likely extremely disturbed. To be very clear, I am not making the argument that mental illness excuses violent crime. Nor am I saying that someone who is mentally ill has no responsibility for their crimes or that only the State is responsible (due to its negligence) when such things happen.
Clearly individuals, whether ill or healthy, bear responsibility for their actions. But the question is–how much responsibility? Is someone who can form ideas and articulate thoughts clearly and decide to murder, as guilty as someone who cannot articulate any thoughts at all and is driven by uncontrolled impulse to perform heinous acts?
Further, how should society view mental illness in terms of crime? Now, we essentially make no allowance for mental illness in the judicial system. Yes, someone could theoretically be found not guilty by reason of insanity. But the legal standards for such a decision are different from the medical definition of such illness. It is almost impossible for a murderer to be found legally insane.
We do not understand the fundamental difference between us and the mentally ill. When they commit a crime we want to treat them as if they were just like us. But they are not because such an affliction brings with a break with reality. That is, victims of this condition cannot negotiate reality, they cannot think clearly, they cannot make rational–or any–decisions.
The case of Naveed Haq, who murdered an employee of the Seattle Jewish federation during a shooting rampage in 2006, is very similar to this. Though he had a ten-year history of treatment for schizophrenia, along with a long history of erratic behavior (he once converted from Islam to evangelical Christianity), the Seattle city attorney pursued the case even after a mistrial. He secured a first-degree murder conviction under pressure from the local Jewish community, which wanted him punished for his crime despite his mental illness.
At the time, I blogged about this story and was one of the few willing to say that Seattle’s Jews, no matter how compelling their suffering, wanted justice at the expense of mercy. Mercy, being the realization that a man who is severely ill, no matter how intentional and planned his crimes may appear, did not have the capacity to recognize or be responsible for his actions in any normal sense. Even some of the victims blamed the ready availability of guns and hardly mentioned anti-Semitism.
Seattle Jews, though, were not approaching this issue any differently than most Americans would. Our society does not take care of the mentally ill. We warehouse our victims. Until they take matters into their own hands and harm someone else. Then we take action and treat them as if they were mentally competent and responsible for what they do. For those who are ill, it’s a Catch-22 situation: we leave them to their own devices and then throw the book at them if our negligence allows them to hurt others.
I am the first person to decry religious or ethnic hatred. It is one of the issues closest to my heart and the mission of this blog. Naveed Haq, during his rampage blamed Israel for killing Palestinians and Muslims. His attack occurred in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War, in which Israel killed over 1,000 Lebanese civilians. But no matter how brutal such Israeli killing was, no attack against Jews in America or anywhere else can be justified because of anything Israel has done.
In the very same sense, no attack on anyone, whether Muslim or not, can be justified as vengeance for those innocents killed when three airliners took down the Twin Towers and Pentagon. Melendez’ crime is horrific and inexcusable.
But can a woman who bellows and moans and makes excruciating grimaces as reporters described during her arrest, be truly held culpable for her behavior? Can we really say this person can form coherent ideas and understand anything happening in the world around her, let alone a subject as complex and emotion-filled as the 9/11 attacks?
My fear is that just as Naveed Haq was sent away for life, Erika Melendez will go to prison for decades, where she will perhaps be slightly better treated than she was by the New York social welfare system, because she will have a prison roof over her head, three meals a day, and medical care. In actuality, perhaps I should support her conviction, because it may save her life or at least make it nominally better.
But isn’t that a sad, horrible thought? And isn’t it an indictment of our treatment of the mentally ill? I suppose there’s some comfort that Menendez didn’t have the foresight or finances to buy a Bushmaster and translate her inchoate hate into the sort of massacre Adam Lanza perpetrated. Then you might have had the hate crime of the century. If the NRA has anything to say about it–we might yet.