If you want to think about insanity–or its close cousin, unreality–New York City’s a logical place to begin. On my last previous visit, my taxi from the airport was driven by a man with no English, possibly from Asia Minor or the Middle East, whose name according to his hack license was Butt Haran. I’m not silly enough to make that up. Butt drove into a guardrail on the Triboro Bridge, for no reason I could comprehend. I sat shivering in the back seat for half an hour while he wrestled with a ruined tire, cursing his fate in some forgotten desert tongue.

I tipped him poorly. But Butt supplied restful transport compared with my most recent ride from LaGuardia, courtesy of a driver who spoke fluent English and claimed to have killed five men and a woman in his previous position as a gem dealer for the Mob. Four hits in Italy, two in New York, he boasted, each of them absolutely necessary. After all, the syndicate had killed his wife and son, and his second wife had to commit suicide after informing on him to the feds. Of course there was a current contract out on him, said my driver–several, in fact–but things had been quiet since Christmas. He didn’t give a damn, he knew who they were and with luck he’d shoot them first.

I tipped him generously. Was he a joker hooked on The Sopranos, out to terrify me into emptying my wallet with relief when I reached the hotel? Was he stark raving mad? Was any or all of it conceivably true? There are moments in our lives too crazy, too divorced from all context to examine rationally. A few hours later, from one of the glassed-in courtyards at the Metropolitan Museum, I watched a homeless man who looked like St. Anthony tormented by the demons. Bearded, emaciated, wild-eyed as the crudest stereotype of a derelict deranged, he crawled from his pile of rags on the park lawn behind the Met and initiated what seemed to be a dialogue with the sun, waving his arms, shaking his body and shouting at the sky. On the other side of the glass, museum patrons read The New York Times and heard nothing but the murmur of the fountains.

One of the shows I came to see at the Met was devoted to engravings by William Blake (1757-1827), the mystical artist/poet who fashioned spectacular private versions of Heaven and Hell. In an earlier age, Blake, judged mad by many of his contemporaries, might have been committed as a lunatic or burned as a heretic. And at the Museum of Modern Art there was a special exhibition of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, a series of portraits of the postman Joseph Roulin that date from Van Gogh’s legendary last months in Arles. Released from the insane asylum at St. Remy–he was committed for severing his ear and mailing it to a prostitute–Van Gogh completed 70 paintings in the last 70 days before his suicide.

Blake and Van Gogh were great artists whose perceptions and assumptions were seldom shared by “saner” citizens who lived alongside them. The volume and quality of Van Gogh’s work in those possessed few weeks in 1890 convince most of us that what we call insanity and what we call creative genius are at times inseparable.

A day in the city turned into an extended meditation on the meaning of insanity. Its definition is as elusive as ever. R.D. Laing argued that “insane” and “psychotic” were meaningless words that stigmatize individuals out of step with a social consensus that might itself be insane. I’ve been told that I’m crazy because I have no wish to receive e-mail. Laing’s stock plummeted when it became clear that brain chemistry, which could be regulated by drugs, plays a major role in mental illness. But his radical challenge to smug psychiatry remains: Who’s insane, when and to what degree, and how does a sane society deal with it?

Consider war, which for millennia has been the principal occupation of proud men; “warrior” is still one of our highest accolades. To me war is institutionalized insanity, a brain-dissolving strain of international hydrophobia–humanity’s flat refusal, or inability, to reason. To me, predatory capitalism often seems cut from the same cloth. Clearly I’m in the minority here. Am I mad?

The truth is that definitions of insanity have always been arbitrary and expedient. When medical science had few tools to cope with deviant or irrational behavior, hosts of people were locked away for years–for life–with disorders that modern pharmacy virtually neutralizes. Today tranquilizers and SSRIs are fashionable accompaniments to a middle-class lifestyle. An article in The Times lamented the fact that most of the money and talent in contemporary American psychiatry is committed to the trivial illnesses of the affluent.

Our definitions shift radically with the will of the state and the political majority. Where once we declared mildly troubled citizens insane, we now stamp “Sane and responsible” on those two groups of Americans who seem most tragically and irreversibly out of their minds: on the one hand abandoned schizophrenics and psychotics like poor St. Anthony at the Met, on the other hand criminals convicted of murder.

For St. Anthony, for the street people who hear voices and see ghosts, it’s a simple matter of economics. Since long-term hospitalization is now too expensive for all but the wealthiest families and most reckless insurance companies, difficult cases who’ve yet to stab anyone are drugged and released. They’re declared cured or at least streetworthy and the hell with them. Murderers, a group that must include most of the truly crazy people in North America, are rarely judged insane because polls show that the public loves and demands a steady diet of capital punishment.

The next night at dinner in New York, I sat next to a doctor from Pittsburgh who happened to know Richard Baumhammers, an immigration lawyer who was recently sentenced to death for killing two Asians, an Indian, an African American and a Jew on a drive-by shooting spree in Pittsburgh’s suburbs.

“Did anyone notice that he was going insane?” I asked the doctor, who had worked with the killer’s father. I expected a straight answer.

“Insane? Who said he was insane?” replied the doctor, a member of one of the ethnic groups Baumhammers targeted. “He was a competent attorney. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

In Baumhammers’ case the jury had the option of recommending life without parole. But the hate-crime angle was so nasty that only the death penalty could satisfy the vengeful people of Pittsburgh. “Moderate” supporters of capital punishment comfort themselves with Timothy McVeigh’s rational demeanor in interviews. Obviously this man knew what he was doing all along. Well sure, any nervous loner from Lockport, N.Y., might have decided to murder hundreds of strangers and disintegrate a roomful of toddlers whose remains could scarcely be separated from the carbonized walls.

Most of us think we know insanity when we see it. But since each of us sees it differently, the law is helpless to adjudicate it with any consistency, and in practice makes no pretense of science or objectivity. Defendants who wind up on Death Row are simple-minded or remorseful (they confess), subject to ingrained social prejudice (they kill a child, a woman or someone with lighter skin than their own) or inadequately represented–most killers are poor. Or their crimes are so horrendous that the blood-cry from the cheap seats is politically irresistible. John Gacy, the erstwhile Kinko the Clown, never had a snowball’s chance of copping a crazy plea, and neither did Timothy McVeigh.

The only justice the death penalty ever provided was, on occasion, poetic justice. All but the most rabid advocates of capital punishment admit that the death sentence is administered unequally, that innocent parties are not infrequently condemned, and that deterrence was always a sham or a fantasy.

They concede that the death penalty is all and only about revenge. And as such it generates a primitive, psychopathic undertow. It pulls us away from whatever light we’ve been trying to reach, back to the bloody old cycle of perpetual retribution, the wars, feuds, vendettas and genocides that define humanity’s negative capability.

When we murder a murderer we reaffirm a close kinship with murderers, a common heritage of irrational violence. And like our most odious forefathers, those inquisitors, witch burners and lynch-mob vigilantes, we mask our savagery with self-righteousness. The executioner’s song, now and always, blends the heavy breathing of the bottom-feeding mob with the righteous indignation of hypocrites. Few heed the Old Testament warning, when Nathan tricks King David into condemning a vile sinner–“The man that hath done this thing shall surely die”–and then tells the king, “Thou art the man.”

It’s not impossible to evolve beyond revenge.

“The few people in Oklahoma City full of vengeance won’t be one damn bit better on May 17 than they were on May l5,” said Bud Welch, a gas station owner, before Timothy McVeigh’s execution was postponed. “Anyone who thinks they’ll get some kind of healing from this execution is going to be surprised.”

Welch carries some weight in this debate–McVeigh’s bomb killed his 23-year-old daughter. He’s been touring the country speaking against the death penalty, trying to contradict the conventional wisdom, “You’d want him to burn if it was your daughter.”

If it had been my daughter, I’m not sure I’d be as sane and civilized as Bud Welch. I do know I’d get no satisfaction from watching the state administer a lethal injection to Timothy McVeigh. Once you let emotion rule–admit revenge is your motive–you realize that gas chambers and lethal injections are a pitifully inadequate payback for a crime that inflicts so much agony on so many blameless people.

For an innocent life taken, there’s no adequate compensation; attempts at retribution just draw the avenger into the ancient cycle of craziness and cruelty. To avenge my daughter I’d want fire and acid, and medieval instruments of torture. Which leads us back to electric chairs that malfunctioned, blood crowds cheering at public burnings, hangman’s nooses that worked by slow strangulation. It takes us all the way back, to scenes that make us ashamed of our species, sick at heart and wishing we were bears or foxes or anything but men. I’ve never watched the mob that gathers outside Central Prison in Raleigh, to cheer on the executioner, without secretly wishing that they had been the murderer’s victims.

If you honestly believe there’s comfort or “closure” (curse that abominable cliché) in executions, seek out Gericault’s “Head of a Guillotined Man” at the Art Institute of Chicago. Recall that the guillotine was invented to make capital punishment more humane.

Emotion contaminates the debate on both sides. At a church program sponsored by opponents of capital punishment, I was moved by the passion and commitment of the speakers, but disappointed to see that activists still feel compelled to remind us that Death Row inmates are human beings like the rest of us.

They may be almost exactly like us–we’re all damaged and deviant in different ways–except that they’ve violated the most significant taboo in the social contract and we have not. It’s the crime, not the criminal, that’s relevant. A defense attorney in North Carolina recently offered a wretched childhood and chronic drug use as extenuating circumstances for a killer who stabbed a woman 23 times, nearly severing her arm in his ferocity. It aggravates me to hear such stuff. We rule out the death penalty for this creature because executions are as irrational and disgusting as he is, and because he is or was functionally insane–not because we feel pity for an addict who was sexually abused.

It was Madame de Stael who wrote, “To know all is to forgive all”–a guidepost for saints and philosophers but a dead end for criminologists. (Another celebrated social critic, H.L. Mencken, once blustered, “If we had 2,000 executions a year in the United States instead of 130, there would be an immense improvement.”)

Bleeding-heart liberals and lynch-mob vampires have nothing in common except their inability to grasp the issue. An enlightened legal system dismisses both pity and fury. The state has no feelings, it sheds no tears and craves no revenge. Wherever the courts admit irrational influence–public opinion, racial prejudice, religion–injustice and barbaric cruelty prevail. In Iran, one of the last pure theocracies, the “Supreme Court” of medieval mullahs recently upheld the death sentence of a 35-year-old woman who was stoned to death for acting in pornographic films. There was no report on the fate of male co-stars.

The mullahs, Islam’s answer to the Salem witch burners, implicate God himself in their crimes and sleep soundly.

Of the world’s 195 nations, 108 have abolished the death penalty, yet the Bush brothers of America’s royal family were governors who boasted of the many criminals they put to death. Our penal code, like Iran’s, is harsh and obsolete because it derives from theology–sin and expiation, repentance, atonement, redemption, scriptural authority. The function of a sane state is never to guide or even to judge us (nor yet to understand us)–but to protect us, from other states if need be and from the dangerous deviates we reliably produce among us. If we agree that a state can be sane and functional. I was a budding anarchist before I began to fathom human nature.

The example, the media spectacle of Timothy McVeigh’s execution may initiate a sober reassessment of the death penalty; there’s precious little sympathy for the killer to distort the public’s reaction. Can we stare right through him–a lunatic, an enigma–and see ourselves?

In the past month, several states have decided that it’s grotesque to execute convicts who are profoundly retarded. Why do we hesitate to extend that same squeamishness to the insane? Instead of pretending that all killers are sane for the purpose of executing them, why not pronounce them all mad for the purpose of quarantine? We agree that public standards for sanity are incurably arbitrary. Can’t we declare arbitrarily that killers, rapists, and child molesters–criminals who take something from their victims that cannot be restored, felons whose crime of choice we can’t afford to risk again–are insane and hopelessly defective specimens?

We need something like a penal colony for the criminally insane, with all the facilities of a mental hospital and research unit to try to discover why people do these dreadful things. We could pay for it 100 times over with the money we save from the interminable litigation of Death Row cases. If this sounds too benevolent, remember that these are all one-way tickets, life commitments. This is about public safety and public health. Violent criminals are the disease, the rogue cells in the body public. We don’t judge them, we don’t punish them. We isolate them.

Sane policy? I think so. But I notice a strange sentimentality about rehabilitation. People would almost rather execute a criminal than declare him incorrigible, beyond redemption. Rehabilitation, like punishment, is a concept with ecclesiastical baggage, conceived in the shadow of the church and its all-seeing, all-judging, all-forgiving God. There’s no allowance, no mercy for the madman in a cosmogony geared to process sinners. If the Christian God and his gatekeeper St. Peter have just been confronted with the ragged soul of Timothy McVeigh, did they examine and judge him? I don’t think so. I think they just threw up their hands, like the rest of us. EndBlock