Green Room

Pentagon mulls whether to prosecute troops for failed suicide attempts

posted at 2:16 pm on November 28, 2012 by

Of all the strange dark questions to come from years of war, this is among the darkest.

“If suicide is indeed the worst enemy the armed forces have,” Senior Judge Walter T. Cox III said, “then why should we criminalize it when it fails?”

For 40 minutes Tuesday morning, Cox and the four other members of the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces sounded deeply ambivalent about the complexities involved in prosecuting members of the military who try to kill themselves. While several judges sounded skeptical about the government’s claim that Caldwell’s actions brought discredit to the Marine Corps, judges also sounded hesitant about ruling out prosecution altogether.

“I question whether it’s up to us to say that under no circumstance can someone be prosecuted,” Judge Scott W. Stucky said. “Isn’t that up to Congress?”

I can think of two reasons to do it and neither is convincing. One: Convicting a soldier for attempting suicide might be a quick and dirty way to force him into government facilities where he can get intensive therapy for depression, which may end up saving his life. Problem is, the prospect of prosecution could backfire by raising the stakes of a failed attempt sufficiently that troops who try to kill themselves end up taking extra care to make sure they succeed. If someone’s conflicted about dying but intent on trying anyway, you want their attempt to be as half-assed as possible. The promise of punishment makes that less likely. And needless to say, if a soldier’s receiving intensive therapy only after a suicide attempt, something’s gone badly wrong somewhere in the military’s mental-health system.

Two: Only military members can answer this question definitively but there may be some suicidal servicemen and servicewomen who feel so strictly honor-bound to do their duties that they refrain from suicide purely because the military prohibits it. They’ve been given an order — no self-injury — and they’re going to obey it because they’re good soldiers and that’s what good soldiers do. I’m skeptical that this would weigh heavily on someone whose thoughts are so clouded with depression that they’re thinking seriously of killing themselves, but if it weighs even a little then there’s some deterrence there. (The same may hold true for the military’s prohibition on adultery. Some troops may follow the rule simply because it’s a rule, even if they’re otherwise inclined to disobey it.) Having a rule forbidding self-injury and prosecuting someone for violating that rule are two different things, though. A soldier who feels honor-bound to follow it will follow it as a matter of duty, not because he fears court-martial — although maybe the threat of court-martial “helps” in that it would bring added dishonor later. But that just brings us back to the point made above: Would a soldier who fears the dishonor of a court-martial refuse to attempt suicide or would he just make extra sure that his attempt is successful? My strong suspicion is that prosecuting people will mean more deaths rather than fewer because suicide attempts on average will become more lethal even if there’s some small group who are steered away from attempting it in the first place as a question of duty.

Exit question: Does the Pentagon seriously want to deal with the kind of publicity it’s going to get for putting troops who have survived a suicide attempt on trial?

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Reading this just breaks my heart. Having our wonderful military feel they have to commit suicide for their problems is horrible. Having a dad that committed suicide, that is NOT the way to go, for the person or family, IMO. I sure pray for those who are thinking about this.
L

letget on November 28, 2012 at 2:35 PM

Does the Pentagon seriously want to deal with the kind of publicity it’s going to get for putting troops who have survived a suicide attempt on trial?

That depends. From the headline we immediately think, as you do, of soldiers returning from multiple tours stressed out by their honorable service and other factors who, at their wits end, try to harm themselves but fail to commit suicide …in a case like that the Pentagon would be idiotic to put them through the additional trauma of a court martial. It would certainly harm morale.

Now try to imagine someone like Manning or Hassan attempting suicide and failing… would you support adding that charge to their other crimes? I could see where they would want to keep this as a crime but only actually prosecute when extremely rare circumstances arise. Otherwise, this awful trend requires treatment and care rather than charges.

lexhamfox on November 28, 2012 at 2:38 PM

Wait a minute. If drugs need to be illegal, because – as the argument goes – they are so bad, they can kill you, and therefore, if you are caught doing them, you need to go to jail, how then does it follow that suicide should NOT be illegal? Surely, the most deadly drug is suicide.

keep the change on November 28, 2012 at 2:54 PM

Making suicide illegal is stupid and always has been. The only reason to enforce it is to do exactly what AP mentions: to ensure people who are serious about doing it are successful. I can tell you for a fact that jail/prison works this way. They don’t care if you kill yourself, they only care if they can get sued for it. This means that if you claim to be suicidal they will punish you severely in the name of preventing the suicide, but a real suicidal person would quickly realize this and stop their “cries for help” and move on to the actual business of killing themselves.

The only reason to have this policy is to stop emo types from threatening suicide or trying to get attention with non-serious suicide attempts. A lot of people out there are not serious about suicide and this is just a last-ditch cry for help or appeal to sympathy when they have nothing left. A lot of people are annoyed by this behavior so there is backlash where people say “okay, just kill yourself then” especially online.

Wait a minute. If drugs need to be illegal, because – as the argument goes – they are so bad, they can kill you

keep the change on November 28, 2012 at 2:54 PM

That is a straw man argument. Drugs are illegal for a huge number of reasons, one of which is that they can kill a person who doesn’t actually want to die by accidental overdoses or interactions. So no, that is not “as the argument goes” but nice try.

If someone has a strong desire to kill themselves and dont change their minds in response to treatment (most suicidal people are just severely depressed), then they are going to do it. All this farce trying to stop them is just BS that non-suicidal people do to feel good about themselves.

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Convicting a soldier for attempting suicide might be a quick and dirty way to force him into government facilities where he can get intensive therapy for depression

In the civilian world as a M.D. I can institute a Pysician Involuntary Comittal (PIC) on anyone for 48 hours, or until a psyciatrist clears them. Your state may have a dirrent rule than mine. But most state medical boards grant you that power.

I’m sure the military has some similar methodology to force someone into treatment espically after a suicide attempt.

How long you can keep them inpatient is another issue.

Green_Bay_Packers on November 28, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Drugs are illegal for a huge number of reasons, one of which is that they can kill a person who doesn’t actually want to die by accidental overdoses or interactions.

That is a strawman argument, too. A lot of things can kill people accidentally, who didn’t want to die from them, but we don’t make them illegal for that reason.

keep the change on November 28, 2012 at 3:37 PM

I think this is a bad idea and would only result in fewer attempts, ….and more successes. IE, if you’re gonna do it, do it right ….IYKWIM.
sad

ted c on November 28, 2012 at 4:09 PM

Making suicide illegal is stupid and always has been.
kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 3:25 PM

.
Not really, the reason (in the Army at least) is to prevent the next guy from doing the same. It also seen as a serious failure of leadership and everyone from squad leader to Battalion commander may be looking for a new job, to attain the rank of “prisoner.”

Green_Bay_Packers on November 28, 2012 at 3:33 PM

Military really doesn’t have the facilities for the terminally depressed. And how do you help someone who tries to shoot themselves on post on the busiest street during lunch because their transsexual stripper “girl” friend dumped them?
How do you help that person and maintain military discipline?

LincolntheHun on November 28, 2012 at 4:11 PM

Personally I think suicide is wrong but I’m not sure it should be illegal. It seems to me that being illegal really protects the insurance companies more than anything else. If it were to be legal there would need to be safe guards in place to continue to protect insurance as well as manufactures. A rail company should not be held libel for somebody walking into an oncoming train. I think that even in the case of assisted suicide that life insurance should not be paid out.

Frank Enstine on November 28, 2012 at 4:26 PM

Leaving aside whether or not anyone should be prosecuted for attempting suicide, I don’t believe that such prosecutions would lead to increased suicide attempts. It is rather ridiculous to assume a person charged with attempting suicide will then be released on their own recognizance number one. The second problem is that someone who has attempted suicide probably isn’t too terribly concerned about prosecution for doing so. Thinking that will cause them to be more likely to make another attempt is assigning to them a type of reasoning non-suicidal people would use.

NotCoach on November 28, 2012 at 4:40 PM

Personally I think suicide is wrong but I’m not sure it should be illegal.

Frank Enstine on November 28, 2012 at 4:26 PM

I think it should always remain illegal just for the simple reason that someone committing an illegal act can be more easily institutionalized. Attempted suicide is technically illegal in all 50 states.

NotCoach on November 28, 2012 at 4:42 PM

If suicide is illegal, and there is certain punishment, it produces two effects. The first has been mentioned above; it may turn a half-hearted effort into a more serious effort ensuring death. The second is that if someone makes an attempt, they obviously need help. If reporting yourself as an attempted suicide gets you arrested and prosecuted, you will not do so and therefore not get the help you need.

To me it is counterproductive to make suicide illegal. It is not a deterrent; if you succeed in your attempt, you escape prosecution anyway. If you do not succeed, arrest and prosecution do nothing to alleviate the motivation for suicide and in fact give greater incentive to either succeed the first time or try again when faced with jail time.

The daughter of one of my friends suffers from bi-polar disorder and has made several suicide attempts. When she is conforming to her treatment and rational, she completely understands what her death would do to devastate the family she loves. But she has said, “When I am in that pit of depression, it is impossible to think of anyone or anything except my own pain.” This is not a matter for prosecution.

Mariner44 on November 28, 2012 at 5:03 PM

I think this is applying a rule to a situation a rule wasn’t meant for. I reg against self harm is probably meant to prosecute the jerk who shoots himself in the foot to avoid deployment.

Could there be cases of halfassed fake suicide attempts to get out of duty? Probably, but I would think a whole host of other USMJ regs could be brought to bear on that.

Rufi on November 28, 2012 at 5:06 PM

Mariner44 on November 28, 2012 at 5:03 PM

And yet suicide is illegal in all 50 states. Again, there is value in keeping it illegal. Without a law against it anyone who attempts suicide would likely be able to sidestep any state mandated treatment. And I guarantee you that no one is thinking, “Gee, if only suicide were legal I wouldn’t attempt it”. A suicidal person is a suicidal person regardless of the law. Being legal or illegal likely has no impact on attempt rates.

NotCoach on November 28, 2012 at 5:17 PM

Making it illegal is fine. It also discourages others from helping people commit suicide. But do you prosecute people for attempting suicide? Of course not. Those who make false suicidal gestures (not cries for help)generally have personality disorders. And as someone already noted, can be prosecuted for other violations. Better to put them in the brig and then kick them out.

Blake on November 28, 2012 at 6:29 PM

Gotta make certain they are really willing to die I guess. Make certain they put their best attempt forward if they are going to do it, because, well, if they fail, brig time and a dishonorable discharge.

astonerii on November 28, 2012 at 6:54 PM

illegal prevents (supposedly) benefits payouts.

dmacleo on November 28, 2012 at 7:49 PM

That is a strawman argument, too. A lot of things can kill people accidentally, who didn’t want to die from them, but we don’t make them illegal for that reason.

keep the change on November 28, 2012 at 3:37 PM

You fail in logic. I said that was only one of many reasons.

Not really, the reason (in the Army at least) is to prevent the next guy from doing the same.

LincolntheHun on November 28, 2012 at 4:11 PM

Uhh, threatening punishment only works on FAILED suicide attempts. It doesn’t deter anything except perhaps failure, as the suicidal person will have extra incentive to avoid the added indignity of criminal prosecution and confinement to his existing reasons to end his life.

I think that even in the case of assisted suicide that life insurance should not be paid out.

Frank Enstine on November 28, 2012 at 4:26 PM

The legality of suicide has nothing whatsoever to do with insurance. Insurance does not refuse to pay out if you die committing a felony, such as a bank robbery. All that matters is the insurance policy itself. Most policies only refuse to pay for suicide if it happens within a few years of getting the policy, to prevent people from getting a policy and then killing themselves. If you have had your policy for 3+ years, odds are suicide is covered.

I think it should always remain illegal just for the simple reason that someone committing an illegal act can be more easily institutionalized. Attempted suicide is technically illegal in all 50 states.

NotCoach on November 28, 2012 at 4:42 PM

It should not be illegal because there is no victim, no malice, and the criminal justice system is not about treatment at all. Jail time and the myriad indignities that go along with being put “in the system” only make it harder for a severely depressed person to reverse course. Heaping additional reasons to hate life, like a criminal record, the shame and stigma of public records and a paper trail regarding your attempted suicide, and the suffering and indignity of sitting in a jail cell when you havent done anything wrong to any other person, is just going to cause that person to make sure they don’t mess it up the next time.

I think it is cruel and ridiculous to take a person who is sick in the head and not hurting anyone, and to make them suffer more. If you aren’t willing to address WHY they want to die, it would be more merciful to just let them kill themselves.

A suicidal person is a suicidal person regardless of the law. Being legal or illegal likely has no impact on attempt rates.

NotCoach on November 28, 2012 at 5:17 PM

You just admitted that it should be legal, then. After all, if it doesn’t matter either way, the taxpayers shouldn’t be wasting money on it and the government shouldn’t be involved at all.

You can’t punish or deter suicide, all you can do is punish “cry for help” attempted suicide.

In the military, people who attempt suicide should be simply put back on duty with some attention from mental health professionals, or given some kind of mental health discharge, on a case-by-case basis

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 7:54 PM

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 7:54 PM

There are victims. Many suicide attempts are fake. They are intended to extract something, usually sympathy from others through a terrorist act. Real suicides may not have the intention to do this, but when they are failed have the same effect.

It certainly is not victimless.

astonerii on November 28, 2012 at 8:20 PM

Making suicide illegal won’t help deter it. It will only make sure those who attempt it take extra care to ensure they succeed.

Vegi on November 28, 2012 at 8:28 PM

Making suicide illegal won’t help deter it. It will only make sure those who attempt it take extra care to ensure they succeed.

Vegi on November 28, 2012 at 8:28 PM

It will deter fake attempts, but as you said, will ensure those that are serious do it right the first time… You could save some lives of those who fail to fake a suicide attempt, but that would be offset by those who become more successful of the serious suicide attempters.

I made the same point above.

astonerii on November 28, 2012 at 8:33 PM

If someone’s conflicted about dying but intent on trying anyway, you want their attempt to be as half-assed as possible. The promise of punishment makes that less likely.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that anyone standing at the bottom of that dark hole would laugh at the idea that they better get it right or they will be prosecuted. I don’t think any punishment (short of execution; but that gets weird) or lack of punishment would have any effect at all.

You wrap up, and you let it go. The whole scene here is a liar in a pit with you promising freedom. You don’t care what anyone thinks of anything, let alone whether you are breaking a law that doesn’t apply to you anymore.

For anyone never feeling anything like this, try thinking of being tired beyond tired, where you would literally laugh while something happens rather than move. You’d watch the shed burn rather than getting up to put it out, that kind of thing. There’s pain . . . there’s more, but that’s an idea.

I can’t even get my head around the idea of suicide being victimless, so I won’t touch it. Everyone understands suicide is a person murdering themselves, right?

Axe on November 28, 2012 at 8:45 PM

Pentagon mulls whether to prosecute troops for failed suicide attempts

Hmm…Guess they don’t have the guts to go after successful suicide attempts!

But seriously. In Basic, once we deciphered Drill SGT. O’s backwoods accent enough to figure he was saying “fork”, not cursing at us, we who he christened ‘Maggots’ drank in his warnings about suicide.

You are G.I.s, he explained. Government Issue, bleeding o.d. green. If you try to kill yourself, that’s attempted destruction of U.S. Army property just like trying to ruin your weapon, your Jeep, or the fuaaaak in your mess kit.

Ladysmith CulchaVulcha on November 28, 2012 at 9:53 PM

Here is a way to slow down the rate of suicides, allow our military men and women to do what they were trained to do and fight wars and stop forcing them to be nation builders, heart winners, police, and stool pigeons in places around this world that have no strategic use what so ever to the United States of America.

That would be a good start…Nothing on this earth is more depressing than going to a place like Afghanistan and being asked to do something you were not trained to do and something many of them know is impossible once they get a good understanding of the locals.

William Eaton on November 28, 2012 at 9:59 PM

There are victims. Many suicide attempts are fake. They are intended to extract something, usually sympathy from others through a terrorist act.

astonerii on November 28, 2012 at 8:20 PM

lol…

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 10:59 PM

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 7:54 PM

Nobody is ever prosecuted for attempted suicide even though it is illegal everywhere. However, if a person is obstinate about receiving treatment law enforcement is a powerful tool to help the sick person’s loved ones get him/her the treatment they need. Take attempted suicide off the books and we may end up in a situation where doctors can only have someone committed for being a clear danger only to others, not themselves.

NotCoach on November 29, 2012 at 12:59 AM

When suicide is outlawed, then only outlaws will commit suicide.

long_cat on November 29, 2012 at 10:44 AM

Take attempted suicide off the books and we may end up in a situation where doctors can only have someone committed for being a clear danger only to others, not themselves.

NotCoach on November 29, 2012 at 12:59 AM

Actually that’s wrong. Civil commitment to a mental facility is commonly available for suicidal people and it has nothing to do with the criminal system.

People seem to think that the basis for involuntary psychiatric holds is based on criminal law. It’s not. Here is the legal basis for it, and most (if not all) states have similar laws:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5150_%28Involuntary_psychiatric_hold%29

If it is never prosecuted, that means it shouldn’t be illegal. Making it illegal and discretionary just leaves it open to abuse. It isn’t a “powerful tool” or any kind of tool at all. Charging someone with a crime results in them being put in jail, not a mental hospital. Jails aren’t equipped to treat suicidal people, all the jail does is throw them in solitary confinement naked for an indefinite period of time. It is absolutely a punishment, to deter inmates from claiming to be suicidal opportunistically.

Send a suicidal person to jail, and this is what happens:

1. the person is kept in a ‘mental’ cell block where suicidals are mixed in with legitimate psychopaths.

2. the person will be stripped naked and given some kind of waterproof velcro life preserver thing to wear which isn’t going to provide any warmth or cover much. he/she is effectively naked.

3. the person is put in a tiny 1-person cell, which is probably in disgusting shape since mental types often purposely wreck their cells and there isn’t exactly maid service.

4. the person is left in the cell 24 hours a day (maybe 23 if he is ‘lucky’) and probably gets a food tray through a slot, but no utensils to eat it with, not even plastic ones.

5. the person is confined in this way INDEFINITELY, unlike a civil psychiatric hold which is only 72 hours. Unless the person is given bail and makes bail, he/she might be stuck in those conditions for MONTHS. The mental health resources in jails are a joke, they aren’t meant to be treatment facilities.

From an article addressing how solitary confinement increases suicide rates:

“High rates of suicide in solitary units is a widespread problem; that’s why many states no longer house mentally ill inmates in solitary,” said Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz who studies the effects of incarceration. “The severity of the conditions in those units … most mentally healthy people who go in are adversely affected. People can become so despairing, so desperate that they take their own lives.”

http://www.azcentral.com/news/20120602arizona-prison-suicide-rate

He is referring to prisons, in jails (which is where a suicidal person would be held, not prison) solitary is still where suicidals go. Jails lack the resources to do otherwise.

Maybe in the mythical fairy tale land that the law-and-order conservatives here seem to live in, the coercive power of government and threats of confinement rendered through the barrel of a gun are the solution to all of life’s problems. However, in the real world, the truth is that putting suicidal people into the criminal system is cruel and unusual punishment. Jails already treat inmates who claim to be suicidal harshly to deter those claims. Taking some innocent person who has never hurt anyone, and putting them into those horrible conditions based on the farce that it is “for their own good” is disgusting and evil.

kaltes on November 29, 2012 at 11:18 AM

kaltes on November 29, 2012 at 11:18 AM

“High rates of suicide in solitary units is a widespread problem; that’s why many states no longer house mentally ill inmates in solitary,” said Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California-Santa Cruz who studies the effects of incarceration. “The severity of the conditions in those units … most mentally healthy people who go in are adversely affected. People can become so despairing, so desperate that they take their own lives.”

You missed a spot.

Maybe in the mythical fairy tale land that the law-and-order conservatives here seem to live in, the coercive power of government and threats of confinement rendered through the barrel of a gun are the solution to all of life’s problems.

Light a strawman up and maybe we can all toast some marshmallows. I have advocated nothing of the sort. I have only pointed out that keeping attempted suicide illegal makes it easier for the friends and family of those at risk to be forced into treatment if necessary.

NotCoach on November 29, 2012 at 11:43 AM

lol…

kaltes on November 28, 2012 at 10:59 PM

Pardon my french, folks, but Kaltes, what the hell is wrong with you? You think it’s funny that people are devastated by the death of a friend or relative? Have you somehow managed to never know someone who died? Now, I may not have much personal experience with suicide but I have enough with deaths in the family to know how devastating it is. I can’t imagine that knowing that it was because someone was so miserable that they felt they had to take their own life would make it less terrible, much less that someone might be so twisted as to intentionally inflict that on their family.

AndStatistics on November 29, 2012 at 11:45 AM

You missed a spot.

NotCoach on November 29, 2012 at 11:43 AM

Nope, you missed a spot:

He is referring to prisons, in jails (which is where a suicidal person would be held, not prison) solitary is still where suicidals go. Jails lack the resources to do otherwise.

kaltes on November 29, 2012 at 11:18 AM

As for your post:

I have only pointed out that keeping attempted suicide illegal makes it easier for the friends and family of those at risk to be forced into treatment if necessary.

NotCoach on November 29, 2012 at 11:43 AM

Actually, I devoted most of my prior post to debunking that notion of yours. The legality of suicide has no bearing whatsoever on coerced treatment, as that is not something handled through the criminal system. Suicide being illegal DOES, however, potentially result in suicidal people being subjected to extremely harsh conditions in jails. After all, the article we are commenting on addresses a soldier who is being prosecuted for it.

kaltes on November 29, 2012 at 12:17 PM

Pardon my french, folks, but Kaltes, what the hell is wrong with you? You think it’s funny that people are devastated by the death of a friend or relative?

AndStatistics on November 29, 2012 at 11:45 AM

Learn to read. This is what I lol’d at:

There are victims. Many suicide attempts are fake. They are intended to extract something, usually sympathy from others through a terrorist act.

astonerii on November 28, 2012 at 8:20 PM

That guy called attempted suicide a terrorist act. It was such a ridiculous comment that I could only “lol…”

Of course the fact that I need to explain this to you means that you didn’t even read his comment, let alone understand it, before you went off all half cocked. But wait… what was your rant about? Oh yeah… attacking suicidal people as “twisted”:

much less that someone might be so twisted as to intentionally inflict that on their family.

AndStatistics on November 29, 2012 at 11:45 AM

Talk about blaming the victim. Here’s a news flash: if you love a family member so much that you would be DEVASTATED by their suicide, I’m sure that would mean that you love them enough to help them want to live through positive reinforcement, as opposed to, I don’t know, calling them a terrorist and saying they’re twisted. Oh wait…

kaltes on November 29, 2012 at 12:25 PM

what made me mad was you laughing at the idea that nobody is hurt by aa aa suicide except the suicide. what he said about “terrorist” was hyperbole about an extreme case, which ii in turn referenced. iiin no way implied that applied to all suicides

AndStatistics on November 29, 2012 at 12:36 PM

gah! auto correct

AndStatistics on November 29, 2012 at 12:37 PM