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Murder and "The Matrix":
Has The Movie Caused Violence and If So, What Should We Do About It?

Monday, Jun. 02, 2003

The movie "The Matrix" seems to have played a role in a number of recent murder cases, at least according to the defendants. The question is: What role, exactly?

Especially in recent decades, movies and music have often been cited as inspiring "copycat" crimes. In such crimes, it has been claimed that the perpetrators had acted out, in real life, something that they had either seen depicted in a movie, or heard described in song lyrics.

Indeed, "The Matrix" (released in 1999, with two sequels out in 2003) itself may have been partially copycatted by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teens who perpetrated the horrific 1999 Columbine High School shootings. They are said to have modeled their black "trenchcoat mafia" costumes on that of Neo, the lead character in "The Matrix."

But there is where the resemblance ends: Neo's forte is martial arts, not shooting. In addition, his targets were computer-generated images, not flesh-and-blood people.

In cases of apparent copycat crime, victims' families sometimes have sued movie or record companies on the theory that they are responsible for the crimes their products inspired. The overwhelming majority of such suits have been unsuccessful. Sometimes they fail for First Amendment reasons. Other times, they fail due to the plaintiffs' failure to prove a causal connection between the movie or song, and the crime, that would be sufficient for legal liability.

But now a new form of causal connection between a movie and reality seems to be emerging - and one that is more subtle than copycatting. According to several defendants and their attorneys, it seems that the very philosophy of "The Matrix" may have somehow interacted with the psychology of certain mentally ill individuals, in such a way as to cause them to commit their crimes. These individuals did not copy "The Matrix"; instead, they seem simply to have believed the philosophies espoused in the movie to be true.

How should the law deal with situations like this? Are the moviemakers at all culpable?

"The Matrix"'s Basic Concept

The basic conceit of "The Matrix" is that reality is merely a computer-generated illusion. In the world of "The Matrix," starting from birth, all human beings - except those who have been freed - experience only a virtual reality. In the actual reality - to which they themselves have no access - they are immobile and unconscious, being fed images of the virtual world that have been created by malevolent computer programs.

Put another way, humans in the matrix world are like brains in a vat unable to perceive the vat they are in - until and unless, like Neo and other "Matrix" characters, they are lucky enough to get an opportunity escape into a far grittier actual reality. Everything humans perceive, while they are still in the grip of the Matrix, is illusory.

"The Matrix"'s philosophy, intriguing as it is, isn't original. Philosophers at least since Descartes have been raising the issue of how to prove - or whether to believe in - the reality of the external world. And, indeed, modern philosopher Hilary Putnam posed this same question that "The Matrix" implicitly raises: How do we know we are not merely brains in a vat?

Putnam himself claims to have disproved the possibility that - here in the real world - we are merely brains in a vat. Yet many respected philosophers disagree, asserting that we can never really know, one way or the other, what the answer is.

And what of the believers? Brilliant philosopher Putnam believes that we definitely are not brains in a vat. But does that mean someone who believes we definitely are brains in a vat is necessarily insane? Put another way, is an individual who affirmatively believes in the philosophical view put forward in "The Matrix" - that what appears to be reality is not "really real" - therefore insane?

Based on this philosophical controversy, one might think the answer is plainly no. But two courts that have considered this question seem to have reasoned very differently.

Not Guilty By Reason Of the Matrix?

Two defendants in criminal cases, by incorporating their strange beliefs about "The Matrix" as evidence of a mental disorder, have successfully asserted pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity. In each case, the "Matrix"-based plea was accepted by the judge.

One was Vadim Mieseges of San Francisco, who dismembered his landlady in 2000. He subsequently told police that he had been "sucked into 'The Matrix.'"

Another was Tonda Lynn Ansley of Ohio, who shot her landlady. Like Mieseges, she claimed to have believed her killing had not been real, but a dream. She commented, "They commit a lot of crimes in 'The Matrix,'" suggesting that, just as in the movie, her killing must have been only "a bad dream."

Meanwhile, Beltway Sniper suspect John Lee Malvo is also said to have been obsessed with "The Matrix." In jail, he wrote a note stating "Free yourself of 'The Matrix.'" The idea of the real-as-unreal seems to fit well with Malvo's psychology. According to reports, he laughed when allegedly confessing his shootings - as if he didn't believe that he had killed actual human beings.

Will any delusions that Malvo may have had relating to "The Matrix" be used in his defense at trial? That is not yet known. But it seems unlikely, for if Malvo does use this defense, it probably will be unsuccessful.

It was judges who accepted Mieseges's and Ansley's pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity. In contrast, a jury would likely be far less sympathetic to Malvo's potential insanity claim. They would probably be convinced, instead, by prosecutors' argument that Malvo was, at most "crazy like a fox": Prosecutors would be likely to successfully use the fact that the shootings were planned, and repeated, as evidence of strategy, and thus of sanity.

Speech, Action, and the First Amendment

With all these "Matrix"-inspired killings, shouldn't the moviemakers bear some responsibility? Absolutely not.

Again, it's important to emphasize that the "Matrix"-inspired crimes committed by Ansley, Mieseges, and (allegedly) by Malvo were not copycat crimes. Neither were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's, as I explained above.

When plaintiffs try to claim that filmmakers and music companies are responsible for copycat crimes, they can at least try to invoke the speech/action distinction in the First Amendment context.

Under First Amendment doctrine, when speech verges very close to action - for instance, if it is about to incite immediate violence, or if it threatens violence or other illegality - it is accorded less protection. Accordingly, the publication of dangerous instruction manuals giving step-by-step guides to accomplishing illegal ends ("How to Build a Bomb") has created some of the most difficult First Amendment test cases.

Certain violent movies - the ones that seem to advocate, rather than opposing, the violence they are depicting - could be argued to provide the same kind of instruction manual for "copycat" crimes. In the end, however, I think that argument is far too simplistic: Movies and songs are far more complex and nuanced than a mere instruction manual, and never can amount to direct advocacy of violence in the way that a political speech can.

And in any event, the argument that certain movies and songs are virtual instruction manuals for violence does not apply to the "Matrix"-inspired crimes we have seen so far.

There, the perpetrator is, at most, copying not a crime, but a philosophy - and an academically respected one at that. Moreover, "copying" is not exactly the right word for the psychological process that occurs when someone comes to believe in a given philosophy.

It seems that what may have happened, in the "Matrix"-inspired crimes we have seen so far, is that exposure to the philosophy of "The Matrix" could have exacerbated a pre-existing tendency towards a certain delusion. That is, the philosophy of "The Matrix" - that reality is not "really real" - may have played smoothly into the defendants' delusion that because killing is not "really real" then it must not really be so terrible.

But the same effect might theoretically occur from reading Hilary Putnam's clever paper on "Brains in a Vat." And, if it did so, then consistent with the First Amendment, that obviously could not lead to a lawsuit against Putnam.

Indeed, there are many philosophies that could offer - and over history, have offered - a rationalization for violence. Government-sponsored violence is, more often than not, coupled with a philosophy invoked to justify it - Marxism being just one example. Yet such philosophies are all recognized to be fully protected by the First Amendment, no matter how dangerous they may seem or, indeed, actually be.

The fact that the philosophy of "The Matrix" has become part of pop culture does not distinguish it from the more time-tested philosophies whose First Amendment status we would never question. Surely the mere fact of an idea's wild popularity cannot affect its First Amendment status - for speakers have a right to reach, and convince, their listeners.

The philosophy of "The Matrix" may be especially convincing to those who are psychologically vulnerable, for it can dovetail with, and confirm, their delusions. It also may provide them with a ready rationalization for violence. But among the world's philosophies, that hardly makes it unique.

Julie Hilden, a FindLaw columnist, practiced First Amendment law at the D.C. law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1996-99. Currently a freelance writer, she published a memoir, The Bad Daughter, in 1998. Her first novel, Three, will be published in the U.S. in late July 2003 by Plume, in the U.K. by Bantam, and in French translation by Actes Sud.

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