The Manchurian Candidate and Minors Who Murder: Musings on Mind Control and Moral Responsibility


"Spell-binding" and "riveting" are words that I rarely choose to describe a movie's appeal, but I believe they aptly depict Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate.[1] This film, which zeroes in on the minds and memories of Gulf War veterans, pushed my own thoughts to such a deep level that I could barely find my way out of the theater. More than a mere crowd-pleaser, Manchurian—which features superb acting, suspense, and surprise—raises questions about mind control and moral responsibility in a manner that points us to a fundamental truth about who we are as human beings.

A remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic, the 2004 version opens with a scene from Desert Storm, in which Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) were comrades. While Sergeant Shaw is later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroically saving his unit during an ambush, Major Marco is not so fortunate. Suffering from terrible nightmares that are wrongly diagnosed as Gulf War Syndrome, Marco begins to suspect—and garners evidence for—technologically-mediated brainwashing of Desert Storm soldiers spearheaded by the multinational company Manchurian Global. Such indoctrination was designed to put Shaw in the White House, but a series of unforeseen tragedies involving Shaw, Marco, and the federal government instead transpired.

With the recent Oscars' spotlight on the big screen, many people are talking about what movies the Academy loves—and why. Certainly many viewers hold dear those films that convey something of the essence (be it positive or negative) of human existence. Does the recent string of "neuroethics"[2] movies (including The Final Cut[3] and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,[4] which picked up an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) realistically depict scientists' current ability to engineer this essence by manipulating the human mind? Though neurologist Jay Lombard, science adviser for Manchurian, stated that the film is "not that far a stretch" based on the direction of neuroscience, does this movie bear real-life implications for us now?[5] Tempting as it is to wrestle with the still-futuristic prospects and perils of biologically-based brainwashing (e.g., that achieved by Manchurian's mind-control chips), I believe that The Manchurian Candidate raises questions pertaining to present-day life that are profoundly engaging. Such questions demand an answer now, and, indeed, are being answered now, with impacts that are sure to prove far-reaching.

Consider this month's 5–4 Supreme Court decision to abolish the death penalty for juvenile offenders.[6] While the general legitimacy of capital punishment has long been debated, the case leading to the March 1 decision centered on a convicted criminal's youth—for reasons quite germane to the burgeoning field of neuroethics. In the court's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited the "instability and emotional imbalance of young people" as possible factors in juvenile crime.[7] Don Smarto, President of Youth Direct in Dallas, Texas, zeroed in on the physiological earmarks of young brains, which can render youths less capable of controlling impulses and assessing consequences. Smarto also gave peer pressure the nod as an aspect that might render juveniles more prone to criminal activity.[8] Weighing in similarly on this decision, former President Jimmy Carter stated that, "This ruling acknowledges the profound inconsistency in prohibiting those under 18 years of age from voting, serving in the military, or buying cigarettes, while allowing them to be sentenced to the ultimate punishment."[9] Implicit in Carter's comment is the belief that young people lack a fully-developed capacity to make decisions, be they to back a political candidate, enlist in the army, smoke harmful substances—or end someone's life.

By now, you may be asking how this decision by the land's highest court is related to the complex twists and turns that characterize The Manchurian Candidate. I believe this film poses exceedingly complex questions for which we may seem to lack well-constructed, time-honored answers. Such questions will arise increasingly in the arenas of criminal justice and moral responsibility, especially as genetic and neuroscientific inquiry advances. Among them is the question of whether perpetrators of evil believed to be physically or mentally prone to carrying out violent acts should be regarded as more guilty than persons who commit similar evils due to someone else having "pre-disposed" them (via technological means) to engage in criminal behavior. A second question—no less difficult—is whether there is even a clear distinction between these scenarios.

Due largely in part to what President George H. W. Bush proclaimed the "Decade of the Brain" (the 1990s)[10] and to the widely heralded "Genomics Age,"[11] most of society is acquainted (at least to some degree) with notions that link our behavior to neural or genetic components. The recent birth of neuroethics, the re-make of The Manchurian Candidate, and the Supreme Court's landmark decision prompt us anew to grapple with a myriad of mind-wrenching questions regarding the dynamics of determinism.[12] Consider the following situations, some fictitious and some actual.

In Manchurian, Major Ben Marco and Sergeant Raymond Shaw are technologically induced to carry out criminal acts that the movie suggests (at least in Marco's case) will go unpunished. Indeed, one of the final scenes depicts a federally sponsored cover-up designed to ensure that Marco will go free. Apparently wired for evil that he himself would not have chosen, Marco is the victim of the menacing minds of Manchurian Global and, the film implies, should not be held accountable for his actions. For reasons that reach beyond Denzel Washington's appealing persona, most moviegoers would, I think, ardently support his character's absolution. Yet we must ask if viewers' sentiments would differ had Washington's character been known to have an innately biological predisposition toward violence. Would he then be regarded, at least to some degree, as more culpable for his crimes? And, if so, should he be?

Ponder also the rare but real-life case in which a schoolteacher convicted of pedophilia was discovered to have a brain tumor allegedly linked to his crimes.[13] Given the apparent causal link between the man's physical brain structure and his suddenly unacceptable behavior, should he have been absolved of moral responsibility for his actions?[14] Suppose that a woman was demonstrated to have a genetically-based penchant for lying: should she be punished if she lied under oath? Imagine further, as played out in Manchurian, that a person is technologically induced by others to dispose of anyone who stands in the way of a carefully calculated rise to power. My guess is that most people would be more likely to waive the responsibility of the killer in this final account, and that leniency for the pedophile and the chronic liar would be at least somewhat less than if their abject tendencies were also due to technological manipulation. It seems, though, that these scenarios should cause us to consider whether such applications of justice would indeed be just. That is to say, should the pedophile and liar be subject to punishment and the murderer be granted freedom—a freedom, it is worth noting, orchestrated in Manchurian by the very persons capable of proving Major Marco's guilt? Though I am not here arguing for the absolution or ascription of moral culpability in any of these cases, I do believe they illuminate the need to assess whether there are morally important distinctions among these scenarios that would render them markedly different. In an attempt to foster that quest, I offer the following thoughts:

  • Should technologically-induced evil (e.g., via a chip or implant) be weighed on its own moral scale, while another measure is used to assess evil for which a person's genes or brain structure appear to bear significant blame? Further, does the level of influence of any of these sources of evil trump, or pale in comparison to, that of the physical or psychological abuse that lurks in the pasts of so many criminals? That is to say, are there truly significant moral differences among genetic, neural, environmental, and other external factors that may make a person more prone to committing violent acts? Perhaps surprisingly, the destructive dynamics of dysfunctional families have received at least one nod as "the most devastating form of mind control."[15] The Manchurian Candidate invites us to assess whether the diverse brands of "non-technological determinism" differ substantively from the "technological determinism" to which Ben Marco and Raymond Shaw fell victim—and, if so, how and to what degree.
  • Aside from the question of varying levels of influence and subsequent degrees of moral responsibility, is it even sensible to speak of a clear line between "technological" and "non-technological" determinism? Will the distinction between these terms, if deemed valid now, persist as our understanding of human nature unfolds? For example, if two people were "wired" via a chip or implant to carry out horrific atrocities—and one person did so but the other refrained—how should blame for the guilty person be ascribed? Should the source of evil be dubbed "technological" or "non-technological"? Or a blend of both? We are here seemingly presented with a complex interface akin to the age-old "nature versus nurture" debate.[16]
  • Now that the judicial system bestows primacy on a juvenile criminal's age (taking into account level of brain development, among other factors), what, if any, consequences might ensue for adult offenders? While my intention here is neither to advocate child execution nor to suggest necessarily that the Court erred in its ruling, I do wish to acknowledge the decision's possible implications for the judicial system as a whole. For example, I would think it conceivable that an adult criminal's brain also could be structured such that he or she is more prone to committing a crime. Furthermore, might an adult even succumb to the peer pressure cited by Smarto[17] or the "instability and emotional imbalance of young people" flagged by Justice Kennedy[18] that increases juveniles' susceptibility to carrying out violent acts? Though we may not know whether any such dynamics were present, all of us can recall cases in which would-be assassins or mothers who murdered their children offered up pleas of insanity when tried in court; perhaps these pleas will no longer be regarded as such persons' best option. I am not here espousing that such perpetrators go free, but simply that we consider more carefully the complexity that such scenarios—and our response to them—raise in light of the recent Supreme Court decision.

In addition to a plot with scenes each more intricate than the last, The Manchurian Candidate is a showcase for many of the realities and complexities of human nature. Though we are not privy to the genetic make-ups, brain physiologies, or childhood experiences of the masterminds behind Manchurian Global, such persons were assuredly not technologically induced to carry out the insidious evil that they so shrewdly concocted. Conversely, Shaw and Marco (who presumably would not have orchestrated such murderous plots) resolutely committed acts that caused intense grief and suffering— yet, it may be worth noting, felt remorse for doing so. Here Manchurian draws a line not merely between good and evil, but between good human beings (i.e., Marco and Shaw) and evil human beings (i.e., those connected to Manchurian Global). I believe that most people find such a distinction palatable, as they desire to think of themselves as morally good—and fundamentally different from those who are not. Such a desire may entice them (frightening as it may be) to accord the origin of evil to a genetic code gone terribly awry, neurons that critically misfire, abusive parenting, or certain technological inducements—but does it take any of these circumstances for us to act in ways that we shouldn't? And, if so, to what extent are such precipitating factors to blame? Or, are there other aspects shared by all of humanity that propel us, in certain instances, toward wrongdoing?

Perhaps our attempts to localize evil by rooting its source in genetic, neural, environmental, or technological components—and to appropriate justice based on such attributions—will prove too great for us. Perhaps we should realize and acknowledge that every human being is inherently capable of iniquity so grave it should be unthinkable—and that the avenue by which it is engendered may, in the end, not prove paramount. Perhaps we should also seriously consider whether moral culpability for wrongdoing should ever be wholly dismissed—regardless of its apparent or alleged cause.

Our notions regarding moral responsibility will likely demand further reflection if we are to possess a consistent and comprehensive framework for meting out justice. Perhaps the pursuit of an ever more robust understanding of the commonalities of human nature would be a promising first step in arbitrating what are sure to be increasingly complex judicial cases. Perhaps dying to the notion of ourselves as innately good will prove essential for sound neuroethical reflection, as well as for the forgiveness and flourishing of all human beings.



[1] (Accessed March 10, 2004).

[2] For a helpful introductory survey of the field of neuroethics, see Neuroethics: Mapping the Field (Conference Proceedings: May 13-14, 2002, San Francisco), ed. Steven J. Marcus and distributed for the Dana Press, 2004.

[3] (Accessed March 11, 2005).

[4] (Accessed March 11, 2005).

[5] Vergano, Dan, "Mind Control: More Than Just a Plot Point?" USA Today, July 28, 2004 (accessed March 17, 2005).

[6] Supreme Court of the United States. Roper, Superintendent, Potosi Correctional Center v. Simmons. Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Missouri. No. 03-633. Argued October 13, 2004—Decided March 1, 2005. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2005).

[7] Ibid., p. 24.

[8] Moody Broadcasting Network, Prime Time America, March 2, 2005. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2005).

[9] Juvenile Death Penalty: Statement by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on the U.S. Supreme Court Decision on Roper vs. Simmons. March 1, 2005. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2005).

[10] Presidential Proclamation 6158. President George H. W. Bush. July 17, 1990. Available at: (Accessed March 7, 2005).

[11] See, for example, The Genomics Age: How DNA Technology is Transforming the Way We Live and Who We Are. Smith, Gina. New York, NY: AMACOM Books, 2005.

[12] The legitimacy of the notion of determinism has been widely debated. See, for example, Nelkin, Dorothy and M. Susan Lindee. The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1995.

[13] Burns, Jeffrey M. and Russell H. Swerdlow. "Right Orbitofrontal Tumor With Pedophilia Symptom and Constructional Apraxia Sign." Archives of Neurology 60 (March 2003): 437–440.

[14] It is interesting to note University of Iowa neurology researcher Daniel T. Tranel's statement regarding this case that persons with brain tumors sometimes lose "the ability to control impulses or anticipate the consequences of choices"—the same two deficiencies that Youth Direct's Don Smarto highlighted in response to the Supreme Court's decision to abolish the death penalty for juveniles. See USA Today, "Doctors Say Pedophile Lost Urge After Brain Tumor Removed." July 28, 2003. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2004).

[16] See, for example, The Birth of the Mind: How A Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought. Marcus, Gary. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

[17] Moody Broadcasting Network, Prime Time America, March 2, 2005. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2005).

[18] Supreme Court of the United States. Roper, Superintendent, Potosi Correctional Center v. Simmons. Certiorari to the Supreme Court of Missouri. No. 03-633. Argued October 13, 2004—Decided March 1, 2005. Available at: (Accessed March 10, 2005).


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