A nation of Old Testament worshippers

First, my weekly war bulletin. Three weeks after 11 September, I mentioned that there were sotto voce whispers in Washington power circles that George Dubbya was simply not up to the job; now, increasingly, those voices, hitherto silent in public, are being heard. Bush's hubris and self-righteousness are just beginning to be questioned. The Democratic leader of the Senate, Tom Daschle, is setting up focus groups for the November elections to explore whether he and the Democrats would gain traction by questioning Bush's handling of the war, as well as his justifications for it. The debates that have long engulfed Europe are just in their earliest stages here. For more, watch this space.

I have often referred here to the American lust for revenge, for an Old Testament notion that wrongdoing must be bloodily avenged. Much of the reaction to the atrocities of 11 September has been guided by that principle; but so, on the micro level, is day-to-day life in America. Nothing illustrates the sheer punitiveness of American society better than the way the authorities have dealt with Andrea Yates, a 37-year-old former nurse and mother of five.

On 20 June last year, after serving cereal to her children, she killed them one by one. She drowned Noah (seven), John (five), Paul (three), Luke (two) and Mary (six months) in the bath; they resisted, she said later, in accordance with their age. Noah tried to run away when he saw what was happening to the others, but she caught him, and there was then about three minutes of struggling in the bath, during which he managed to come up to gasp for air more than once - before he, too, died.

Yates was duly handcuffed and leg-shackled, and there were immediate calls for her execution. Now she is on trial for her life - and the district attorney, Chuck Rosenthal, is indeed asking for her to be put to death. What even he does not dispute, however, is that Yates was suffering not just from post-partum depression, but from a post-partum psychosis in which her personality had disintegrated.

She had already had four spells in psychiatric hospitals, and had attempted suicide twice. She believed that she was such an evil and bad mother that her children stood a better chance of getting into heaven if she extinguished their lives before she made them worse. She believed she was possessed by Satan, and that he had daubed his logo - "666" - on her scalp.

Indeed, Dr Melissa Ferguson, psychiatrist at the Harris County jail to which Yates was taken to be fingerprinted, has testified at the trial that she was "one of the sickest patients I had ever seen" - that she suffered from severe paranoia and delusions. In a videotape of her being interviewed in prison, she appears gaunt, pale, stooped, and speaks only in a monotone.

Now she is taking a cocktail of four drugs: Effexor, Wellbutrin, Cogentin and Haldol (the latter an anti-psychotic that she stopped taking a fortnight before the killings).

A psychiatrist who saw her during one of her spells in mental hospital, Dr Ellen Allbritton, wrote in notes on 31 March: "Needs in-patient stabilisation for safety of herself and others. Will continue to decline in function." She testified at Yates's trial: "I wouldn't have trusted her to walk across the street."

In at least 29 western countries, including England, even depression is recognised as a legal defence; in those countries, Yates would have been unlikely to be charged with anything in the first place; the most she would be accused of would be manslaughter.

But this cuts little ice with Texan prosecutors: not only have they shown graphic videos of the dead children to jurors, but have brought out their pyjamas to show how small they were in comparison with Yates. Because she dialled the police after the killings, they argue, she knew that what she had done was wrong, and under the legal definition of insanity - Yates's lawyers have pleaded guilty but insane - if you know right from wrong, you're guilty. Hence, she should be executed.

And how ruthless it is all turning out to be. Dr Mohammed Saeed, a senior psychiatrist who twice treated Yates at the Devereux Texas Treatment Network, testified that he had belatedly put Yates on Haldol. But then he took her off it, and discharged her while she was on a suicide watch, after her insurance had run out. His reason? He did not, he testified, believe her to be psychotic. So why, then, had he put her on an anti-psychotic drug? Saeed could not explain. The defence established that he did not refer to Allbritton's previous notes, and now suggests he faked his own notes retrospectively. Yates's husband Russell, a Nasa computer engineer, is also being blamed for failing to take action; he never grasped the extent of his wife's illness, he says.

What has not come out in court (at least by last Tuesday) was the influence on Yates of one Michael Woroniecki, a travelling "preacher" who maintains that all men are "wimps" and all women "witches". Slowly, gradually, Andrea Yates - a once vibrant and attractive nurse - came to believe she was nothing but an evil witch. Her feelings of hopelessness and self-esteem worsened after she gave birth to Luke. She would say: "I am Satan." In her psychotic and delusional state, it was said in court last Tuesday, she now believes that if she is executed for killing her children, the Satan who lived inside her will die, too - for the good of all mankind.

As independent psychiatrists and even her husband look on helplessly, the full might of the Texan judicial system is determined that what she did as a result of her sickness will be avenged. The lust for revenge is virtually insatiable.

It's the American way.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.