Tuesday, April 24, 2012

O'Sullivan and "Behind the Shed" Justice

For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.

               - Albert Camus
anyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.

               - Leviticus 24:16

I stumbled out of bed this morning with a profound illness.  My girlfriend and I had spent the last evening down at Seal Beach, and I had had a Smithwicks and shepherd's pie at one of the downtown pubs.  This, as it turns out, was not the best decision I could have made, and after dragging myself into work I felt as though I had been hit by a commuter train the night before, hastily reassembled by first responders with packing tape and wood glue, then unceremoniously hurled up through the second-story window of my apartment via catapult.

To emerge from the weekend in such a state, and then to have to endure the musing of John O'Sullivan, is a fate I do not wish on anyone.  Only a serious masochist would compel themselves into that kind of a situation, and I can only account for my behavior by way of my rapidly-declining physical condition, causing an inability to make rational decisions.

This left me in a unique position to empathize with O'Sullivan's arguments about how putting Norwegian mass-murder Anders Breivik on trial is a waste of everyone's time.  Which is a strange thing to hear on its face, even in the proper context: he said he's guilty, we all know he's guilty, so why do we have to go through all of the pomp and circumstance of a "justice system" when we can just pull him behind the shed and pop one in the back of his head?
The first such question is: Why should there be a trial at all — or at least a trial that treats the verdict as something in doubt? Everybody knows that Breivik murdered 77 innocent people; we all know just why he did so. His rambling paranoid web attacks on Norway’s social democrats for betraying Christian civilization were given wide publicity on the day after his rampage. Today he is not denying but rather boasting about his crimes. Nothing crucial to justice is in doubt.
No doubt this argument will be described as "thoughtful" or "uncompromising" in some circles.  I prefer words like "asinine", "sadistic" or perhaps "dangerous".

Not that I expect O'Sullivan to catch the first ticket to Norway with a .45 stuffed in his pants to dispense some vigilante justice.  His argument is so base and simplistic as to approach knuckle-dragging territory.  It has less to do with what is just (which is, by definition, what a justice system is set up to maintain), but more about what makes John O'Sullivan feel better about himself.  The thought of Breivik being allowed to breathe the same air and walk the same earth as John O'Sullivan so fills him with such contempt that the only logical option is to just snuff the Scandinavian bastard out.

Not that I wish to argue for Breivik, or somehow suggest that his actions are not deserving of serious punishment.  That's why he's on trial in the first place.  What bothers me about arguments such as O'Sullivan's is a complete inability to see criminals as human beings, and it has serious implications about how we view the perpetrators of even minor crimes.

Breivik gets a full trial because, as a Norwegian citizen, he is entitled to one under the law.  It has nothing to do with how obviously guilty he is.  O'Sullivan disagrees:
That leads to the second question: Who benefits from a show trial? Is it the prosecution, by getting a large hearing for its case? Or the public, because it learns important lessons from it? Or the perpetrator because, however vile his actions, he looks like a lone man against the world and gains something from that impression?
 His objection is not that justice will not be served by this court, but that in doing so it may allow people to see Breivik for what he is: a man, sitting in a court room, being normal.

For people like O'Sullivan, this is totally unacceptable.  For them, Breivik is to be considered less than human.  He quotes Dan Hodges of the Daily Telegraph who says of the ongoing trial:
I find its sterility demeaning. The cramped, featureless courtroom. Breivik seated casually at the table between his attorneys, looking like a man taking part in a civil custody hearing, rather than someone on trial for 77 murders.
It’s an environment that appears to be framing Breivik, not cowing or reducing him as I’d hoped. There is no banality of evil on display here. Breivik actually appears quite an imposing figure, his physicality if anything enhanced by his calm, softly spoken interventions.
Hodges would, perhaps, prefer chains and a Hannibal Lecter mask, so that he would not have to contend with the complicated moral, ethical and philosophical underpinnings of something like a trying a human being for murder.  Better to look at the defendant as a beast who can be quickly dispatched so we can all get on with our lives.
Hodges feels frustrated at this, asking if Breivik shouldn’t simply have been shot out of hand. He is being less than half-serious here. He marshals all the right civil-rights arguments against such a course. He knows that his feelings cannot and should not be acted upon. But his instincts are expressing a serious moral point, too — namely, that some crimes are so terrible that they require a punishment that reflects that horror.
Never mind the fact that Hodges and O'Sullivan can make the conscious choice to just not pay attention to the court proceedings, like so many of us have.  For them, life in prison in Norway is not sufficiently horrible for the likes of Breivik, natural causes not sufficiently swift in ending his life.

It's not a cry for justice, it's a cry for vengeance.  It is "eye for an eye" at its most basic level.  There is no suggestion that a life sentence will be an insufficient deterrent to other would-be killers; in fact, deterrence isn't even mentioned once, despite it being the oft-used rallying cry for pro-death penalty advocates.  John O'Sullivan wants Anders Breivik dead because John O'Sullivan thinks Anders Breivik deserves to die.  And if the Norwegian justice system will not allow that, then it is fundamentally flawed.

* * * *

Another interesting omission by O'Sullivan is any alternative fate for Breivik.  Hodges at least has the balls to suggest, albeit wryly, that Breivik should just get a bullet to the face.  For all of the shirt-rending going on about what isn't being done in this trial, there is almost no mention of the other side of that coin: what should be done?

In Camus' essay Reflections on the Guillotine, he describes how his father went to witness the execution of a farmhand who had killed an entire family and then robbed them.  He says that his father "was particularly outraged by the murder of the children. One of the few things I know about him is that this was the first time in his life he wanted to attend an execution."  Upon returning he refused to explain what he saw, went straight to the back room and began to vomit.

Camus explains how modern societies speak of capital punishment "only in whispers", explaining that "the condemned paid their debt to society" rather than "the blade sliced through his neck like a razor, his head falling to the plans with a thud while his body reeled, convulsing as blood spurted from the arteries."  It is glossed over with dull, official language to conceal the true act because the act is inherently repulsive.

If capital punishment were truly the deterrent which everyone who advocates it claims it to be, then we would see them broadcast on all the major networks on Friday night (for a hilarious take on this subject, listen to "Generation Execute" by Lard). We would read eyewitness accounts from coroners, executioners and bystanders to ensure that everyone is keenly aware of the gruesome demise which they would be subjected to, should they decide to flaunt the law.
Here is how one assistant executioner, hardly likely to cultivate the sentimental or romantic aspects of his trade, describes what he has been obliged to see: "There was one wild man, suffering from a real fit of delirium tremens, whom we had to throw under the knife. The head died right away. But the body literally sprang into the basket, where it lay struggling against the cords that bound it. Twenty minutes later, in the cemetery, it was still shuddering."
That none of this happens, and that authors such as Hodges and O'Sullivan are usually remiss to detail their preferred methods of justice, underscores two things: (1) that pro-death advocates do not inherently believe that capital punishment is a deterrent, and (2) such acts are perpetrated either out a misplaced sense of duty (it has always been this way) or out of bloodlust, neither of which have any place in a judicial system.

* * * *

 California has its own share of criminal justice issues, most notably an abysmally high prison population.  So much so that even the feds, infamous for detaining people on a whim, told the state to get its shit together.  You, as a state, have officially hit rock bottom when the people who run Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are telling you to clean up your inmate act.

Steps are being taken and cost-cutting measures are in place.  For many of us it is still not enough, but one cannot help but notice a good step in the right direction.  Since taking steps to reduce the prison population in our state, we've seen that population drop by 22,000 inmates and 16,000 parolees.  
Overcrowding has been reduced from a high of more than 200 percent of design capacity to just 155 percent today. The thousands of makeshift beds in gymnasiums and dayrooms that CDCR had been forced to use for years are now gone.
“Realignment has given California a historic opportunity to invest in a prison system that is not just less crowded, but more efficient, while saving billions of state taxpayer dollars,” said Cate.
Indeed, but can the prospect of 22,000 criminals now free in the state allow John O'Sullivan to rest easy at night?  Has justice truly been served?  Clearly these were all guilty men, so why should they be allowed to go free because we have a budget crisis?  Life in California cannot be sufficiently horrible for these fiends; some further action is required.  And why not save the state some money on administrative costs in the process?

After all, one guillotine isn't that hard to make.  And if that doesn't work you can always buy 9mm rounds in bulk for a discount.