Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Ride the Lightning

Throughout recorded history, individuals have existed whose crimes transcended imagination, whose brutality has shocked nations, whose spectral terror has haunted generations. Their names resound through our collective consciousness: John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, the Harps, Gille de Rais, the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper, Muhammed and Malvo. They prey upon the weak, the unsuspecting, the convenient.

They are the inter-species predators that live among us, at once a part of us and apart from us. The question arises with what to do with them when we catch them. Certainly it would smack of a suppressed survival instinct to let them go, to let them continue because it is the natural order of things, so the question becomes, “What do we do with them?”

A common trend has been execution. Throughout recorded history, executions have taken place for a variety of offenses ranging from burglary to treason. Cultural trends play a part in the crimes so punished and the methods used to carry out the sentence. Some methods used are and have been: burning, crucifixion, decapitation, drowning, electrocution, firing squad, gassing, hanging, impaling, lethal injection, stoning and the use of animals. Other methods of varied cruelty or humanity have also been employed.

During the years of 747 and 759, China banned the death penalty, and is the first recorded nation to do so. They did, however, reinstate it as can be seen in present-day China. China is also credited with the second-highest rate of executions per capita, based on Amnesty International’s numbers. Some claim those numbers are low.

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was the first nation to permanently abolish capital punishment in late 1786. The Duke was inspired by a book called On Crimes and Punishments that questioned the value of torture and execution to society at large. To this day, the region of Tuscany celebrates November 30th as a holiday.

Later, even more drastic steps would be taken in the legal arena concerning capital punishment. In 1949, West Germany and Costa Rica both took the step of banning capital punishment in their constitutions, laying the precedent in the framework of their legal and political systems.

Other countries, such as the United States, much of Asia and the Middle East still maintain the option of execution with regard to what are deemed the worst of criminals. In the United States, individual states are allowed to handle the legality of capital punishment and hence, some parts of the United States practice capital punishment while other parts do not. The Federal government retains the ability to employ it, however it is rarely utilized.

Some countries such as Brazil and Argentina maintain the death penalty in only very specific and rare circumstances.

In countries where the death penalty is employed, some countries allow the execution of minors, while others do not. The definition of a minor also varies. In the United States, it is individuals under the age of 18 while in Japan it is individuals under the age of 20.

But the question is not about whether or not it has been done, to whom, and how. The question to us today is: should we?

Suppose we assume we shouldn't. The simplest and most straightforward argument put forth is that killing is inherently wrong. Since executions are a form of killing, the logic goes, they are also wrong. Fingers are pointed to such works as the Bible and its Ten Commandments, Jesus' law of love and the seminal work of Cesare Beccaria, also said to have influenced the development of Utilitarianism.

Many of the methods used in the execution of criminals and prisoners have also been widely criticized as inhumane. At its simplest, the denial of life to anyone is often said to be inhumane, but many of the methods used (including modern methods such as lethal injection) are and have been tortuous and imprecise. Those bringing this argument ask us to consider the ramifications of a botched beheading, lethal injection, or the prospect of being picked apart with tools or animals. The very Constitution of the United States along with the writings of John Locke[1] (who can be said to have inspired parts of the Constitution) make clear references to the inhumane treatment of criminals and prisoners and that we, as a people, should eschew such things.

Human elements are also commonly cited as a reason the death penalty should be abolished.
People have been wrongly executed, with evidence clearing them coming to light only after their deaths, while still others have been exonerated sometimes only minutes before their appointed time of execution. Anecdotally, the numbers could be very high, given the number of exonerations and convictions that have arisen from the advent of DNA testing and other advanced forensics.

Public defense is often used in the case of defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys. These attorneys are often seen as simply mediocre and unsuited to compete with those who are handling the prosecution, leading to a skewed rate of conviction.

In some places, execution is used punitively. The PRC is said to utilize capital punishment for this reason rather liberally, as are many Middle Eastern countries. Reasoning follows that if it occurs there, it could be done here such as in the case of Randall Adams where the police framed him knowing the difficulty of convicting and executing a minor.

The cost of keeping a prisoner on death row is also cited. Simply listing the cost of the initial trial in Kansas gives us a number of approximately $508,000, 16 times the cost of a non-capital case. Appeals are said to reach 21 times the cost of other appeals. Indiana’s Criminal Law Study Commission has discovered that a death sentence is 38% more costly overall than a life sentence. Additionally, supporting earlier arguments, 20% of all capital convictions are overturned and given life sentences.

Several Supreme Court justices have come, over the life of their appointments, to see the death penalty as ineffective and possibly flawed. Harry Blackmun and Lewis Powell are two such examples. More recently, Sandra Day O’Connor stated, “If statistics are any indication, the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed…”

Contrarily, there are also many arguments in favor of capital punishment.

Execution is an efficient way of dealing certain types of criminals. The punishment is, after all, permanent and that offender can never again commit the crimes that incurred the wrath of society. In areas where it is still practiced, it enjoys democratic (though not always popular) support.

Capital punishment is a statement of how the society in question views the severity of the crimes in question. Crimes a people are willing to execute for are obviously the most heinous and severe (or should be). In some ways, it demonstrates the state’s willingness to protect its citizenry from criminal elements. By showing that the state is willing and able to take the life of an offender for doing so to other citizens, the state assures its citizens that it cares for them and tries to protect them.

The pursuit of justice is, perhaps, the most cited reason for the implementation or retention of the death penalty. While there is no way to restore what was lost in the commission of a crime that leads to a death penalty conviction, the closest approximation is the retribution of death. Since the United States doesn’t allow for torture (implied in the adage of the punishment fitting the crime in many capital cases), the only reasonable alternative allowed to victims and states is execution.

Deterrence is cited as well. If a crime may land you in the electric chair, you are far less likely to commit the crime in question. Further murders of other innocents are also prevented by the assurance that the individual to be executed is never released or escapes.

If the death penalty were abolished, it is said we could reasonably expect the following behaviors:

First, inmates sentenced to life in prison would feel no compelling reason to avoid killing one another. Prison is a violent place and murders are already more common than they ought to be, but by denying the authorities the ability to take them permanently out of circulation, the state enables inmates to perpetuate violence upon each other with little to no impediment.

Secondly, the rule of law loses much of its authority when capital punishment is not an option. People become more likely to take upon themselves the burden of retribution and justice for the most heinous of crimes. Vigilantism and other escalating and violent methods of exacting personal justice may rise as a result.

Our decisions about capital punishment reflect how we feel about the basic nature and value of human life. At some point we must step back and examine the innate hypocrisy of the support of the death penalty. If - as so many of us assert - we place inherent value on human life, why do we feel it is appropriate to value one life differently than another?

Certainly scripture of all stripes values life based on belief and unbelief so in many cultures people are already conditioned to see some lives as worth more than others. Murder and other sins that lead to the legal end of capital punishment serve as a method by which people are comfortable devaluing the lives of those they wish to see executed.

We can look close to home in most cases and find a situation where we'd love to see someone die for their crimes, crimes so heinous as to tacitly amount to a willful surrender of the right to life.

There was a man who once worked for me named Britt Ripkowski. He was weird and he was a bit maladjusted socially, but never once did I consider him to be dangerous. Yet, shortly after he moved on in the company, the sordid details of his crime surfaced. Here is a man who wantonly and wilfully murdered a young woman and a very small child. Every fibre of my being wants him to pay in blood for that.

The question I must ask myself is if I am willing to support a system where I will get my wish, the price for which is the risk of executing the innocent. People in prison have been exonerated repeatedly based on new evidence. How many have wrongfully made it to the executioner?

If the answer is even one, it is too many.

Read more:


Death Penalty Information Center

The New American

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

[1] Interestingly, John Locke was a supporter of capital punishment.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Hall of Mirrors

The contents of this article are terrifying and illustrative.

Often seen as a conflict of bloody misunderstanding and intolerance, the War on Terror/Jihad is intent on showing us the ugliest facets humanity has to offer. It is also far more complex than any 'blog could possibly illustrate due to its roots in political movements that absorbed religious fanaticism as a tool for change within its own society all through the modern showdown with men whose forces and causes we (the West - don't think for an instant that just because you aren't American your country isn't complicit) once supported.

The current state of the Jihad and the War on Terror shows us the reach of hate, and the bitter aftertaste of fear.

I will begin with my own beam before I pluck at the Middle Eastern mote, as it were. Rumsfeld has long been both lauded and reviled over the last 50 years. In spite of the initial appeal of taking both Afghanistan and Iraq with as few soldiers as possible (alternately seen as both forward-thinking and short-sighted), there are many things he has done to both offend and abuse the American soldier.

In the Defense Review, Rumsfeld cites several worrisome activities. While in and of themselves, they make perfect tactical and strategic sense, some seem to flout our responsibilities to the international community, law, and democracy.

For instance, it makes sense that the military would be restructured further to adapt to the current world environs and that the military should never be allowed to become complacent.

But it is passive-aggressive imperialist doctrine to state categorically that we plan to conduct war in countries with whom we are not engaged in hostilities. Rather than admit that we must first pursue diplomatic and political solutions to cases where a country offers a safe haven to those we oppose, the document expresses the arrogance of power. Few countries would dare march an army into a neutral or allied country with the intent of waging war on a specific segment of those within those borders. Even in cases where the country being violated may be politically belligerent, such an action is patently an act of war not only on the target but on its host.

Yes, yes, a solid case can be made in the interest of security, but the broad strokes used to outline this doctrine send the message to the world that we will do as we please without regard to treaty, law, or the long-term ramifications of such bellicose activity. Would the United States stand for another country doing the same to it? The answer to that hardly warrants asking.

The bits reproduced read like an imperialist manifesto. Certainly it can be taken at face value as reorganization and recognition of the changing theatre the military occupies, but it could also be seen as similar to the British Navigation Act of 1651 - as a vehicle for empire - or the United States' own Manifest Destiny.

It also lays out the presumption that this is a conflict that can be won through violence, an assertion the article's author correctly disputes.

So let's move on to everyone's favorite Mastermind: Osama bin-Laden.

What we see here is far less sophisticated in terms of details but no less sophisticated in its ability to influence those he intends to reach. His points are full of spurious and fallacious logic, arrays virtually the entire world as enemies of Islam, and even promotes internal religious strife and violence.

Most disturbing, though, is his refusal to acknowledge the reality of dissent. Instead, Osama bin-Laden takes the ethical stance that because our leaders are democratically elected, we are responsible for everything they do. From a very simplistic standpoint, this makes perfect sense. Our leaders are intended to represent our will. The problem is that no government actually works this way. Ideally, certainly, but we do not live in that sort of world.

His statements as reproduced in the article linked above imply genocide. If you are not with us, you are against us...sound familiar? The absolutism of his hate is staggering.

Sadly, this is a common - if lamentable - sentiment among religious fanatics and in this way, Osama bin-Laden and George W. Bush (and no less importantly, their supporters) don't seem much different, and that is frightening.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

French Bread

It is difficult, at times, to understand the frustrations and fears of people living in another country. Those outside the US sometimes presume that those of us here are all militant, gun-toting, bible-thumping imperialists while those in the US often presume those outside have no idea how to defend themselves, that they are professional victims or are hopelessly backward and provincial.

Premier in the public consciousness is the fact that once again, French streets are awash in humanity decrying some injustice many of us are not quite clear on.

What most Americans know (or seem to know):

  • French students are protesting a law allowing them to be fired without cause.
Okay, that's really about the extent of what most of us here understand.

So I thought, "Let's find out what they're upset about." I embarked upon many readings and one of the first things I noted was the terrible coverage CNN gave it. More and more that place is best for soundbites, it seems.

So off I flew to places like Open Democracy, the BBC, and even the Brussels Journal. What I read in these places was eye-opening in many ways, not least of which was the French protest. Maybe I'll discuss some of my other discoveries later.

The first thing I learned is that France has a very protectionist attitude about its workers. It is difficult to fire them and they are compensated heavily if they are terminated. This protectionism is widely seen as one of the primary contributing causes to French unemployment which by some accounts is nearly 10% among the general populace and said by some sources to be higher than 20% among its youth. Employers are unwilling to hire indiscriminately for fear of having a layabout for life. This is both reasonable and understandable.

After last year's riots, legislation was pushed through that allows employers to fire without cause any employee under 26, within their first two years of employment, and on their first job. Looking at a synopsis like this, as a US citizen, the initial reaction will be one of astonishment. After all, it gets progressively harder to fire them during their two-year trial and they get some small compensation when they're fired. There are more details but that's really what's salient.

My first reaction was, "Cry more. In the United States that's fairly normal. Go back to your state-paid education and quit whining." I was certain that it was just spoiled French kids without any proper perspective. In an environment like the US, compensation for being fired is unheard of outside layoffs and executive ousters.

Confident I'd figured it all out, I sat back and skimmed. But the more I read the more I realized it wasn't that simple, and that they weren't just whining.

The very nature of their job market is what's at stake here, not just young adults complaining that life isn't fair. If an under-26 is easy to fire, why bother with a potentially experienced worker who may have lousy work habits (after all, he or she is seeking a job post-26 so they must have been fired at some point, right?) when you can have what, in France, amounts to a disposable worker?

This means that young French workers have little of the security their older counterpars have, while also facing a market after firing where they will compete with their disposable erstwhile peers.

Granted, there is a fair bit of speculation here, and the slippery slope of logical fallacy lurks at the edges, but were I an employer in France these are thoughts I would have about my options concerning employees.

In France, unlike in the United States, workers have a lot of guarantees as an assumption of their job market. These are guarantees almost no US worker enjoys, so when a US citizen looks at the protests, it is very easy to assume that the French youth are spoiled brats looking for free money. But what some of us are missing is that, in France, what they are asking for is nothing short of the status quo. It would be like the US youth (we'll assume 18-26) protesting over the denial of access to a job based on their age. We don't tolerate that here and the French shouldn't tolerate what amounts to age-discrimination either.

Context is important. It is crucial to understanding, tolerance, and acceptance. This doesn't mean there are no absolutes at all, but that our experience is rarely the experience of those halfway around the globe and it becomes us to attempt understanding before rendering judgment.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Clotting Factor

I gave blood for the first time when I was 18. I am O-Negative and my little brother has benefitted directly from blood donors due to some operations as a child to fix a deformed leg, so it's been something of a moral imperative for me. I've given blood now for nearly 17 years every 8 weeks.

Saturday I was getting ready to go to my 11:30 AM appointment when I thought I'd better get that silly card they're always sending me. Last time I went, they told me things would go faster if I had it. So I remembered that a Red Cross envelope had arrived two weeks ago I'd never opened. I assumed it was the card in question and tore open the envelope.

Rather than find a donor card inside, I found material on HTLV-II. The letter said my blood was part of a batch that tested positive for it so was retested, but came up clear. Okay, so far so good. It went on to say that it was highly unlikely I have HTLV-II but that because my blood was in a lot that included an erroneous test result, I am now ineligible to donate blood. Ever.

HTLV-II is a permanent infection and if it's present, they don't want to take any chances. It's unclear what HTLV-II actually causes though it has tenuous links to a few conditions and it's generally thought that it must be present for several decades before symptoms of anything arise. The vast majority of HTLV-II infected people (on the order of 95% give or take) remain asymptomatic their entire lives.

I can't describe what I feel about this. It's irrational and childish, but it broke my heart to find out I can't give blood anymore. I think I'd be less crushed if I actually had HTLV-II.

Anyway, in case you're interested, there's an informational page here about HTLV-II and several Red Cross sites discuss it. I'm going to sulk a bit longer and then try to find something less self-indulgent to do about it.