Saturday, July 29, 2006

But doesn't the devil make us all "do it"?

I've been thinking about Andrea Yates. In 2001, you'll recall, Yates killed her five children, ranging in age from six months to seven years, by methodically drowning them one at a time in the family bathtub. She claimed she did it to save them from Satan, a claim that last week won her a "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict in the retrial of her overturned 2002 murder conviction. Now, I don't know whether the homicidal compulsion that took hold of Yates was bred of insanity; unlike, I guess, so many others who've weighed in on this latest verdict, I'm not omniscient. But I am intrigued by the logic used by some people (most of whom, anecdotally, seem to be women) whose analysis is rooted in the following assumption: "In order for a mother to do something like that, she would've had to be insane." In other words, they're reasoning backwards from the sheer gruesomeness of what Yates did--looking at it through the prism of all we know about maternal instinct--and concluding that, by definition, a sane woman could not commit such a crime against her kids.

That logic, of course, has wider application: It suggests that we should judge the sanity of the criminal by the outrageousness of the crime. In which case there are a lot of murderers--our friend Charlie Manson comes to mind--who clearly should've beaten the rap by reason of insanity. (It also suggests that if you're planning to kill someone, you should probably kill several other people, too, then lop off their heads and stuff rutabagas into their neck-holes. It makes you look crazier, and therefore less guilty, in the criminal-justice sense.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about postpartum depression, which has been used as a defense--sometimes viably so--in a number of high-profile murder cases. Now, again, I don't know whether postpartum depression is or isn't a form of insanity, or a legit excuse for murder; the medical profession increasingly seems to think so. But if that's the case--if we're going to cut women a break because of a biologically rooted phenomenon that holds them in its grasp--then I don't understand why similar allowances aren't made for men as a class, who--almost everyone agrees--are more predisposed to violence by nature. If testosterone or that damned Y chromosome actually causes someone to have a lower boiling point, why don't the laws reflect that? Hey, maybe guys should be entitled to "one free murder" before they're subject to the same laws that are applied to women (at least, the ones who aren't suffering from postpartum depression). After all, once you start making distinctions based on what people are biologically programmed to do...where do you stop?


Anonymous said...

steve your chauvinism is showing again.

Anonymous said...

Steve- I can't figure you out. Your book reads very right wing. Your blog seems mostly left wing, but not always. Sometimes you go back and forth in the same comment. Then sometimes you seem- no wing. Do you have actual opinions on things or is this all just a big intellectual exercise to you? Where you're just throwing ideas out there? I'm sure I'm not the only one who would like to know. I don't get it.
Carl Hessman, a fan of yours- I think

Cosmic Connie said...

I've been torn about this case since the news first broke. Like so many other unfortunate events (e.g., Enron), this one took place in my neck of the woods, so naturally it has been in the local media nonstop for five years.

You might lose all respect for me, Steve, but I am one of those who was pulling for the insanity defense in this particular case. Even so, I was ambivalent and still am. One part of me thinks there has to be some criminal liability here. After all, five beautiful little children are dead. (Actually, I think that bloated, self-righteous ex-husband bears just as much guilt as Andrea, but he, unfortunately, wasn't on trial.)

The other part of me believes that this woman was not and is not well, and is so sick that justice would not be served by throwing her in prison for the rest of her life. Granted, Charlie Manson is a sicko too, but a different sort of sicko than Andrea Yates. Andrea didn't form a cult and get other people to kill for her.

However, I do not feel, as Anon number 1 apparently does, that you are a male chauvinist. You seem to be pleading for equal justice for men and women.

Anon 2, who doesn't seem to be all that anon after all, might do well to remember what Emerson said about "a foolish consistency" (just in the event that you are actually being inconsistent). However, you seem to be arguing consistently in favor of personal responsibility. In any case, I don't think "right wing" or "left wing" is relevant here. I may be wrong about this, but you come across as more or less libertarian -- a healthy mix of right and left, perhaps.

OTOH, maybe you're just messing with us, LOL. Gotta stir the pot to keep the blog going! :-)

Steve Salerno said...

First of all, I am not "messing with" anyone, or stirring any pots (if by that you mean writing my own adversarial comments). My feelings here are somewhat analogous to those of the growing body of women (NPI) who just don't understand why so many of their sisters fake orgasms. There's just no sense in having a debate if it's not an honest, above-board debate; everyone comes out poorer. (And incidentally, I don't write my own Amazon reviews, either.)

CosCon, you weren't here in the early days of SHAMblog, but if you had been, you would've witnessed many days--far too many--when I was a lone voice in the wilderness, writing for an audience of me. If I didn't "fake it" then--and I didn't--I'm not gonna start today. And now I'll abandon that thread, lest I be accused of protesting too much...

Actually CarlAnon is right: A lot of this IS an intellectual exercise to me (though the word "intellectual" may be overstating things, at least in one of its senses). When I ask questions, they're not generally rhetorical--they're honest questions. I don't know the answers to many of these things. I do know that I take vehement issue with many of the "givens" in latter-day society, which--your invocation of Emerson's famous quote notwithstanding--I think are woefully inconsistent and therefore prejudicial. If we're going to have laws and policies and standards, yes, they should be reasonably consistent across-the-board. So, e.g, IF we're going to let women cop a plea because they just gave birth and are reacting poorly to the hormonal imbalances, then I don't see how we can also deny the role of biology in a lot of what men do (and in many other instances as well). Testosterone is a potent chemical. Just ask Floyd Landis... But remember... I'm just saying IF....

Cosmic Connie said...

Hey, Steve, by "stirring the pot," I only meant that maybe you were just throwing out controversial ideas to get people to respond. However, I was being facetious, hence the "LOL" and the smiley.

Carl seemed to be implying that there is an inconsistency in your writings, and I was trying to communicate that I didn't see any inconsistency. I guess it didn't come across very clearly...

Cosmic Connie said...

Well, there’s an interesting development in the Andrea Yates case; one of the jurors from this second trial has come forth and said she is not satisfied with the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict. She thinks a more just verdict would have been “Guilty but insane.” For Yates, the end result would probably be the same; she would most likely still spend most of the rest of her life locked up or at least under some sort of close supervision.

In any case, Texas law does not have a “guilty but insane” provision. Some states do, of course, and it has been discussed in Texas in the past. Apparently, though, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys here really like the idea because they think it is too ambiguous, and they like these particular laws to be straightforward. (Imagine lawyers wanting something to be straightforward. :-))

I know my initial comment on this thread was a little superficial, and this one probably will be too…but I still think that in this case, the jury was wise to err on the side of compassion for Andrea Yates. Postpartum depression was far from Yates’ only problem; she seemed to have a history of mental illness, and having so many children so close together did seem to upset her already fragile system even more. Perhaps the postpartum depression just sent her over the edge.

Even so, I think Steve has raised some important questions in this thread.

BTW…nice chromosome pics, Steve. But be careful, lest you be accused of being sexist by choosing an illustration that happens to show the “Y” as blue and the “X” as pink, LOL.

acd said...

The "guilty but insane" verdict would be the most apt. To me, Yates is guilty by definition. She did in fact kill five children. The woman's mental health (or lack thereof) does not make her any less at fault for the crime. Perhaps the "insanity" part of the verdict could affect the punishment. It may be so (as Connie said) that, "justice would not be served by throwing her in prison for the rest of her life."

However, the topic more relevant to the original post is where we draw the line in matters of the insanity defense. Steve, I know you're trying to reveal alleged inconsistencies in the legal system by pointing out that men aren't given a break due to their predisposition to violence, but that example is a bit of a stretch. The notion of insanity implies that the condition is relatively anomalous among the population. To address this case specifically--not all women experience postpartum depression. The legal system is not giving "women" a break. They're giving "insane" women a break. (Granted, some men would say all women are crazy.) Men can get this same break; it would just be due to a different sort of hormonal imbalance than postpartum.

The key word is "imbalance." Something has to be abnormal. Men with testosterone are decidedly normal. Therefore, that fact alone is not a viable excuse for improper actions, and therefore not a worthwhile example in this discussion. I don't see any legal inconsistency in declaring a woman with postpartum depression insane.

However, HOW insanity is defined could logically come under question. There are obviously different levels of severity with postpartum depression. It's not easy to draw the line, and I'm not nearly qualified enough to even try. The point is simply that men and women are treated equally in regards to being labeled "insane." The issue of gender has little relevance here.

Rodger Johnson said...

Equitable, Nofair justice and a consistent legal system...

I think you're asking for too much, Steve.


No hurt in wishing...I'm still wishing for my Pontiac Soltace

Wife says -- keep wish'n

Steve Salerno said...

Hmmmm. Lots of interesting stuff here. For starters, I can see acd’s point (as a practical matter), but I'm not buying the argument about "anomalous" behavior. Let me throw this out there: Let's say that women, as a class, are lambs. (Humor me.) And men, as a class, are lions. (Yes, I know I'm exaggerating, but I'm doing it to make my point about the natural, biological differences that separate men and women behaviorally.) Lambs, by nature, make nice. Lions, by nature, kill things. If society's standards are set at the "lamb level"--such that lions are punished for merely doing what lions do (which is to say, for not being lambs)--how is that fair to the lions? (I'm speaking philosophically now, not in terms of the imperatives of running a civilized society.) And it becomes all the more unfair when some lamb comes along, has a hormonal problem, begins acting like a lion--and society cuts her a pass on that basis! ("Gee, if a lamb starts acting like a lion, it MUST be insane...") It's like, I sometimes hear people who've suffered at the hands of a sociopath start screaming in court (during victim-impact statements, which I VEHEMENTLY oppose) about how "He has no conscience!!"--and I'm somewhat amused by that. I mean, how do you get angry at someone for doing the kinds of things people without consciences do? Lacking a conscience is like lacking arms. A person without arms ain't gonna make it in the NBA. And a person without a conscience is going to do terrible things. But you can't really blame him for it, in the philosophical sense, any more than you can blame the person without arms for not being able to make it in the NBA. Right?

To be continued...

acd said...

Steve, if you're applying your metaphor to Yates' case, you're way off base. By saying that a lamb is getting a break when it acts like a lion, you're implying a normal man would have a predisposition to kill his five children. Maybe some wild cats are known to eat their young, but I hardly consider it a natural tendency of the male human race.

If you have a case in mind that more appropriately fits your analogy, please clarify. Otherwise, I don't see any validity in that comparison.

Steve Salerno said...

I'm simply saying that some of us--by nature--are more predisposed to do certain things (in this case, violent things) than others. And that this predisposition sometimes applies to an entire class of us (like the lions/lambs situation). Lions eat lambs. Lambs eat mostly plants. So to pass a law that says that lions must stop eating lambs is as out of whack with nature as passing a law that says that lambs must begin eating lions. The morality of it--or the sympathy we feel for the poor lambie who's being eaten--seems irrelevant to me.

Btw, I'm inclined to make this argument even broader. Why do we give people awards for being brilliant, and therefore doing the things that brilliant people do? Could they "help it"? No more than a moron can help being a moron. It's kind of like giving a person an award for being tall. Or short. Or having blue eyes...

Steve Salerno said...

In fact, as long as we're talking height--what if we were to pass a law that penalized people for being, say, over 5-foot-9? Wouldn't a dramatically larger number of men "break" that law than women? In effect you'd be penalizing men just for being men. Which--I think it's just possible--some laws do. If the typical male temper or anger or bravado puts his inclination toward violence that much closer to the surface, then you are penalizing him for reacting in a way that's endemic. At least that's how I see it, acd. Today. There's always tomorrow. :)

Anonymous said...

Steve- OK I hear what you're saying now, but sorry I've gotta go with "acd" on this one.

Cosmic Connie said...

Obviously, we have to look at the effects of a person's actions -- predisposed or not -- on society. Simply being a moron or being tall doesn't necessarily pose a danger to society. (Regarding morons and the *potential* dangers they pose, I am NOT going to turn this into a political discussion, LOL.)

But since we're talking about hormones, allow me to wander a little off topic again (blame it on hormones :-)), and point out that there is a double standard in the world of sports too. Testosterone, due to its effects on muscle development, endurance, etc. is apparently considered a performance-enhancing substance (okay, stop snickering). Therefore, artificially supplementing one's testosterone levels is sufficient grounds to get one disqualified from, say, a bicycle race.

Yet a woman on birth-control pills, or, if she's a bit older, HRT, would not necessarily be disqualified for taking these substances, would she? In athletics, estrogen and progesterone are apparently not considered performance-enhancing substances.

Sorry if I derailed the discussion again, but some of this may be relevant anyway.

So, back to the topic...Steve, as much as I admire you and agree with you on many things, I too tend to agree more with ACD on this one.

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, CosCon, I grant you (and acd) that if we're going to run a civilized society, we have to consider the net result. Which is why we have to keep the lions away from the lambs. (And if you're tiring of my relentless jungle metaphor, so am I.) My point, however, is that a lion is not "guilty" of being a lion; he's simply, well, a lion. (Or a lioness, if that's the case.) You get my drift?

And in way, to focus on the end result "for society" is also worrisome and misleading. It's like baseball: A guy hits a screaming line drive into somebody's glove and he therefore "fails" to do his job. The next guy up barely gets a piece of the ball, but it dinks in behind the infield and scores the winning run, so he gets a hero's welcome--even though, in truth, HE was the one who failed to "do his job" by failing to hit the ball hard. The first guy (who made the out) succeeded.

To judge by results--by the ostensible impact--is to play a very deceptive game, sometimes. And then you have the question of short-term vs. long-term results. Sometimes we interpret something as a "good result," because we're only seeing the short-term benefit. Maybe long-term we would've been better off if something else (something we could not have foreseen or imagined) happened. In other words, how do we know that horrific diseases, or tsunamis that wipe out entire island populations, are "bad" in some universal sense? That's how we see them today, when they happen, yes. But in the long term? A thousand years from now? Who knows? I sure don't. This is where we get into that whole butterfly effect (or, say, James Gleick's rendering of "chaos" theory), etc.

I dunno. I'm rambling. So I'll stop.

Rodger Johnson said...



Regardless of the defendents state of mind, she murdered her children in a manner that begs the question of motive -- to save them from Satan?

We have to qualify this for believers an atheists. For the believer, killing the children, if they had not received salvation -- puts them squarely in Satan's hands. So her point of killing her children takes an even more sinister twist. By "saving' them, she delivers them to hell's gate.

For the ahteist, the point is even more interestingly absurd. How can one kill to save a child from a thing he/she holds no belief in? Why doom them to nothingness?

And regardless of the law's tilt toward treating men more brutal than women -- that fact is both genders have the capacity to kill merciously regardless of hormone levels.

What separates a violent person from one who chooses the alternative is that very thing we call choice. I have never bought into the defense's line of reasoning, and I tend to take a hardline with the posts in this thread.

In fact, my beef with this case and cases like it is that the law and our society have become too wishy-washy. We want to find an excuse for everything we do wrong, instead of owning up to it.

My point is very simple, cut and dry -- black and white -- on murder cases like this. Brace yourselves, but don't hate me and band me from ever posting again.

Here goes:

Whether a person is found insane or he/she is found sane, and to have committed Murder in the First, they should be led from the court room to an execution chamber. If the evidence is conclusive, there is no reasonable doubt -- and there shouldn't be with our DNA technology -- then the accused should have no right for appeal, no right to live. Period.

And if they are insane enough to kill, they are especially dangerous to society and should be terminated immediately.

Notice, that I only hold this true for people claiming insanity and sane people found guilty of first degree murder --

To tie it back to SHAM, we have too many excuses and less accountability in our culture. For of the later, ifthings may be different. Yates' children might still be alive because she would have thought twice before she murdered her children.

Rev. Ron said...

Rodger -
Shouldn't a society base its legal system upon behavior that is more civilized than its most base elements? I can't say that I condone the death penalty as a legal punishment. If twelve jurors make the decision to put a convicted person to death, what differentiates them from a group of people who - without the sanction of a court - have conspired to commit murder? The end result is the same: A person's life is terminated as a result of a decision made by another. Motive is secondary, just as it is in a criminal trial.

I tend to agree that the insanity defense is grossly overused, but must ascribe responsibility for this abuse to the attorneys who are so quick to opt for such a plea. I have, however, personally dealt with individuals who committed murder while in an acute psychotic state, yet who were themselves neither inherently violent nor inherently evil. Their "punishment" consisted of extreme remorse which they felt upon becoming aware of their actions. In a couple of cases, their depression was so severe that they ended their own lives.

Would I want to be the person who decided that they were to die? Of course not. I would rather "sentence" them to an environment where they would be controlled and receive appropriate treatment. Perhaps it's easier to consider when viewed from a purely hypothetical perspective, but our responsibility as members of a civilized society is to balance the theories we espouse with the impact of those theories on human lives. Pat answers (my own included) are rarely valid.

Steve Salerno said...

Welcome aboard, RevRon, and thanks for the contribution. Maybe we need to get everybody into a 12-foot ring, hand out some gloves, and see what happens.... ;)

Rev. Ron said...

Gloves, eh? Would you be referring to boxing gloves, or the latex variety? Keep in mind that you'd be revealing more about yourself than you might desire! :-)

Seriously, though... Thanks for the welcome. I would like to think that I've already fulfilled my life's quota of fights, however. But I'll piss & moan with the best of 'em!

Rodger Johnson said...

Rev Ron:

There's a problem with your line of reasoning.

Let's take the first question you pose:

Shouldn't a society base its legal system upon behavior that is more civilized than its most base elements?

How can we choose better, when our base element is choose the worse? Whether we take this from a religious perspective or from a nilihist -- choose the worse is all humanity has. We choose bad or worse, never entirely good.

On another note

Yes, juror's motive is secondary, and it is the careful consideration of facts presented before them that they weigh.

For a murder, his/her motive is primary -- it drives them to kill.

The point that attorneys tend to abuse the insanity plea is a thorn in my side. But this depression thing just makes me sick.

But I've never seen a depressed person have a break and lash out at another person. I haven seen them, however, take their own lives.

And, if they have a psychoic break -- then it seems to me that the signs of one would be evident and that a perceptive on-looker could intervene. But, again, I think we tend to use psychotic breaks as an excuse for rage that we choose to let loose.

However, this thought intrigued me:

I have, however, personally dealt with individuals who committed murder while in an acute psychotic state, yet who were themselves neither inherently violent nor inherently evil. Their "punishment" consisted of extreme remorse which they felt upon becoming aware of their actions. In a couple of cases, their depression was so severe that they ended their own lives.

Whether you're a psychologist or a man of the cloth, I'm at odds over this example.

For me, the apparent suicide makes my point that we always choose the worse. That is to say, choosing to let a psychoitic episode control our behavior to the point of murdering another person, then letting depression drive one to his own demise, seems to me that one always reaches a tipping point. It's at that time angst and dread trigger a fear and trembling in our bodies warning use of our immenient choice.

The point I'm making here is simple. We always have a choice no matter how deep our depression is, no matter how psychotic we are -- choice always governs our behavior.

let's discuss more...

Steve Salerno said...

Ooooh, this is getting good! RevRon? CosCon? Acd? Dr. Phil...?

Anonymous said...

An attorney once told me, "If both parties come out of the courtroom feeling dissatisfied, then the judge's decision was fair. Maybe it's me, but I'm still perplexed by what he said. Steve, that was an absurd comment on victim impact statements. They are two-fold, to try and drill home a message to the accused, but MORE importantly as a form of healing and safely venting for the victim and their family. It's a healthy procedure, I know I experienced it. Oh one more thing, I hardly see how comparing humans to lambs and lions is making a valid point. Since when are we concerned with the laws of the jungle? Unless of course, Steve is slipping into his sheep's clothing right about now ... (just kidding) ... "Little red riding hood, you sure are lookin' good" ... (bah baah baaad reference:) I'm going back a wee bit with those lyrics (retro 60's).

Steve Salerno said...

There are many things that trouble me about the criminal-justice system, VI statements being just one small part. (They're irrelevant. And the courtroom, when a defendant is facing sentencing, is not the time or place for people to "vent safely." Laws and sentencing should be uniform. So if you come to court and cry and scream about what my crime did to your family, I should get a worse sentence than some other guy who commits the same crime, but the victim's family is more sedate in its courtroom comments? Now THAT is absurd.)

Anyway, so the other night I'm watching 48 Hours Mystery or one of those shows, and they're interviewing the jury after they convict some poor dude, and this juror says that what helped tipped the scales for her was that she noticed that when the defendant took a drink during a break in his testimony, "his hand didn't shake at all." That, to her, was "evidence" of something, presumably the fact that he was "a little too composed" or "didn't care enough" about the crime and the situation as a whole. Can you imagine? That is the type of "reasoning" that determines whether or not some people fry...

Anonymous said...

Steve, I'm sorry that you feel that way regarding the VI statements. I'm purely saying how it helped myself and our loved ones in the process during our trial. Being in law enforcement for over 22 years, I'll give you a tidbit of advice according to your last comment. There is no "uniform" system, unless of course you account for the officers on the street and of course the bailiff. Well, you get my drift. It's a jungle out there.

RevRon's Rants said...

Rodger -
What you ascribe to being a problem with my line of reasoning, I perceive as a divergence in moral codes. Each of us must follow what we hold as being true.

That said, it is the responsibility of a civilized society to aspire to something beyond its highest achievements, not to stoop to the level of its most vicious mmbers.

You state that the juror's motives are secondary - and, by extension, somehow pure - but that the murderer is driven by some primary need to kill. To me, this is just semantics, where we paint our own hunger for violence with a face which we can convince ourselves is noble. In either case, a conscious decision is made to take the life of another human being. Barring the use of deadly force as a last resort to protect one's life or the life of another, there just isn't any valid justification for the killing.

By your own admission, you have never encountered someone so deranged that they felt forced to take another person's life. Like many other things, such derangement does not rely upon your observation for its existence. I have dealt with people so afflicted while I was a senior psych tech on a locked ward. I had one patient who was a kind and gentle being most of the time. But there were times when he would have hallucinations and see the face of his father, who had abused him horribly. One day, while driving into a base camp in Vietnam, he saw the face of his father, pulled a .45, and killed him. Only it wasn't his father... It was his best friend. He may well have killed before that, but it was this incident that got him caught. For the rest of his life, he lived with the knowledge of what he had done, and no amount of therapy could assuage his guilt. In truth, the only real "cure" for him might have been to actually kill the father, but the man died when my patient was still young. Would you be willing to execute him? I would not.

The point I am making is that psychosis can twist one's reasoning so completely that the "choice" one makes - and which seems to be the only one available at the time - is diametrically opposed to one's moral code. Such individuals need treatment, and to be controlled so that they cannot harm themselves or others. But when an individual makes a calculated decision while not under extreme duress to end another's life, they are acting upon a barbarism that must not be tolerated. And that goes for both the murderer and the jurist who hands down a death penalty.

You acknowledge that you have never seen someone so psychotic that they would take another's life. And I have never seen the dark side of the moon. Yet both do exist.

Rodger Johnson said...

rev ron:

I want to comment more on your last post. You've posted an interesting twist in your line of reasoning.


It ties in with your point...

But you'll have to wait until after 5. I have three articles to review, a brochure to design and I'm on deadline to send out a newsletter.

I thought CosCon would chime in again..Where are you, CosCon?

Cosmic Connie said...

Never fear, Rodg, I'm still here...problem is, I just can't get that "Little Red Riding Hood" song out of my head now, LOL...I like the way the discussion is going, though. I bet this one has fueled more passionate responses than any post in some time.

I don't have anything profound to offer at this point. Re the Yates case, I'm still more or less satisfied with the jury verdict but deeply disturbed by the reality that the children are dead. The insanity plea has been grossly misused in the past and will be again. I am sure that as we learn more about hormones and the working of the brain, the legal system and our moral codes will eventually catch up -- well, maybe.

As for capital punishment, I tend to agree in principle with the Rev, but when I hear of, say, someone sexually abusing and then brutally murdering a child (or anyone else), I want to tear them limb from limb, and I am not violent by nature. I've never even hit anyone. Never fired a gun. Never done anything more violent than squash a roach (but that does count as violence, as the roaches in this part of the world are the size of small rodents).

I did not have any violent impulse when I heard the Andrea Yates story, though; I only felt a deep sadness.

And yes, I am well aware that most of my thoughts here are based on emotion (I'm thinking of another recent thread on this blog.)

In any case, I am still monitoring the discussion. Don't put me in the ring, though, Steve. I box like a girl.

Oh, yes, and welcome, RevRon! I thought you'd never get here.

I know this thread isn't over, but you'll have to excuse me while I jump to today's offering...

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, as CosCon intuits, we've established yet another all-time record for feedback. I must say, Cosmic, I "like the way this is going," too--what with the paperback version of SHAM coming out in a little over six weeks, and it being to my advantage to drum up as much interest in the book and its themes, in as many quarters, as possible. ;) Controversy never hurts, either. In fact, I'm thinking of embarking on a crime spree. I know I could never bring myself to drown the grandkids or anything like that-- but anybody want to go in with me on a bank heist or two? And then we go public with it? It'd get me booked on Oprah, for sure.

Rodger Johnson said...


Semantics. That is the point. It's the study of relationships between signs and symbols and what they represent. That representation is reality to the person preseving it.

This gives use our differing points of view. But my point, my soapbox, the word I preach is that semantics are important to understanding and communicating about reality. Once you know the which sings and symbols mean what, and how they relate to the value system of an individual, using them to communicate a different reality creates a very different perception.

That's what we do in PR. We move the needle of semantics to affect the needle of social behavior.

Back to the case at hand. Once we understand that motive drives murders to kill -- that motive is manifestation of the inner darkside of that every person in the world is consumed in.

So, the motive, for the jurors to sentence someone to death is based on a weighing of the facts, the motive is a manifestation of those fact acted upon by a group of agreeing people.

I agree the execution is wrong, it's as wrong as the murderer killing, but it is the proper reaction. Think of it this way, "for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction." We don't think twice of animals killing each other in the wide -- that's just a bad and should not happen, but it does.

So to curb human behavior, exterminating men and women who commit capital crimes, sets an example, a reality, a message that they must choose to accept or deny.

RevRon's Rants said...

Rodger -

I might actually consider agreeing with your assertion if capital punishment actually served as a deterrent to murder, but it does not. Most murders are committed during a period of rage, and the last thing the murderer is thinking about is the potential for repercussion at some point in the future.

As to the sanctioned killing performed by the judicial system, the only "repercussions" are found in the conscience of those meting out the sentence and the reactions of others to the decision made. The first is mollified to a great degree by the assumption that, since the execution is sanctioned by the state, it must be morally acceptable. The second is generally influenced by the public reaction to the crime, which is itself borne of the outrage the average citizen feels upon learning the details of the crime. The jurist becomes - by proxy - a first-person party to a horrendous event, and is guided to great extent by their emotional reaction to the crime. The "facts" in the case merely provide a rationale with which to justify killing the perpetrator. If I witness the murder of someone close to me, it would be my nature to avenge their death. The task of the prosecution is to make me a first-person party, so that they may convince me to seek that vengeance.

And here, we have the key to the justification of the death penalty: revenge. We can put aside the notion that our penal system is geared toward rehabilitation. Very few convicts are actually rehabilitated in prison. They are contained, where they cannot further harm a "civilized" society. They are punished for their actions by being placed in an environment that is, if anything, more brutal that the microcosm of their own circle in a "free" society. Yet we are driven by our emotions to seek even harsher punishment - one which is a more accurate reflection of the original crime. And we decide - supposedly based only upon facts - to kill the perpetrator. Our subsequent actions as a society are no less horrendous than those of the murderer, who may at least has the mitigating factor of rage that is beyond his/her ability or desire to control. If we are to be - as we claim - a civilized society, our sanctioned behavior *must* be better than that of our worst individual members.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Ron, I see your points, but I still come back to the fact that punishment befitting the crime is a basic concept even in a holy document like the bible, with its "eye for an eye." Frankly if someone kills a loved one of mine I don't care whether they're successfully rehabilitated. I want them to suffer in equal measure. The highest minds of American government feel that capital punishment is a just fate for a convicted murderer. An overwhelming percent of the general population agrees in poll after poll. That's good enough for me. As far as a deterrent, I know that capital punishment will deter at least one person from killing again- the convicted murderer. And good riddance

RevRon's Rants said...

Carl -

While I understand your reasoning, it begs the point: What punishment would be inflicted upon a rapist, following your formula? Would it not be appropriate to rape him? Or how about one who brutally disfigures someone, but doesn't kill them?

By your very statement, you support my assertion that execution is, at its core, an act of pure vengeance. You describe your reaction if placed in first-person contact with the crime - a reaction to which, on an emotional level, I can easily relate. But a system of justice must transcend emotional, knee-jerk responses if it is to be fair. Unfortunately, our system is not geared toward fairness or even justice, but is rather a contest of cleverness between attorneys. He who hires the best frequently gets acquitted, while anyone so unfortunate as to rely upon court-appointed counsel is up a creek. Especially given this structure, it seems ludicrous to base life-or-death decisions upon the outcome of the sanctioned debates.

As to justifying continued use of the death penalty based upon biblical precedent, it would follow that we would apply other biblical and historical precedents as well... such as stoning women found to be guilty of adultery. I like to think that society has evolved beyond such behavior in the last few thousand years, barring a few throwbacks such as executing criminals.

It all boils down, as I stated in an earlier post, to one's individual moral imperative. If we all agreed on what was right and wrong, there wouldn't be any such thing as Republicans (or, in all fairness, Democrats! :-)

Anonymous said...

Ron, you seem to be assuming that vengeance is automatically a bad thing. Or stoning for that matter. What have we gotten for all of our "civilized" views on crime and punishment? A society of young thugs who respect nothing, not even life itself, a culture of permissive sex with everbody sleeping with everybody else and so forth. Maybe if we went back to a period of laws that were more unforgiving, we could run a tighter ship. Just a thought.

Steve Salerno said...

I think I'll recuse myself from this one at the moment, except to say I hope I never have to appear in Carl's court.... (And that's not a judgment or a sly swipe at you, ol' buddy, just an observation.)

RevRon's Rants said...

Carl -
I've just gotta ask, and I do so with the greatest respect...

Did you toilet train your kids at gunpoint? :-)

Anonymous said...

I think your remark is over the top, Ron, and I don't think your use of a smiley lets you off the hook for it and makes it a "joke," ha ha. I am entitled to my beliefs about social justice which are shared as I noted, by the vast majority of Americans. That does not make me or any of us a monster as you imply. I frankly resent it. We should be able to have a discussion without name calling.

RevRon's Rants said...

Carl -

Lighten up, guy! I never called you any names, but merely made light of what appeared to be a pretty rigid attitude on your part. I guess you don't know me well enough to be comfortable with that.

I think it best if I follow Steve's example and recuse myself from this discussion, as well.

Steve Salerno said...

Now, now. I urge everyone to follow the (avowed) Rodney King approach to life: "Why can't we all just get along?" I would hope that not too many of you recuse yourself from the blog (or any specific discussion) because--you'll notice--my approach to much of the material is to "throw questions out there." Yeah, I maintain some kind of central, overarching voice--it IS my blog, after all--and I reserve the right to set the agenda, and to censor, when I feel it's necessary. But once I put the issues out for discussion, I'm the only one who should be recusing, because I'm (hopefully, in both senses) leaving it to others to sort it all out. You may or may not believe this, given my general pomposity and level of arrogance (which many who know me have commented on, as have any number of SHAM readers--even some of those who really like the book), but I am far more interested in what others have to say on these topics than what I have to say myself. I already know what I think. :)

I had a feeling things were going to get a bit incendiary between Carl and RevRon, but I would ask you both to (a) hang in there, and (b) not challenge each other to a Hamilton/Burr-type resolution. Indeed, to me, this is emblematic of the very situation we bemoan in the next series of posts: We have a political system in this country with two (basic) sides who, increasingly, don't seem to feel the need to really "engage" with one another. They just get ever-more hostile in their rhetoric, then tune each other out. Let's try for better than that, shall we?

Cosmic Connie said...

I guess I was either misinterpreting what I was reading, or maybe I just had my mind on other things (such as myself, since I'm a narcissist and all that)...but I didn't think it was getting too incendiary 'round these parts. I certainly didn't think RevRon was calling Carl names, or fighting. He may have been a little bit sarcastic, but I am sure he didn't intend it to be a personal attack. (I have inside info on RevRon so I am qualified to speak of these matters. :-)).

Sure, these are controversial issues that most folks have strong opinions about. So the discussion is going to get a little heated. But that's what makes it fun, right? So far, I think the level of discourse here is far better than the usual stuff we see in online forums. Now everyone kiss and make up and let's go on to the next thread! (I know it's not my blog and I don't have the right to tell anyone what to do; these are suggestions only. :-)) (Sorry for the emoticon, Carl. :-) Oops, there I go again!)

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
I must admit that I was taken aback somewhat when the discussion apparently turned "incendiary." The last thing I want is an acrimonious exchange with anyone, and I got the dueling mentality out of my system long ago. I acknowledge that it is my nature to be somewhat sarcastic at times, but I try to do it in good taste and in the form of benign humor. I apologize to you if my comments have somehow diminished the milieu you are working to maintain, and will do what I can to avoid inciting further acrimony.

Steve Salerno said...

Since we're all trying to mend fences, let me add my voice to the chorus. I hope I didn't leave anyone with the idea that I was taking sides in this, or defending anyone's honor, per se. Not so. It's just that people get touchy about stuff, and though we're all grown-ups--and, in all candor, you probably shouldn't be venturing too far into the blogosphere if you can't take the heat--one can't always predict in advance what someone's idiosyncratic flashpoint is apt to be. I do know that one of the touchiest areas is the issue of parenting skills, our kids, etc.--and there are often things in the background (that we outsiders, of course, have no way of knowing ahead of time) that predispose someone to be even touchier on a given topic than anyone could've predicted. Maybe I overreacted in my initial comment on this theme. I'd really like the discussion to be as no-holds-barred as possible, so long as we never descend into the realm of the ad hominem.

Anonymous said...

Steve- Personally I think my honor as you put it deserved to be defended, though I am fully capable of that in my own right. This has nothing to do with being touchy as you also put it, but that Ron took aim at me for no reason I could determine. Yes I know he was joking but what he said was irrelevant to what we were discussing in what I hoped was an intelligent way. There are many people who favor capital punishment, most Americans in every poll, and some of them shockingly enough are smart people and even good parents who toilet trained their kids without using weapons. I'd like to move on now unless the Rev wants the last word.

RevRon's Rants said...

Thanks for the "invitation," Carl. I have no particular need to have the last word, and am pretty certain that I won't, but felt the need to atempt once more to clarify my statements for you.

I do not know you well enough to assess the depth or fragility of your honor, and feel that the attack you describe exists more within your perception than my actions. My statements were never remotely intended as commentary on your (or anybody else's) honor, and I'm sorry you took them that way. Had I known that you would take personal offense, I might not have been so glib in my response. I would have merely stated that I felt your attitude was somewhat rigid. You obviously misinterpreted my intent as well as the relevance of my comment, and if by doing so you were made to feel uncomfortable, I honestly apologize.

It is obvious that we disagree as to the propriety of capital punishment, and even as to the approach that we take toward people with whom we disagree. I prefer to maintain dialog on a light-hearted level, and it is my nature to poke fun at my own foibles, as well as the idiosyncracies of others. I guess I need to try to be more considerate of those whose unique issues leave them sensitized to statements that they perceive as being made at their expense. Alternately, I could avoid any discussion in which I might not fully agree with another participant. That would, in my opinion, make for a pretty dull world.

Steve Salerno said...

RevRon, I don't know about the impact any of us is apt to have on the brightness or dullness of the world as a whole--but I do know that this blog would be a whole lot duller without your input.

Myself, I go back and forth on capital punishment. Intellectually (or at least, when I *think* I'm thinking about it with intellectual detachment), I find it hard to justify, and for many pragmatic reasons as well as philosophical ones (like the fact that so many death-row inmates, in places like Texas and Florida especially, happen to be poor minorities who can't afford O.J.-style legal representation). Then of course there's the Cuomo quote ("elevating base emotions to the status of law") that I used elsewhere in SHAMblog. On the other hand--somewhat like Carl, I guess--I sometimes ask myself what's wrong with a little vengeance/violence, per se? Let's not kid ourselves: The world basically runs on violence, or the threat of same; when push comes to shove, it helps to be a superpower. And didn't the U.S., in effect, enforce the "death penalty" against Uday and Qusay? Are international matters really so different from what we do here at home? In a purely philosophical sense?

I also think about this in the context of gun control, i.e. the growing body of statistics that appears to show that when felons know that citizens are packin' heat, the crime rate drops. Which, again, appears to indicate that it's violence, or the threat of same, that's actually preventing further violence from happening. But then, as you astutely observed, murder isn't like theft: Theft is often planned, whereas murder is often an impulse thing. Can you deter an impulse? Then again, the death penalty is normally reserved for cases where the murder WAS planned...

Aaaaarrrggghhhh! Too much to think about...

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -

Are you doubting my assertion that stilling my voice would have a profoundly negative effect upon the world? How dare you?! :-)

What I meant (as I'm sure you understood) is that it would make for a dull world if everybody structured their comments so as to not risk offending anybody. After all, the only logical result of absolute political correctness is silence, because there will always be someone who will take offense, no matter what is said.

As to violence being a deterrant, it does deter the actions of some people, but only those whose fear of retribution is more powerful than their desire to act. I, for one, am armed, and know that I would apply deadly force to protect myself and those around me. But that is far different from sitting back and pronouncing a death sentence on someone, especially given the gamesmanship that so pervades our legal system. The difference between acting in one's defense and acting from one's desire for retaliation (or just to prevail in a trial) is, in my opinion,very different, and I hold to the notion that a society must structure its policies on something other than its members' anger or competitiveness. Do I expect universal agreement with my personal moral code? Of course not. One can, however, hope. :-)