Wednesday, April 17, 2013

No Way to Honor Their Memory

So Bill Otis thinks I'm not normal. It's nothing personal, not about me in particular (though he's commented over here from time to time, and I'll be getting around to a response one of these days). It's just that I'm an abolitionist.  And as an abolitionist, I'm in favor of, or advocating, or something a "moral holiday."  So he says.

I don't want to be accused here of misepresenting his position, so here's exactly what he wrote in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon.
It is simply impossible for a normal person to contemplate the bombers' state of mind  -- to contemplate their savagery, their relishing death, their glee at the lifelong mutilation of their victims, and their indifference to whether and how many of the corpses would be children  --  and believe that a prison sentence, no matter what its length, is "justice."

Abolitionists' usual (and by now tiresome) lectures about cost, race, the preferences of Europeans, and all the rest of it, now show up for what they've been all along:  The talking points for a moral holiday.
Now, I don't know if the bomber (or bombers, Bill makes it plural, but unless he knows more than I do, that's just an assumption) actually "relish[es] death" or feels "glee at the lifelong mutilation of their victims."  I can as readily (more readily, really) imagine that the killer or killers feels nothing but perhaps the satisfaction of a messy, unpleasant, but necessary task done.  Not necessary from my point of view or yours or Bill's, but necessary for the actor.  Just as the Phelps family thinks it necessary to cheer the deaths of American soldiers because it's God's punishment on us for not hating gays more than we do. 

Terrorist's don't necessarily chortle over their acts.  Tim McVeigh apparently thought what he did appropriate, necessary, honorable.  I don't think I've ever seen any indication that it gave him pleasure to kill kids.  But again, maybe Bill knows something about whoever set the bombs off in Boston that I don't.

All of which is beside the point.

Mirriam Seddiq put up a brief post yesterday, reflecting on the carnage while marveling at a moving story of compassion and love.  She cries when she reads that story, she says.
I dare you to read this and not feel it.
And she implores us all to remember, to honor, to feel and share the power of love.
I wish I could write like that. I wish I could bludgeon people over the head with nothing more than a dandelion.  In the wake of this day, the blood on the streets of Boston, I look at this and am reminded that each of us is capable of so much love.
One of my favorite lines and moments in Shakespeare comes in Act III of The Winters Tale.  Walking along the shore in Bohemia (which in real-world geography is landlocked, but we allow the Bard some license in these things), an old shepherd has come upon a baby which he takes up in his arms and will raise.  He shortly meets with a young clown (no, not a circus clown - it's a foolish rustic) who walking along another part of the shore has come upon the body of an old man.  The youth reports his finding.  The old shepherd responds:
                          [T]hou mettest with things
dying, I with things newborn.
My friend Joachim Kübler sent me the link to that post by Bill Otis that started this off.   How, he wondered, to respond to Bill.  Of course, he knew the answer, which was Mirriam's response, and mine.
Mercy trumps justice.  Generosity of spirit beats retribution.  We do not show condemnation of killing by more killing.  Ghandi was right.
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
As I wrote in a comment to Mirriam's post,
Along with the horror and chaos and ugliness of the world, there are moments of simple beauty. They don’t make up for the horror and chaos and ugliness. They can’t balance it out because it doesn’t work that way. But they have a force and power of their own.
I've represented people who've done unspeakably horrible things.  In some absolute sense, I can imagine that some of them might deserve killing.  But we shouldn't.  Not because of some technocratic explanation about cost and public policy and potential error and the Eighth Amendment or the offensiveness of elevating procedural minefields over fundamental fairness and conscience and testing the fucking DNA.  Those are all good reasons not to kill, but they're not the nub, not the heart of it.

The answer to the Michael Dukakis question that Bernard Shaw asked and Dukakis blew and that went a long way toward getting the Shrub's father elected President is that 
Of course I'd want to kill the bastard who raped and murdered my wife, who killed my kids.  I'd want to rip out his lungs with my bare hands.  Slow and painstaking torture.  Damn right.  At least in the first instance.
But that's no way to honor their their memory.

Three people were killed by the bombs in Boston.  Three innocent people.  Random victims of a vicious act.  I don't pretend to know how to value a human life.  Actuarial tables and the law's calculations of things like future earning potential and the value of consortium don't really help.  We're really talking about he ineffable.  But if I don't know how to value those lives, I know that killing in their names doesn't do it. 

Here's what I know:  Jean Valjean's decency really is worth more than Inspector Javert's righteousness.

And as I keep writing here, mercy and grace aren't about what they deserve but about who we are.  So, of course, is the commitment to retribution.


  1. This reminds me of Mario Cuomo's response, when asked the same question as Dukakis, that he hoped to live in a society that rose above his own base instincts. A paraphrase, but a couple of quick Google searches did not come up with the original and it is late enough that I decided to drop it for now.

    1. I'm not doing the search. I'm pretty sure he began with "I'd want to strangle the guy" and then added that we have law to protect us from our baser instincts. It was, of course, the right answer. I thought about it as I was writing. Cuomo might well have beaten Bush and who knows how (if at all) the world might be different if he had.

      I stole from Hunter Thompson the concept of forcible lung removal. When he was asked about the Uncle Duke character in Doonesbury, who began as a pure parody of Thompson, he said he'd rip out Gary Trudeau's lungs.

  2. Mr. Gamso:

    How right you are. I don't know how I could have been so deluded all these years. The problem is not that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother killed an eight year-old by blowing a bunch of nails and ball bearings through him (not to mention two adults). Nope, as you point out, THE PROBLEM IS US. Bloodthirsty primitives, dontcha know.

    Look, if Washington, Lincoln and FDR all believed in (and used, I might add) the death penalty -- well, what do they know compared to Jeff Gamso?

    We should turn away from the barbarism you so perspicaciously discern in the American people and spare Tsarnaev the death penalty. Indeed, we should take a bigger step forward toward True Forgiveness and Overall Wonderfulness by not imposing any penalty at all! Prison is so, well, punitive. And most unpleasant. Plus we already have way too many prisoners, and just adding another doesn't make a grain of sense. Hardly the alternative a compassionate people would prefer, now is it?

    No, as your More Humane Wisdom implies, the thing to do is give Tsarnaev a box of chocolates and a new supply of nails so that, next time, he won't have to trouble himself to go to the hardware store.

    Thanks for opening my eyes!

    Bill Otis

    1. Bill,

      I'm the friend Jeff mentionend in his blog post.

      Let me be clear: What happened in Boston was a horrible crime and there's no justification for this. Nevertheless im against the death penalty, even in this case.

      I'm a regular reader not only of Jeff's blog and - I assume you're surprised - also of "Crime and Consequences". So I'm open to discuss this serious topic with you.



    2. Let's not forget the big bow to wrap around that truckload of nails

      Or we could try to be serious about this.

      No, I don't think you're a barbarian any more than, I hope, you honestly believe that I oppose all punishment (or am abnormal, which is where this particular bit began). We both sometimes speak hyperbolically and have these forums in which we get to carry on. Am I a better person or smarter or more compassionate than Washington or Lincoln or FDR? I doubt it. Probably not than Aristotle, either. Does that mean they were right about everything? No more than Aristotle. Understanding changes, and even in their day lots of folks (decent, smart folks) thought they were wrong about things.

      A federal judge I know once said that the death penalty brings out the worst in everyone: Police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, reporters, editors, the general public, everyone. I'm not sure he's wrong. I am sure that we don't get a better world by killing when it's not absolutely necessary. I am equally sure that lots of decent people disagree with me.

      Bill, you and I will never agree about this. Yeah, I'm more interested in fundamental fairness and due process (which I think is being eviscerated by our courts) and mercy. There are social costs to be paid for those views just as there are for belief in civil liberties. There are also social costs to be paid for a more securist, pragmatic approach to and understanding of constitutional protections and a more retributive approach to justice.

      You'll keep making your pitch. I'll keep making mine. As Kurt Vonnegut said, and so it goes.

  3. You know what I´m always astonished about?
    It´s how difficult - or even impossible - it is for people to discuss topics that
    are more serious than the yesterday weather without insulting each other.
    And I meant that in most cases for both sides.
    No matter if it is between Christians and atheists (just recently had such an en-
    counter in the fantastically anonymous internet where I was called an idiot) or here
    the death penalty where the proponents call us opponents morons or thuglovers, and vice versa, some opponents only see the proponents as bloodthirsty sickos....
    It seems impossible to discuss and take the other one serious instead of simply
    attacking him or her.

    I´m just wondering why that´s so difficult....


    1. The internet makes ad hominem attacks particularly easy. Notice that picture of your face next to your comment doesn't actually include a face any more than the Blogger symbol next to mine reveals mine. The internet encourages anonymity and near anonymity, and they encourage bluster and insult.

      Even beyond the internet, our discourse has coarsened in recent years. There are many reasons, but it's particularly evident in all those squabbles that emerge from the culture wars. You can probably blame it on the 60s as readily as on anything else.

    2. Hi Mr. Gamso,

      to be exact, I was not only talking about this particular quarrel between Mr. Otis and you.
      I´ve made that experience several times now (luckily, most of the time as a simple reader and not as someone directly involved, mostly because I only very seldom comment on the internet).
      And just now I thought I´d take the opportunity to ask that question - and it´s meant for both sides.
      There are comments made by DP opponents as well that are absolutely....well, let´s say, inadequate.

      I know there is just little or no hope to change that; it´s probably too usual to quarrel on low levels,
      but I thought it was worth a try.
      If there will only be one person on earth who starts thinking and comes to the conclusion that this world would already be a much better place if that discussion "culture" changes a lil bit, then it was indeed worth.
      Things that have been "like that" for years or even decades nevertheless don´t need to stay "like that", do they?

      A wonderful evening to everyone, no matter what he or she thinks about death penalty!