Sunday, August 30, 2009

On immutability

Sometimes you find that you keep encountering the same thought or issue, over and over and from different angles. Every few days, something pops up that seems to point at this same concept and you can't help considering them all together.

For the last few weeks, I have been encountering variations on a manichaean division of good people from bad people. It first cropped up in this Talk of the Nation program about Michael Vick, which discussed the problem of whether he should be allowed to get rich again playing professional football. Now, I happen to think that he was legally prosecuted, convicted, and served out his sentence, and that ought to settle the issue. If he's punished further, it should be for fresh crimes, not for the same crime over and over again. But a number of callers to the program disagreed; they seemed to believe that serving his sentence finished the prison portion of his punishment, but his suffering ought to go on ... well, for the rest of his life. If people convicted of felonies have trouble ever getting a job again, that was fine; it makes for a terrific example of what not to do. It's as if, should the punishment ever end, it's as if it never happened. Or, if you're no longer suffering, than you're no longer the object lesson that you ought to be.

Later, I encountered another public radio program - which I just can't locate online, sorry - about the one of the men charged with conspiring to commit terrorism by purchasing surface-to-air missiles for shooting down commercial aircraft. Basically, you had someone pretending he was an international arms smuggler, but was really a poser utterly incapable of acquiring any such weaponry; in order to seal the investigation, the FBI made up a harmless dummy missile for him to deliver to his client - a client who was also not a real terrorist, but an accomplice in the investigation. So no terrorists and no weapons, but he's being prosecuted in what is a rather obvious case of entrapment.

What jolted me was the prosecutor near the end of the program who - without using the word - essentially spoke out in favor of entrapment. The man under discussion was "the sort" of person who might harm people, we don't want "that type" of person running loose. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's a principle of our justice system that a person is punished for what they do, not what they might do. That's why we have laws against entrapment: it's assumed that most people have more capacity to commit crime than they're ever likely to enact by themselves, so it's too easy to maneuver otherwise decent-enough people into doing something wrong, if you work at it.

This prosecutor rejects that. In his view, there are Good People and Bad People, and some of the people you think are Good are really Bad People who haven't been identified yet. Entrapment is a good way to smoke out those latter people and lock them up, just in case they were ever to act on their evil impulses.

That same weekend, the newspaper had an article on the anniversary of the Manson murders, which included this paragraph:

“Manson made a lot of victims besides the ones he killed,” said Catherine Share, who once lived with the Manson Family under the nickname “Gypsy.” “He destroyed lives. There are people sitting in prison who wouldn’t be there except for him. He took all of our lives.”

Some of my family sneered at this as an evasion of responsibility, which it likely is, but that doesn't make it a false statement. Did Manson really manage to find the few teenagers who could be so alienated as to finally commit murders? Or, to bring it closer to home, can those of us who have lived nice law-abiding lives feel so confident that we could never be turned to the dark side? I don't have that confidence; if I've always been incapable of murder, it might have more to do with cowardice than morality.

Here's my last example, a counterexample, which I found at Boing Boing:

My point here isn't about how to defeat hate, but simply that it can be defeated. Here's someone who has changed his views, is more generous and understanding than he used to be. Perhaps this isn't the best example, as it too easily fits the narrative of redemption, of turning from Evil to Good, when I'm really trying to break down Evil and Good as rigid dichotomies at all. But still - we're changeable. I hear a lot of voices which assume that bad people are Bad People, now and forever. But we're changeable. And if we're changeable, it's probably because we were never purely good or evil in the first place.


Heather said...

This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, too -- I'm trying to remember details about a long article I read in Harper's or the Atlantic last year about a similar sting operation that took place with a hapless would-be weapons smuggler overseas somewhere (who was too inept to successfully complete any part of the deal, but got arrested anyway), but I forgot where it happened or any of the details. More recently, I was kind of surprised at the public outcry against the release of the dying terrorist who was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. Even Obama felt it necessary to announce that he was "deeply troubled" by the fact that the man was sent home to Libya to die. While I'm pretty creeped out by the fact that he apparently received a hero's welcome, I still agree with what the Scottish justice said, quoted in that CNN article: "Our justice system demands that judgment be imposed but compassion available. Our beliefs dictate that justice be served but mercy be shown."

Heather said...

It also reminds me a bit too much of the late 19th/early 20th century fascination with criminal "types" and their physiognomy, habits, etc. Once someone's been determined to be a criminal type, then it hardly matters if they're arrested before or after they have the opportunity to commit a crime, right?