Saturday, March 19, 2005

From blog member Lee Penn
Lee wrote this entry via mass e-mail:

An Iranian mass-murderer and child-rapist was executed by public hanging after receiving 100 lashes and being stabbed by one of the victims’ relatives:

Child killer gets public torture then hanging

The crimes were hideous, and the punishment was what you’d expect in Iran.

What I had not expected is for a neocon/libertarian American constitutional law professor and blogger, Eugene Volokh, to approve of this ... and to suggest that we could weaken the Bill of Rights’ ban on cruel punishment so that we could do the same to mass killers here [in the US]:

Go to his blog, The Volokh Conspiracy, and scroll down to read his March 16 post.

He said ... with only some prudential back-tracking in more recent posts:

"I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing — and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act — was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

And, yes, I know this aligns me in this instance with the Iranian government — but even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and in this instance the Iranians are quite correct.

UPDATE: I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I'm not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it's cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.

Naturally, I don't expect this to happen any time soon; my point is about what should be the rule, not about what is the rule, or even what is the constitutionally permissible rule. I think the Bill of Rights is generally a great idea, but I don't think it's holy writ handed down from on high. Certain amendments to it may well be proper, though again I freely acknowledge that they'd be highly unlikely."
My [Lee’s] assessment .....

This is the usual procedure for making the unspeakable a matter of public discussion, and then to make what was unspeakable seem normal. Taboo-smashers have been doing this for a long, long time. I never imagined that I would hear a constitutional law professor suggest, even tentatively, that we should amend the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. (Of course, given what we are doing in Guantánamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in secret prisons elsewhere, we already torture and kill our enemies ... we just move them into a category of people that have no rights under Constitutional or international law, and then do what we wish.)

And then there is the matter of torture and degradation as entertainment ...

‘Guantánamo Guidebook’ brings torture to TV
An upcoming British television special attempts to recreate alleged techniques used at the American prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In The Guantánamo Guidebook, former American Delta Force interrogators subjected seven volunteers to sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and intense questioning over the course of 60 hours. NPR’s Madeleine Brand talks with Chris Guelff, who volunteered for the show.
So what’s next ... bringing back the Colosseum?

As a context, here is what I wrote in mid-April 2004 in ‘When the State Becomes God’ ... a story that the Spiritual Counterfeits Project Journal published just as the Abu Ghraib scandal was surfacing:

I said then:

The proponents of torture and hostage-taking say that these acts are necessary in wartime — especially when dealing with terrorists who might be induced to reveal the location of a ticking bomb. It is the same taboo-smashing, utilitarian logic that liberals in the 1960s and 1970s used to overturn laws limiting abortion. Those who favored legalized abortion said that it was a necessary, tragic way to deal with pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, threats to the health of the mother, and severe deformity of the fetus. Thirty-five years later, there are 1.3 million abortions a year;91 for every 1,000 babies born alive, about 250 are slain in their mother's womb.92 Given the decay of the culture, and the way that taboos fall when they are broken for the "hard cases," I venture a prediction. If we start torturing terror suspects in 2004, then torture will be widespread for "routine" crimes by 2014, and will be on pay-per-view TV (or its future equivalent) by 2024.

George Orwell's dystopian novel
1984, written in 1948, prophesied current events: "Every new political theory, by whatever name it called itself, led back to hierarchy and regimentation. And in the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years —­ imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations —­ not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.93
[Note ... the numbers are footnotes. Go to the website to read the whole article, and to see the sources.]

My predictions are coming true, years early.

Kyrie eleison. [End of Lee’s text.]

Seamless-garment people might say the same thing about the death penalty, full stop, but this blog holds the historic Catholic position that there is a place for it, that some crimes forfeit one’s right to live and that it’s the taking of a life but (unlike with Terri Schiavo) not a murder. But we also agree with the reigning Pope that its use should be exceedingly rare.

There’s no parallel here with ‘safe, legal and rare’: an ‘inconvenient’ or infelicitously conceived baby hasn’t committed a crime that forfeits his or her life. P.J. O’Rourke wrote that a cold-hearted atheist can say ‘kill them both’ whilst a well-meaning seamless-garment religious person opposes both takings of life but it takes a lot of mind-bending ‘therapy’ to reach the modern liberal POV.

P.S. The Terri Schiavo site quotes Mr Bush or one of his staff:

It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life, where all Americans are valued, welcomed, and protected and that culture of life must extend to individuals with disabilities.
Iraqis evidently are exempt from this ‘culture of life’ and his handlers won’t try to stop abortion.

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