We would speak today of personal responsibility, something which is perhaps that most murky of simple subjects and yet one that is often claimed to be clear as an azure sky of deepest summer in the richness of its complexity. Yada yo.
I wish I had a small dollop of cash for each and every self-help treatise laying claim to the solution to this puzzle. They range from pithy posts on social media to beatific books with uppity titles such as Feel Good, Damn You! and yet I suspect we are no closer than ever at getting to the crux of the matter. What indeed is the matter? The matter, it seems to me, is this: What is the appropriate question? Should we be asking "Who is to blame?" or should we ask "What do we do about it?" or should we even ask "What does it all matter anyway?"
Today's psychological environment tends to dictate that we assess blame. One person commits an act against another, for instance, and the whole of society rips its mind apart trying to ascertain why. A man walks into a local bank, approaches the teller window, draws a weapon and softly demands ten thousand dollars in tens and twenties. The frightened teller complies. On the way out of the financial institution, the man stumbles and--thinking someone will interpret this as a chance to play hero--fires into the body of the sleeping security guard, killing him before his body hits the floor. The bank manager screams and is rewarded with a series of bullets to the skull. The teller faints dead away, chipping her head on the corner of the counter, freezing her brain into a coma from which she does not ever recover. Her three children get sent to live in foster homes. A movie is made of their collective ordeal. When the bank robber sees the film, he freaks out and shoots up the theater, killing all one hundred twenty of the patrons inside and then himself. As the credits roll, the projectionist curses about the mess that must be cleaned up by the usher who did not show up for work that day. Incensed by the monumental unfairness of this division of labor, the projectionist, whose name is TJ, initiates social research into the life of the ceased and desisted bank robber only to learn that the criminal, whose name was Larry, had been abused as a child, to the point of having broken shards of glass scraped across his torso while un-lubricated plungers were twisted into his various cavities, all this being done by a vengeful neighbor who sought retribution against Larry's parents for the beating they had given his own child when the toddler had inadvertently mowed off the heads of the jointly-shared sprinklers. In the midst of this research, TJ meets the town librarian with whom he falls madly in love despite the librarian, whose name is Judy, wanting nothing to do with him. While pining away his life, TJ drives home one night and does not see the traffic light change, instead proceeding unheedingly through the intersection, colliding his 1967 Volkswagen van with a 2002 Buick La Sabre, inducing multiple fatalities to the passengers within. Happily, those passengers had just escaped from a maximum security penitentiary where they had been scheduled for repeated beatings due to their collective violence against the warden's teenage bride. Oh, the mess of it all, screams the warden as he throws his girl-woman over one shoulder and marches to the cemetery as she protests that all this seems a bit premature.
I have made the above absurdity a bit complicated, unyielding and contrived for a reason. The reason is that life is often that same exact way, in or out of the fiction of headlines. Because the deeper we look into many social situations that threaten to appear simple, the more devilishly complicated they often appear to us as they stare back. In the admittedly contrived scenario just recited, what is the ultimate question? The question, I suspect, is "Who knows?" And that is the first sign of health.
All too often we approach a social problem with the expectation that understanding the problem will be easy; therefore the solution will be simple as well. A boy who behaves badly, we say, deserves a spanking so that he understands there are unpleasant consequences for his unacceptable actions. "Mother, why did you beat me?" The mother says, "Because you put fire to the cat's tail, you miserable wretch!" Ah, so that's why! Yet the neighborhood sociologist--with a minor in psychology--interrupts to suggest that perhaps the mother was simply acting out her own frustration at seeing her child display the unwelcome signs of sociopathy. The mother, who is now in quite the snit, shouts that the sociologist is a sophisticated moron who fails to understand that the beatings she herself received as a child did her no demonstrable harm and so she is simply passing on the lessons she learned as a precocious child as well. Indeed, she picks up a pan and chases the social scientist down the street, screaming that society's ills are ultimately the fault of molly-coddling social workers who try to explain away every little thing behind the mask of science. Next thing you know, evolution will be used to justify abortions. Good God!
Honest to goodness, all of the above words flashed through my head in about three seconds as I endured the morning's horrors during my routine at the local convenience store where make my daily purchase of soda pop for the day. Some lumbering recluse let out on a day pass from her halfway house stumbled ahead of me, oblivious to everything except her own desire to buy energy drinks as she waddled ahead of me in line and demanded of the cashier that some Advil be proffered forthwith. The cashier admitted they had no Advil at the moment but wished the porcine life-form a nice day by saying she hoped the straggler felt better soon. I had the above flash of insight and said, "Don't worry about her. She likes being miserable." The woman looked back at me over her shoulder and said, "Yes. Yes I do."
As I hope you can see, there is nothing at all simple or easy about any of this. Causation, correlation, responsibility, blame, assessment--it all loses its meaning once you drop the textbooks and snobbery and begin to actually ask yourself exactly why is there so damned much misery in a world that should be overflowing with ecstasy and never quite is.
I have spent a lot of my time over the years struggling with the idea of justice. The concept, I sometimes believe, is beyond my limited abilities. When one of us is the subject of what we think of as victimization, we either rationalize that we had it coming or we conclude that the perpetrator was himself abused and just passing on the evil, or we may conclude that the world is just a mess and this is what one comes to expect. Some people, however, skip all these rationalizations and scream for revenge on the spot, usually if there is a willing audience to goad them on. I'm going to use a real-life example here because I have been troubled of late by this and maybe you all can help.
We are fast approaching the point where the murderers of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent, Leno LaBianca, Rosemary LaBianca, Donald Shea, Gary Hinman, and in all likelihood many many more are going to die of old age while in prison. The members of the so-called Manson Family are now in their sixties and seventies. One of them, Susan Atkins, already died in custody from cancer. Her plea for a compassionate release was denied. Meanwhile, Charles Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Bruce Davis and Bobby Beausoleil, along with Charles Manson himself, rot away in various penal institutions, where they serve as poster children for what happens to pure evil in our times. I have such mixed feelings about all this that I may not do a very good job of expressing myself here, but I shall try. Based strictly on the merits of the crimes these people committed, and with retribution as the sole determinant, I feel comfortable with these folks remaining safely behind bars for the remainder of their lives. And yet, as usual, things are not really that simple, no matter what that nattering nabob Bill O'Reilly says. Nothing is that simple. First of all, the killers themselves were very young adults at the time of the commission of these crimes. Are you the same person you were three-quarters of a lifetime ago? The same exact person? Perhaps not. But then you probably did not commit mass murder in the furtherance of a race war, one of your victims being a pregnant woman. Oh! So the horribleness of the crime is a factor? Yes, yes it is. Okay. Then George W. Bush must be executed because of the unimaginable evil he perpetrated? No, no. His crimes were political. Yes, but so were Manson's. Right, yes, but Bush was motivated by something else. What? Well, actually it was the same thing. Right. Yes, but just because one thug gets away with mass murder does not mean we have to turn a blind eye to someone else who gets caught, does it? Certainly not. But you begin to see just how complicated all of this can be and it is frightening to me that all of us--myself included--opt for the reactive response when what is really important is understanding just how complicated things can actually be.
Here is an interesting excerpt from the Dallas Morning News from June 2011. It relates, so be patient. "The Norwegian approach to criminal justice couldn’t be more different from Texas. It surely will be sorely tested by the case of accused mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. According to Sentencing Law and Policy, the maximum sentence Breivik faces is 21 years in prison, while we still have the death penalty. And while Texas inmates work in the fields and live in sparse cells with no air conditioning, prison in Norway isn’t particularly punitive. Time magazine reported in 2010 that a new facility boasts amenities like a sound studio, jogging trails and a freestanding two-bedroom house where inmates can host their families during overnight visits. Unlike many American prisons, the air isn’t tinged with the smell of sweat and urine. Instead, the scent of orange sorbet emanates from the kitchen laboratory where inmates take cooking courses. In the Norwegian prison system, there’s a focus on human rights and respect, says Are Hoidal, the prison’s governor. We don’t see any of this as unusual. Yet another report from the Daily Mail, points out Norway’s recidivism rate is lower than many. The story is illustrated with a photo of a convicted murderer sunbathing at the Bastoy prison. You’re not going to see that at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice."
Perhaps strangely, I hold no confidence--and apparently neither do the Norwegians--that one group of people acting in the name of society as a whole has the natural right to incarcerate people, much less put them to death. The issue, I have come to believe, is how far outside the natural rights are we willing to go to protect society? The point is that you cannot protect society without violating natural rights, and yet if you are part of a society that deserves protecting, you have to mingle justice with mercy.
So, to almost wrap this up for the moment, let's look at what the National Criminal Justice Resource Service has to say about our Norwegian friends. "Norway is a unified state in which governmental power is divided between the judiciary, executive, and legislative branches, each of which are mutually independent." Okay, so far that sounds similar to the USA. Let's go on. "The executive branch is composed of the King and members of the Cabinet." Well, that might just be a matter of semantics, whatever the difference is. Fine. "Having been largely established on a national level, the Norwegian system is most like the legal systems of the other Nordic countries, particularly those of Denmark and Sweden. Norway does not have a general codification of private or public law that corresponds to the Code Civil. Norwegian courts do not attach the same weight to judicial precedents as members of the judiciary in common law countries. Neither are Norwegian courts bound by intricate rules on the admissibility of evidence; the basic rules is that all evidence is admissible [emphasis mine]. Court procedure is relatively informal and simple. There is a strong lay influence in the judicial assessment of criminal matters and, to a lesser extent, civil matters." Well, that's interesting. Sounds as if they are more interested in doing the right thing than in getting all snarled up in procedures.
And yet we can do no better than to turn to (of all things!) The Economist for the most reasoned response. "I say, yes, it does offend our sense of justice. It offends mine. But I am very wary of my own instinct for retribution, and of yours. The idea of balancing some cosmic scale, of restoring the moral order to equilibrium, is deeply appealing. But there is no cosmic scale to balance. The moral order is not some sort of pervasive ethereal substance that threatens to undo us if monstrous offence is not met with equally ferocious punishment. If we are able to approach the matter rationally, which is hard, I think we will see that a society's main imperative is to guarantee the safety of its members by taking the criminal out of commission and then by punishing wrongdoers to the extent necessary to deter similar future crimes."
Well said, anonymous writer for the British ragazine. Well said. As to what we do with aging former-Mansonites, it might be too much to expect in these here New-Nited States, but if the real desire is the protection of society, nothing can be gained in that regard by keeping any of those bastards locked up any longer. Let them out. It might even be the decent thing to provide them with some temporary protection.
You read that right.
I'm no fan of murderers. I am a fan of a civilized society, however. And the way we treat the least of our society--whether children, invalids, the aged or the criminals--is a direct reflection of who we as a society desire to be. Me? I want to be free.