The Sunday edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette usually has a feature in the Forum section that is called The Next Page. This is a full page in-depth article that is completely different each week. The subject matter varies greatly, both in focus and in thrust, and can be about subjects as diverse as history or human interest stories or medical breakthroughs or scientific discoveries.
This past week’s feature was about a young man who participated in a robbery when he was fifteen years old. He drove the getaway car for an accomplice who, during the course of the robbery, murdered the couple they were robbing. According to the law, when someone is an accomplice in the commission of a crime which results in a homicide, whether he had a hand in the actual murder or not, he is still deemed to be just as much a part of the murder as the person who did the killing.
So as a result, the 15-year-old kid got sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole – something that the Supreme Court has since determined to be illegal. It has ruled that such a severe punishment for a juvenile amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and considering what we know about adolescent brain development, they are indeed correct. Unfortunately, the ruling isn’t retroactive, so this guy is still screwed, barring a new ruling in a different case by the Supreme Court forcing resentencing for juveniles previously sentenced to such a severe punishment. But that’s not really what this post is about.
Reading through the article, I came across a quote from a family member of one of the victims who said that this young man should never get out. He was quoted as saying “(t)hey get out, I take care of them. That’s how I feel about it, really.” While I can understand his enmity and anger, I was struck by his vindictiveness. And I’ve noticed that many times before, not only from people who have been victimized by violent crime, but from people not personally affected by a crime and how they react and demand severe and disproportionate retribution for some offense or other.
I have also long been aware of how our society has perverted the original paradigm of justice from a system that embraced the idea that “it is better that ten guilty go free than to punish one innocent” and made a U-turn to one that aggressively pursues a policy of “it is better that ten innocent be punished than one guilty go free”. I attribute this in large part to our much greater affluence and the resultant fear of loss that comes with such accumulation of wealth and comfort. It is well known that fear of loss, whether rooted in reality or false perception, is a much stronger motivator than an equal potential for gain. And of course this is exacerbated by the fearmongers who play this up and push inhumane “law & order” agendas in cynical campaigns for votes or TV ratings.
The sheer vindictiveness and mean spiritedness of our society is clearly manifested in our unwillingness to actually try to alleviate some of the root causes of crime such as poverty and lack of economic opportunity, not to mention our unwillingness to spend money to rehabilitate offenders and to try to prevent recidivism. Our criminal (in)justice system is really only about tormenting offenders and extracting as much vengeance as possible to satisfy our sadistic impulses.
And then today, I read a Reuters news article (on Yahoo News) about a young transgender teen’s suicide as a result of her having been severely bullied in school. This happened in a small town just north of San Diego. Reading over the comments as I am wont to do (because that’s where you can see the real, unguarded attitudes of people at large), I was struck by the complete lack of empathy for this victim – even almost bordering on animosity toward her, something that I found thoroughly disgusting.
And that leads me to the actual point of this post. Because our society has become so mean-spirited and cold-hearted and so hell-bent on vengeance, anything that might detract from that regime is never going to be widely accepted. And that does not bode well for acceptance of what seems to be becoming increasingly apparent – the likelihood of determinism as the overwhelming characteristic of our behavior and the realization that we really only have an illusion of free will. It is our past experiences and the genetic components of our psychological makeup that constitute the majority of factors influencing any decision opportunity at any given time – it is not merely a go/no-go switch operating in a vacuum over which we are are the sole agent. But acceptance of determinism would necessarily call into question the ethicality of our entire criminal (in)justice system and our whole perception of crime and punishment. And that would never square with our societal vindictiveness.