Should Tsarnaev Be Put to Death?

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The verdict in Boston — death to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — may cause some libertarians to reaffirm or reconsider their position on the death penalty.

To me, the arguments against the death penalty seem obvious.

  1. The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?
  2. While some crimes of passion can be excused as, well, crimes of passion, cold-blooded killing is always ugly and sickening.
  3. There is always the possibility that an executed person will later be found innocent. There is a somewhat larger possibility that even a person so worthless as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could change and become, in effect, another person.

But I confess: these arguments, though obvious, do not seem conclusive to me. They might seem conclusive if it weren’t for the weakness of the arguments that are often added to them by anti-death-penalty people:

  1. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s just as wrong to kill a killer as for the killer to have killed someone else.
  2. In proportion to the population, more black people than white people are executed.
  3. The incidence of murder in states that lack the death penalty is sometimes lower than the incidence of murder in states that have it.
  4. It costs a fortune to execute someone.

When I listen to these latter anti-death-penalty arguments, a strange thing happens to me. I get the feeling that the full ensemble of arguments is not as good as I thought it was — or why would the arguers (many of them professionally devoted to the cause) fill out their case with such weak and (I can’t help thinking) disingenuous pleas.

The Bible condones plenty of killings. The same biblical book that commands “Thou shalt not kill” also commands executions for various crimes. In the very next chapter, we find: “He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.” So “kill” in the first instance must mean “murder.” Even on non-biblical grounds, it seems very counterintuitive to suggest that it is as wrong for me to kill a man who casually murdered two teenagers and then happily ate the hamburgers they were carrying, as it is for the man to have killed the teenagers. Think of your own, doubtless even more horrible examples of crimes thought to merit the death penalty. Examples abound.

The state always has too much power — why give it the ultimate power?

The question to be asked about “racially disproportionate use of the death penalty” is whether particular black people or white people received a fair trial — not whether those people were black or white. If you want an assurance of fairness, nothing will satisfy you if the elaborate provisions of the death penalty codes fail to do so.

Does it make sense to compare murder rates in Massachusetts (2.0 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but hasn’t executed anyone since 1947, with murder rates in Texas (4.3 per 100,000), which executes people all the time, or Vermont (1.6) and Maryland (6.4), which have no death penalty? A deterrent that is rarely used can hardly deter; but would the death penalty, even if frequently used, explain the difference in murder rates between, say, Utah (1.7 per 100,000), which has the death penalty but also has a lot of Mormons, and Michigan (6.4 per 100,000), which abolished the death penalty soon after statehood, but which also has Detroit? The argument on each side seems impossible to make, on such evidence. Yet is there any possibility that the lack of a death penalty would actually lower the murder rate? How could that be?

It is childishly easy to answer the fourth objection, “It costs a fortune to execute someone.” It costs a fortune because of the legal ploys of the same people who are making the objection — ploys that are, in most cases, as intellectually dishonest as the objection itself.

It appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown.

Where does this leave us? It leaves me acknowledging that there is something right, and something wrong, about the legitimate arguments on both sides. It leaves me with roughly the same questions that I think even anarchists would ask themselves about crime and punishment, if they succeeded in creating a society in which justice services were privatized.

Despite all attempted legal guarantees, is the death penalty sometimes wrongly carried out? Yes, probably it is, though it appears much less likely that an innocent person will be executed in today’s America than that I will kill an innocent person on my next drive downtown. Yes, it’s possible that I will suddenly confuse the accelerator with the brake, but that’s not a reason for me to give up driving.

It seems certain that the real prospect of a death penalty would deter certain crimes, but not others. As libertarians, we must pay enough respect to individual psychology to admit that. We must also specify that killing is ugly, no matter who carries it out. Also, I think, we must specify that the world would be better off without some of its inhabitants, especially those who wantonly murder other people.

I’ve noticed that when there is about to be an execution, intense emotions are evoked by the idea that John Smith is about to suffer “the ultimate penalty.” John is said to be a changed person, or a brutally misjudged person, or a sad, wayward, confused person, and people cry out for him on the internet. School children are told to write letters supporting him. Meanwhile, would-be enforcers of the death penalty dwell with badly hidden glee on his awful deeds. But immediately after he is executed or has his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, he is forgotten. The issue wasn’t John Smith; nobody really thought he was worth talking about, as a real person who had done real things; the issue was an identity-making cause called the Death Penalty. That doesn’t mean that John was, in the end, truly worthless. It does suggest that the contestants may harbor motives that have little to do with truth or justice.

My suggestion is that I, and other people interested in this controversy, put aside our eager concern with our identity as judges or sympathizers, warriors or reconcilers, and marvel, for a moment, at the complexity of the issue. In other words, I think it would behoove all the ideological contestants to become a little more reflective and a little less self-righteous.




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From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

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If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” “message” (used as a verb), “embedded” (as in “a journalist embedded in the military”), and even “homie” (“homeboy”). They are expressive of situations, and concepts, that older words could not express. As a writer about prisons and criminology, I have no objection to “perp” and “cellie,” punchy variations on earlier words, and in actual use by large and informed communities (cops and convicts). As an academic bureaucrat, I have no principled objection to “silo” (used as a verb, meaning “cause to be isolated in one’s own bureaucratic zone”): it’s an apt metaphorical description of a real phenomenon. It’s also a fad word, and to be regretted on that score; and I don’t particularly enjoy the association with cows and fodder — although nonbureaucrats are welcome to enjoy it. But as Dr. Johnson said, the expression is sound at bottom. There’s an alternative expression, “stove-pipe,” which is used on television because (A) most TV people never saw a farm, but they may have seen a ski lodge with a decorative stove; and (B) the other TV people don’t want to insult, or seem to insult, the farmers, those sterling exemplars of heartland values. Me, I prefer “silo,” because that word brings the reality closer to the metaphor. People can work in silos, but they can’t work in stove pipes.

But lookit. We have no need for “issue,” one of our most common locutions, whenever this is employed as an inept euphemism for “problem.” My objection goes double for naked uses of the word, uses without an adjective or other explanatory signal. To say that a teenager “has issues” is no better than to say that he or she “has problems,” although it removes all conceptual punch from the noun. It “means” anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

Then we come to the medicinal use of “issues.” An omnipresent radio ad in my part of the world touts the services of a doctor who will deal with both “erectile issues” and “premature issues.” In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts. These are “issues”? I think not. They may be problems, vexations, disgraces, even pleasures. But they are not “issues.” “Issues” means “things that are subject to debate.” Maybe coming right away is an issue, whose effects can be debated. If so, debate them. If not, say what you mean by “issues,” and why you insist on bringing them up.

To say that a teenager “has issues” means anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

The transition from “problems” to “issues” is an ominous sign for our civilization — in two ways. The first has to do with the anesthetization of real difficulties. To turn a problem, which is or ought to be a call to serious thought and action, into a mere issue, which is something to be contemplated or mused upon or dealt with by taking a pill . . . that is a terrible thing. Hitler was not an issue; he was a problem. Cancer is not an issue; it is a problem that people need to confront. A weird teenage kid isn’t an issue that you should sit around and jaw about; he or she is a problem that needs to be solved, if you can.

The other way in which issue is a problem involves the politicization of discourse, a process that proceeds apace in our chronically post-1960s society. “Issue” is a word appropriate to public debate; “problem” may include that sort of thing, but it also embraces the vastly larger area of difficulties and challenges in human (not merely political) life. “Issue” dissolves the distinction; it is, therefore, in the truest sense of the word, an evil locution.

Going on to lesser, though related, forms of evil . . . . I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, one of the worst innovations ever made in the world of writing is the slash. I mean the thing that comes between the two words in such expressions as

social/economic
men/women
novels/poetry
directors/administrators
climate/warming
and any other expression/phrase in which a slash could possibly be used/inserted.

A slash is a sign that a writer cannot or will not decide whether to use one word or another (which means one concept or another), or to use them both — which usually means that he or she is averse to conceptual thought. He or she can’t devote precious time to deciding whether to say “philosophy and ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology, or both,” or just “philosophy” or “ideology,” and therefore decides to let the reader slop along as well as possible with “philosophy/ideology,” required to make his or her own speculative decisions about what the author might possibly mean.

There is never a legitimate use for a slash. Say what you mean — if you mean anything.

“Climate/warming” raises an especially weighty issue/problem. The transition, or hesitation, between the two terms is emblematic of the concept creep that often, and illegitimately, establishes the terms of contemporary political debate. Consider “segregation.” In the 1950s and 1960s, “segregation” meant separation of races by law or governmental action. In the 1970s “segregation” came illicitly to mean “any situation in which blacks were not represented proportionately to whites.” Thus, I suppose, whites were segregated from black gospel music. It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation. A finding of statistical “segregation” might result in judicial mandates to alter fundamental patterns of life across a city or even a whole metropolitan area. Such findings, and the verbal confusions on which they were based, were significantly responsible for the “white flight” that rendered inner city neighborhoods more “segregated,” and more “impoverished,” than they had ever been before.

The cry of “segregation” is still, sometimes, heard today. In general, however, “diversity” has taken its place. The advantage of “diversity” is that no one can say what it means, although it means, at least, everything that “desegregation” used to mean, or not mean.

And speaking of the politicization of discourse . . . This month’s Boston bombing was too barbaric, and too ridiculous, to be politicized in an overt manner, among people not predisposed to see any bad event as an American conspiracy. But it was socialized in ways that illustrate how far politicized perceptions have seeped into the language of otherwise normal people.

In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts.

A mysterious statement! Here’s what I mean. The two alleged culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers, were universally described by their acquaintances as quiet, too quiet to leave any specific insights or memory traces. Yet they were also universally described as nice boys of whom nothing evil could be believed.

This, I submit, is an unusual take on reality. Not only are such statements obviously self-confuting — how can you testify to someone’s niceness when you also testify that you don’t know anything much about him? — but they also turn the speakers into the kind of joke that everybody can recognize. “Yeah, I lived down the street from the guy . . . Real nice guy. Didn’t see much of him. He kept to himself. But I just can’t believe he’d do a thing like this.” For how many years has everyone been laughing about junk commentary like that? Yet it continues to be made, and communicated to the nation, after every fresh act of violence. One can only conclude that many people believe they have a duty to utter and purvey such absurd observations. Someone has taught them that duty.

I think the “someone” is the schools and the media, which continually preach that everyone is equal and equally good at heart — even such people as the Tsarnaev brothers. “He was one of the nicest kids,” said a college “friend” of the younger alleged murderer. “Every time I saw him, he made sure to say hi.” Yes, a very nice guy. The kind of guy who allegedly spent the weekend blowing legs off kids and the next few days working out in the college gym and partying with his chance acquaintances. “A fully assimilated American,” pronounced many of the TV news reporters.

The media are the principal enforcers of this bizarre social programming (I won’t call it education). “Possible bombing suspect cornered on boat,” said the CNN onscreen headline, even as Dzokhar Tsarnaev was being taken away under arrest, following a final blowout with the cops. Yes, a possible suspect. Not perhaps a real suspect, but maybe, just maybe, a possible one. The network was even more ignorant of words than it was slow with news, but it was careful to communicate its own niceness. “Possible suspect” indeed.

Widely and trustingly reported was the testimony of Dzokhar’s assistant high school wrestling coach (and who better to discern the inner truth about this sweet young man?). “A smart kid,” he said. And not just smart but a real American, according to the New York Times. “Boy at Home in U.S.,” it prattled. Evidence of smartness? Maybe the fact that Dzokhar managed to run over his brother with a stolen SUV, probably causing his death. Evidence of being at home in America? People on Fox News continually specified what they regarded as evidence in this category: Dzokhar smoked weed all the time and liked hip-hop music. Who says that Fox is the conservative network?

Petty grammarian that I am, I’m almost as discouraged by signs of creeping illiteracy as I am by proof of galloping nonsense. Reporting the giddy adventures of the Tsarnaev family — poster children for open immigration, who planted themselves in America by claiming political persecution from Russia, collected all the benefits they could in this country, then kept drifting back to Russia — the established media talked about one or another of them “starting school in America” or heroically “graduating high school in America.” This is the kind of locution one hears in supermarket ads, which encourage us to “Shop Bingo’s!” — Bingo’s being the place at which one is incited to shop. So “shop” is something one does to Bingo’s, just as “graduate” or “start” is something one does to a school. “Tell me, Dzokhar, what did you do to your high school?” “I graduated it.” Maybe, given enough time in the “adopted country” to which he was so well “assimilated,” he would have gone farther and blown it up.

As I admitted, I’m petty. But in the long run, literacy may be even more important than the Boston Marathon. True literacy requires the ability to recognize and reproduce basic patterns of language — to know, for example, when to use a transitive verb and when to use an intransitive one.

Or to know how to deal with strong verbs. There aren’t very many; you should be able to master them. But no. On Good Friday, the Fox News Jerusalem correspondent noted that “Christians sung hymns.” When I was in grade school, the grand example of strong verbs, the one that we were made to study, presumably because it was the easiest, was “sing-sang-sung.” Today, it seems, you can become a foreign correspondent without havinggraduated grade school.

It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation.

One thing I wasn’t taught at the Henrietta Township Rural Agricultural School was the progression “spit-spat-spat.” The reason was that everybody knew it. When you told the teacher on a fellow third-grader, there was no indecision about how to phrase your accusation. You said, “Teacher, teacher! Tommy Johnson spat on the playground!” Maybe that’s because backwoods people still read the Bible, actually sat and read the thing, and therefore knew about stuff like this. But when, in 2013, Justin Bieber, heartthrob of millions, or at least thousands, was accused of dealing unfairly with a neighbor, the headlines took this form, “Man Claims Bieber Spit on Him.” Hardly a “spat” in a carload, although the Los Angeles Times ran a story with “spat” in the body but “spit” in the headline. And, to remember other bodily functions, when was the last time you heard somebody say that he “shat” this morning? He (or she) may be too insecure about language to dare saying “shitted” (which is good); but if so, he’s bound to take the long way about and say “took a shit.”

This is not a good sign. It’s a sign that the rich sonic resources of the English language are being wantonly pissed away.

Worse is the steady progress of “snuck,” that strange folk attempt to create a new strong verb. Talk about backwoods language, and the language of children! Until recently, “snuck” was recognized by all, even its habitual users, as a colorful low-level colloquialism, ordinarily used for comic effect, and never to be used in formal writing. Then, a few years ago, it started showing up in presidential press conferences, news reports written by the weekend staff, and other low-end outlets. And now, here it is! It’s arrived! Snuck has made it to the headlines. Chronicling the behavior of an Ohio murderer who behaved badly at his sentencing, respectable news agencies offered headlines of this kind: “How TJ Lane Snuck in a Shirt with ‘Killer’ on it.” They weren’t trying to be entertaining; they were just being ignorant. And not one of them headlined “sneaked.”

Here’s a headline I’d like to see: “How Illiteracy Snuck in Everywhere.”




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