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Do Two Wrongs make a Right?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-07-29 10:30:26
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Some Philosophical Musings on Justice, Rehabilitation, Punishment, Brutality, Revenge and Mass Incarceration                  

“Can describing such things change anything?”

                                   --An incarcerated writer

paparella01Recently a book has been published, authored by Robert A. Ferguson, appropriately titled Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment. The title is appropriate because as one reads it one feels that one is descending deeper and deeper into the nine rungs of Dante’s hell. A despairing prisoner quoted above doubts that describing the brutal methods of punishment presently accepted by the American justice system will change anything, and one can well sympathize with such an attitude, but obviously the author of the book thinks otherwise. After all, isn’t that what every writer hopes when he/she inveighs against injustice via a book or an article? That his revelations will be a catalyst for change and reform?  One keeps on hoping that the fight is as much against ignorance as it is against brutality and insensitivity. That Socrates might have had it on target when he said that “knowledge is virtue.” That once people are informed of things they don’t see and don’t know, things will change. This is the favored argument in the attempt to exculpate the vast majority of the German population who knew nothing about the concentration camps. Had they known, so the argument goes, things might have been different. Would they really  One wonders. At what point, having lost one’s freedom, one becomes unable to change anything even with knowledge and information at hand?

It is further argued by those who deal with ethics, that when Dante describes poetically for us the awfulness of hell, we would think twice before glorying and delighting in it? But, is it that way? Don’t writers describe things objectively but then go their merry way? While Aristotle’s counsel that well reasoned theory ought to always come before mindless practice remains valid, is it not also true that theory without practical implementation of reforms remains basically sterile? Let’s briefly explore those questions.

This is the basic data: we currently have 2.4 million Americans in prisons. There they are often driven insane, some are raped, some, those who await execution,  linger on to die a slow death which may come only years later. This is the result of approximately 100 years of social experiment in modern imprisonment, prevalent now all over the world, to be sure. But here in the US there is something more at work for the last forty years or so, also at work in a few other nations who have the dubious distinction of imitating our so called “justice system”, we now witness the phenomenon of “mass incarceration” which sees nothing particularly wrong in incarcerating up to 2% of its adult population even for minor offences as possession of marijuana, which to further complicate matters, now some States have legalized. As the Biblical saying goes: it is a matter of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And before you know it, some have mused, the whole world will be blind and toothless. Some, of a more cynical bent, have called this social phenomenon nothing short of the most incredible system of torture ever devised in world history. It’s indeed a strange sort of exceptionalism.

And this brings us to the issue of capital punishment, the so called ultimate punishment, of death penalty. Let me begin with a personal anecdote. A few years ago our dog who had resided with us for fourteen years, contracted cancer and was in visible and constant excruciating pain. The vet counseled euthanizing “Chester” (that was his name) and after long deliberation we arrived at the conclusion that such was indeed the best course of action. We took him to the vet’s operating room, The whole family was there with tears in our eyes. Chester was anesthetized and then injected with a chemical drug (probably sodium thiopental, still readily available at the time) which arrested his heart and killed him in a few seconds. It was a very peaceful, if tearful transition. Chester was no longer with us but at the same time he was no longer in pain and suffering.

 Now, without going into the more thorny issue of whether this is ok with human beings too, the question in regard to capital punishment arises: if this is possible with dogs, why do human being have to be made to suffer to close to two hours, as it happened only a few days ago (July 23, 2014) in Arizona with Joseph Wood while people looked on the prolonged spectacle and then proceeded to vigorously defend and justify it, in particular this was the case of the daughter of the victim of Wood, who made a gruesome comparison of what Wood underwent to what her father and sister underwent by the hand of  Wood who murdered them in cold blood, defiantly beginning her statement with “I’ll tell you what excruciating pain is…”.

So we are back to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and this is not the first time it happened, there was another such event in Oklahoma some time ago, never mind the American Constitution which prescribes that “cruel and unusual punishment” must be avoided, never mind the law of most States which prescribes that the execution be safe, by which they mean that it must not inflict much pain and suffering. I suppose we would now declare the founding fathers’ idea of cruel and unusual punishment as “uncivilized” and irregular. Ours is the better way. Don’t things always get better and better? Wasn’t the guillotine a barbaric way to execute people? Was it? Come to think of it, the decapitated person suffered no pain. It was all over in one second.

Perhaps some data on the chemical drug used to execute inmates on death row, may be appropriate at this point. As mentioned above, the drug is called “sodium thiopental.” Many pharmaceutical companies have stopped producing it because of its infamous association with capital punishment. The EU has banned its exportation since it forbids capital punishment (except for Belarus, a pro Moscow dictatorship, the only dictatorship in present day Europe).

Consequently, some States are now finding it difficult to resupply their lethal doses of sodium thiopental and are resorting, in secret, to putting together their own concoction of lethal chemicals which, so they claim, kills in a few seconds. But there is no way of testing their concoction. So, in effect the sentenced inmates become the guinea pigs on which the concoction is presently being tested. The States who prepare it secretly and use it, refuse to reveal its content of the concoction to inquiring lawyers and judges. A judge stayed the execution of Wood for a while pending a disclosure of the chemicals in the concoction  but the Supreme Court gave the green light for the execution to proceed without disclosure. For all we know, it may be rat poison.  

What are we to conclude from the above musings? On an ethical basis the first thing that can be safely concluded, and it should be obvious, is that not everything that is legal is necessarily ethical. We have known that for a while. In our country we fought a civil war on that issue. Henry David Thoreau wrote a famous book about it titled On Civil Disobedience. What we now need to become conscious of, is that dehumanization is a very slippery slope: once one begins confusing revenge for justice, and brutal punishment and torture for rehabilitation and retribution, one will end up with a mind-set which will eventually undermine one’s nature; one eventually becomes a zombie of sort, an automaton without a conscience or consciousness, without even being aware of it. Soren Kiekegaard called such a condition “the sickness unto death.” A sickness characterized by the fact that one is mortally sick and does not even know it. This kind of sickness may be even more lethal for one’s soul than sodium thiopental is for one’s body. It ought be avoided at all costs.   


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