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December 21, 2003 - The Culture of Death: Who We Should Kill and Why

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A quote having something to do with the death penalty, or war, or any of the ideological reasons one might have for killing other folks because it's the right thing to do, as with the Saddam Hussein or the DC snipers.  Or maybe it's the right thing because it's someone who disagrees with your particular ideological preference...  Whatever.

"A further reason for my hatred of National Socialism and other ideologies is quite a primitive one.  I have an aversion to killing people for the fun of it.  What the fun is, I did not quite understand at the time, but in the intervening years the ample exploration of revolutionary consciousness has cast some light on this matter.  The fun consists in gaining a pseudo-identity through asserting one's power, optimally by killing somebody - a pseudo-identity that serves as a substitute for the human self that has been lost."


     Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections

Say what?  Interesting, but way too deep.


But there have been some interesting things on this topic, dealing death to bad guys after we legally find them really bad.


Heres one - Iraqi-Run Trial Holds Promise and Peril
The nation could grow as a democracy if it adheres to the rule of law - not vengeance.
Alissa J. Rubin and Henry Weinstein, Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2003

They quote Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch: "The capture of Saddam provides an opportunity that either will continue the cycle of revenge or begin the rule of law."


Rubin and Weinstein seem to draw a differentiation between justice and vengeance.

So what's this justice stuff?  Not the same as revenge (vengeance)?  How so?

One could check out Definitions of Justice at the site Body and Soul where "Joan" has some thoughts on the matter:


I've been thinking this morning about a moment in 2000 that helped move me from simply not voting for Bush to actually fearing he might win.  During a debate, Al Gore raised the issue of hate crimes legislation, and spoke about the death of James Byrd, who was chained to a truck and dragged to his death.  There are reasonable objections to hate crimes legislation.  I have some concerns about them myself.  But Bush's objections were far from reasonable:

"The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them?" Bush said, smiling.  "They'll be put to death.  A jury found them guilty.  It will be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death."

... no matter how much benefit of the doubt I tried to give Bush, I ended up seeing a man grinning at the thought of execution, smug in what seemed to me the bizarre belief that justice is all about catching bad people and killing them.  I'll try to give Bush the benefit of the doubt once more and assume it was not bloodlust that provoked that smile, but reveling in his own sense of righteousness.  But it was repulsive either way.

That revelation of character and beliefs has come to be far more important than I imagined.  So much of what has gone wrong with this country since Bush became president stems from a belief in simple justice, a belief that if we just eliminate all the bad guys, good will triumph.

Saddam Hussein's capture this morning triggered this old memory.  I'm happy that one of the most brutal tyrants on earth was captured, not killed.  Good.  Maybe we will get some answers.  Certainly there will be a trial.

I admit to a somewhat less civilized pleasure over the fact that he was caught in a hole in the ground, imprisoned by himself, buried.  Is anyone so noble that he doesn't delight in that?  Would God herself expect us to rise above such pleasure?  (On the other hand, I will never get used to the sound of joy and gloating at misery. It is simply beyond my understanding, and there is always something that startles and scares me about that noise.)  "Enchanting" is a horrible word choice to describe it, but it is certainly a fitting end for a man who imprisoned and buried so many innocent people.

But there was something very disturbing in the reports of Saddam's own response to his capture:

"He was unrepentant and defiant," said Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a senior official of a Shiite Muslim political party who, along with other Iraqi leaders, visited Saddam in captivity.

"When we told him, 'If you go to the streets now, you will see the people celebrating,'" Abdel-Mahdi said. "He answered, 'Those are mobs.' When we told him about the mass graves, he replied, 'Those are thieves.'"


Justice is simple. If you capture and kill all the bad people, all the people who oppose you, good will triumph.


Well Joan, "simple" works for most folks these days.

Back in the sixties I shouldn't have read that long, book-length poem by that Jewish writer from the UK - In a Cold Season by Michael Hamburger, about the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann.


Apart from the poet's odd and amusing last name, as I recall the idea was to ask the question of whether it was good for us that instead of six million dead, we now had six million and one dead.  What does that make us?  Yadda, yadda.  You get the idea.

Well, everyone these days thinks death is a good thing.  Or at least a useful thing.  I don't want to be the odd man out here.

Readers of the magazine might want to reference my October 12, 2003 Review of Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty; Scott Turow; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 166 pp., $18 - where such things are further discussed.

As Turow points out, on the one hand, murder is a crime so extreme that it requires the most extreme retribution.  On the other, state-sanctioned killing reduces our society to its lowest common denominator, making all of us complicit in the taking of a life.  But then again as for those who are enthusiastic about the death penalty as "a statement of moral value" to be applied widely, and often, to say exactly who we are - to clearly show what we just won't tolerate - what about that view?

I guess I'm basically a Hamburger helper.




In The Washington Post last week we got the same argument from one of their editorial staff.

See Let Saddam Live
Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, Thursday, December 18, 2003; Page A35

Here's this gist of it:


This column may be the most futile of my long career. I am about to plead for Saddam Hussein's life.  I do so not because I have the slightest doubt that he is a killer, responsible for taking the lives of many thousands, but because sparing his life would send a message to the world that judicial death - so often abused - is no longer acceptable.


Well, Cohen goes on to review how the death penalty is already illegal in Europe - in fact, renunciation of it is required for admission to the European Union.  Yeah, but they're weasels, of course.

Cohen points out that the Untied States, and Sudan and a few others, still executes children (under 18) and the mentally feeble - and, inevitably, the innocent.  We think the death penalty is just fine.

Both political sides here do, however, agree.  Bush has said Saddam Hussein should be executed, and Joe Lieberman said so too - last Sunday on Meet the Press where Lieberman worried that Hussein might be tried in some venue that didn't allow for the death penalty.  Oh no!

And now the Brits are getting all wimpy on us - Britain's senior envoy to Iraq, Jeremy Greenstock, unfortunately blurted out: ''The United Kingdom is against the death penalty. So we would have no part of a tribunal or a process that had the death penalty as one of its penalties.''

Perhaps George can have Tony speak with Jeremy about this. The UK abolished the death penalty in 1964 - but the world has changed, right?

As for Lieberman saying we need this death, Cohen points out that probably most of the Democratic presidential candidates agree.  Cohen says, rightly, that in the United States the right of the government to take life is almost universally accepted - if not applauded.  Yes, in Europe there is no such consensus.  Cultural differences.  They remember fascist leaders "legally" executing lots of folks - and they didn't like it much at all.  The experience made them into skittish wimps, I guess.

Cohen draws a parallel:


In many ways Iraq was the equivalent of a European totalitarian country.  Call it Baathist if you will, but Iraq under Saddam Hussein was essentially fascist, with the death penalty meted out willy-nilly, sometimes for serious crimes, sometimes for trivial infractions such as possession of a cell phone.  The Iraqis no doubt expect to treat Hussein as he treated them.

It would be marvelous if they were disappointed.

We can do better than an eye for an eye.

We can establish the principle of limited government that should be so dear to American conservatives such as Bush: Among the things government should not do is take a life.


Ah, this Cohen fellow is swimming against the tide.  We all know where this is heading.  This Hussein fellow will pay with his life.

Cohen adds that Saddam Hussein will certainly understand why he is being executed: "In his reptilian brain, he will understand. He would have done the same thing himself."

Indeed so.

Footnote: Of course such views have been floating around the blogs for a few days. Heres a long one that begins as follows:


If we really wanted to kick-start democracy and try to narrow the differences between Americans, Europeans and Arabs, the White House could contribute the most immense boost to the whole process by declaring tomorrow, for all to hear: We will not seek, indeed, we will actively oppose, the death penalty for Saddam Hussein.

Of course, George W. Bush is in the White House, so nothing of the sort will be said.

But that's what we should do.  Not kill Saddam.


And it goes on for quite a while, building the argument quite logically.  As if logic were relevant.  "Vengeance may sometimes be sweet, but it is always poisonous.  So let's break the circle.  Let's set an example with Saddam."

Ain't gonna happen.


Then of course, the oddest call for the death penalty...


Bill O'Reilly calls for its use in the matter of book sales statistics.  Really!

Here's the deal, as
O'Reilly like to say.


On the net one of the best examples of what might be called "yellow journalism" is Matt Drudges site The Drudge Report.  I visit it now and then - and it is amusing.  Drudge links to some outrageous stuff, and makes his own off-the-wall comments.

Last week he managed to outrage Bill O'Reilly of Fox News.  Cool.

Well, Bill O'Reilly is easily outraged, but this is exceptional.  Bill O'Reilly is now saying Drudge is "a threat to democracy" and should be killed.

Say what?

This started on the 17th with BOOK YEARENDER: O'REILLY TRAILS FRANKEN IN SCANNED SALES; 'SOUTH BEACH' TOP OF NONFIC LIST - Drudge likes snappy headlines - an item where Drudge reviewed the actual sale of books in this country as reported by barcode scanners at the stores where they are sold.

What got Drudge was that Bill O'Reilly had claimed that he is "running against Hillary for most copies of nonfiction books sold this year!" 


So Drudge decided to get Bill O'Reilly.

Nielsen, the polling company that ranks The O'Reilly Factor the number one show on cable television, currently places O'Reilly at sixth for the year on the nonfiction charts - and Bill O'Reillys new book, Who's Looking Out for You?, is trailing Al Franken's book mocking Bill O'Reilly by nearly thirty percent. 


As Nelson Muntz on The Simpsons would say "Ha, Ha!"

"We've outsold that guy [Franken] all over the place," O'Reilly claimed Monday (the 16th) on NBC's TODAY show. "We're running against Hillary for most copies of non-fiction books sold this year!"

Well, here's the Nielsen list by units scanned:

1. South Beach Diet, Dr. Arthur Agatston - 2,304,608
2. Purpose Driven Life, Warren - 1,507,902
3. Living History, Clinton - 1,084,520
4. Ultimate Weight Solution, McGraw - 836,043
5. Lies and The Lying Liars, Franken - 674,024
6. Who's Looking Out for You, O'Reilly - 430,407
7. Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson - 384,137
8. Dude, Where's My Country, Moore - 365,519
9. Treason, Coulter - 364,848  and so on

Now what?

The next day Drudge gave us this: HOST UNHINGED AFTER SALES FIGURES REVEALED; CALLS DRUDGE 'THREAT TO DEMOCRACY' - and you have to love it! 

It seems the previous night on his Fox News show Bill O'Reilly had said this: "I mean you can't believe a word Matt Drudge says.  Now you've got the Matt Drudges of the world and these other people, Michael Moore and all of these crazies, all right, no responsibility... that is a threat to democracy, I think."

It seems the book's sales ranking was somehow misunderstood, and not seen with the right perspective: "They'll just spin it and twist it and take it out of proportion every which way."

And the next morning on MSNBC's cabel show Imus in the Morning O'Reilly called the host, Don Imus, and said this: "There is no other cure than to kill Matt Drudge.  I just want to tell everybody that Matt Drudge is smoking crack - right now, in South Miami Beach on Washington Avenue...  And the authorities should know it."

Bill O'Reilly on his show The Factor has long held that we should torture all the terrorist suspects we capture for our own safety.  They might know things, after all.  And this is war.  And he wants to see Saddam Hussein executed, as Saddam Hussein deserves that and, after all, as the most powerful and civilized nation on earth we can do that.  Who's going to stop us?  France?

Now he wants Drudge eliminated.

Bill O'Reilly is far and away the most popular analyst and commentator in America today.  I guess we'd better listen to him.



It's not just one list Bill has to consider.  Last week USA TODAY published its list of the best-selling books of 2003 and they show this:

7. Living History - Hillary Rodham Clinton

21. Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right - Al Franken

60. Dude, Where's My Country? - Michael Moore

63. Who's Looking Out for You? - Bill O'Reilly

Oh well.


Who ya gonna kill now?





Why am I so uncomfortable with this culture of death?


Ah well, Robert Parker, one of my favorite mystery writers, the fellow who gave us Spenser and Hawk and a series of pot-boilers from Boston, sums it up in his new novel.


Stone Cold: A Jesse Stone Novel

Robert B. Parker. Putnam: 336 pages $24.95
Published this month...


Stone, the police chief of the fictional Paradise, Massachusetts regarding a schoolgirl's rape by brutish fellow students, advises the victim: "The law always talks about justice.  We're officially in favor of it.  But if I were you I would want revenge."  


Yes, very George Bush.