Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.

U.S.A! U.S.A!

The citizens of this country, and Boston in particular, welcomed the news of the capture of 19 year-old Dzhokar Tsamaev with applause and immense pride. Clearly, there was a sigh of relief that could be heard as far away as California as the young man was found, almost by mistake, and the terrible events surrounding the Boston bombing seemed to be at a close. The relief is warranted as the thing this young man and his brother did defy description and raise more questions than we have answers for. But the chest thumping, obscenities from David Ortiz, and shouts of U.S.A! U.S.A! that could be heard around the country must give us pause. Our extravagant patriotism frequently spills over into ugly, chip-on-the-shoulder jingoism. And often it is not the least bit deserved.

From all reports, the young man was badly wounded and in pain when he was discovered hiding in a boat in a wealthy suburb of Boston beyond the net that had been spread to catch him and just before the search for the man was about to be called off. The capture of the young man, barely alive, was touted as an act of heroism on the part of the police and National Guard, when, in fact, the heroic act was that of the man who owned the boat who had the courage to look under the tarp to see if there was someone hiding inside. (Courage is sometimes difficult to distinguish from stupidity. Tsamaev was known to be “armed and dangerous” and peeking under the tarp was not the smartest thing the man ever did: he is lucky to be alive.)  Those involved in the capture showed courage, since they didn’t know what to expect. Yet the rest of us who had nothing to do with the capture acted as though we were the ones who caught the young man and brought him to the hospital. Americans are not short on pride and even arrogance, taking credit for the things that they have had nothing to do with, such as landing a man on the moon, placing a chimpanzee in orbit, or inventing sliced bread. We are not known as a people who hide our candle under a bushel, sad to say.

But the thing that keeps being ignored as this story unfolds is the question why two young men, seemingly perfectly “normal” and even bright and able — the young one even looking somewhat angelic in the photos that have been made public — would resort to this sort of suicidal act. And we hear little, if anything, about the possibility that this act of terrorism may well be a “pay-back” for the acts of terrorism this country is committing even as I write this blog. I speak, of course, of our drone strikes that are taking hundreds of innocent lives while we thump our chests in pride because a 19 year-old boy has been taken alive by an army of law-enforcers after an admittedly horrendous act of cruelty. The only mention of the possible quid-pro-quo is a cartoon I saw in USA Today that showed two monsters holding time bombs, identical in appearance except for the fact that one was wearing a tee-shirt labelled “Made In USA.” The cartoon directed our attention to the fact that the act of terrorism our law-enforcers brought to a close is merely one side of a two-sided coin. When we pause for breath after shouting out how proud we are of this nation and its brave men and women (who do deserve the praise they receive) we might want to ask again why these two very young men did this terrible thing and whether or not, perhaps, recent actions on the part of this country have bred hatred in other regions of the world, actions that are very likely to come back to haunt us repeatedly as a result of our swagger and presumption of moral superiority that leads us to ignore our acts of terrorism against others while we condemn similar acts when they are directed toward ourselves.

Bizarro World!

I always loved Jerry Seinfeld’s humor and my wife and I watched the re-runs of his sit-com until we could say the lines with the actors. One episode developed the notion of a “bizarro world” where everything is backwards. The idea is stolen from Lewis Carroll, of course, but many a good idea was stolen from someone else. In any event, I sometimes think we live in such a world — especially when I listen to or read some of the comments made by politicians. A case in point is a series of remarks by Mitt Romney quoted in today’s Yahoo News in which he made comments about tax cuts that John Sununu felt necessary to defend. (If we judge people by the company they keep we must be at least mildly concerned by Mitt’s new friends.)  In any event, Romney’s comments, in part, are as follows:

“He [President Obama] wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin?” Romney said, referring to the failed recall effort of Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. “The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

Of course, we can expect the Republicans to play the Wisconsin card at every opportunity. Indeed, if Walker had been recalled the Democrats would have played the same card. But in any event, the notion that “America” has spoken is absurd: the voters in Wisconsin spoke on one issue that makes clear their desire to hang on to their money until their eyeballs pop out. It is, as I am fond of pointing out, a case of short-term thinking that plagues us all. We can’t see the forest for the trees. We think that by saving a few tax dollars we will benefit. We may in the short term, but certainly not in the long run: the cost will be irremediable.

There is simply no way reducing the numbers of firemen, police, and teachers can benefit this country. To say, as Romney apparently did, that “it’s time to cut back on government to help the American people” is oxymoronic, to coin a term. How is it going to help the American people to have a few more dollars in their pocket if there are not enough policemen to keep thieves from stealing them? Or if their house is burning and the remaining firemen are putting out a fire somewhere else? Or if their children grow up and keep electing the same damned fools their parents voted in?

I am aware that government has grown huge. But much of that growth has resulted from individual and, especially, corporate irresponsibility. Many of the government agencies that have sprung up are a direct result of the damage large corporations have done to the environment. Many more are the result of the fact that we all seem to lack foresight. But many, if not all, of these agencies are indeed essential to life as we have come to know it.  Making drastic cuts in essential services, especially at a time when the very rich do not pay their fair share of the taxes, is borderline crazy.

The idea that, as Sununu says (defending Romney), “there are too many teachers” is arrant nonsense. It is on the order of Romney’s notion that small classes don’t benefit the students — which I have discussed previously. Moreover, Sununu’s notion that teaching can be done on the internet is an idea that is catching on and I have also discussed that notion. It, too, is absurd.  Real teaching and learning cannot be accomplished on the internet. The suggestion that we need to reduce the number of teachers in this country is all part of the move to eliminate public schools altogether; it would leave more of our citizens uneducated than is already the case. We not only need more teachers, we need better teachers, and smaller classes.

But as long as we remain focused on reducing taxes by eliminating critical elements within this society such as teachers, firemen, and policemen [what are these men thinking?!], then we deserve the consequences that are sure to follow. Our society will become considerably more dangerous and its citizens even more stupid than they are now — judging by the remarks by these two politicians and by the recent vote in Wisconsin. Bizarro world, indeed: black is white, up is down, and we can make our kids smarter by reducing the pittance we now spend on education and our citizens safer by reducing the number of police and firemen.