Death Penalty

Amnesty International, UK is currently focusing on the death penalty. They’ve got a column in the London Times on it right now. Some points in it are valid, some are less compelling.
There’s a few different arguments people have about the morality of judicial killing. Some, as the author notes, are pragmatic: what if you’ve got the wrong person? As he notes, DNA evidence has a context in which it was collected and can be contaminated or inapplicable. There’s also the contexts around the trials themselves, like, are the lawyers sober and awake? And then there’s the way that class and race play into trials. People of color are way more likely to get death sentences. And people who have public defenders. And people who have incompetent lawyers. If the death sentence was fairly applied, it would fall with equal likely hood on the rich and the poor, the white and the non-white, etc. It doesn’t and this seems to imply a system where people who are sentences to death are more likely to be people who might not have even been found guilty if they had proper legal representation and a anti-racist jury.
I had an argument with a friend several months ago about the death penalty. As it happened, we had both just heard of the Birmingham pub bombings. This was the most deadly bomb attack from the IRA. My friend argued that certainly that case was one that would have deserved the death penalty. Indeed, the sentencing judge agreed and lamented that he couldn’t administer it. However, later it turned out that the police more or less randomly grabbed a group of Irishmen and tried them. Because the IRA, and by extension all of the Irish, were guilty by nature of all being the same alien other. The actual guilt or innocence of individuals is less important than stamping down on the other as a whole. And the way to stamp down is to give the most harsh penalty we can administer.
I don’t happen to think it’s moral to kill people (except in self-defense) and I’m not keen on it being done in my name, and that’s why I’m against the death penalty. If you think killing people is ok, then you’ve got to be ok with the amount of error which will creep into any system and especially something as fraught with error as the court system. What percentage of “oops, wrong guy” are you willing to tolerate? Because a perfect system is impossible, there will always be some percentage. How much is too much?
And this leads to the strongest pragmatic argument against the death penalty. Do you trust your government with the right to kill you? Maybe you’re not poor or a person of color or otherwise at exceptionally high risk for being accused in error, but it could happen. Would you trust the justice system with your life?


My last post was about loosing faith in “fate,” an idea I left undefined. It wasn’t a bearded sky god, passing judgement. But more like an intuitive, uninformed impression of the “Higher Power” of AA. Some sort of thing larger than myself. An idea that things would be ok in the long run. That’s all crap.
Ok, obviously all of humanity is larger than myself. And the movement of chance and the actions of others are all out of my control, which is part of the idea I had. So the idea of serenity is still valid. But other ideas are impacted.
Let’s imagine a metaphorical compass. The red side of the needle points at moral actions. You’re walking through the woods of life and are trying to follow the compass direction, but taking into account local circumstances, including things like cliffs, trees in the way, streams, etc. And the terrain itself has a lot of magnetic rock, which makes the needle direction really unclear sometimes. But there is, out there, a set of right actions, which are handed down from someplace outside of ourselves. But that view of morality is crap.
Foes of prop 8 angrily insist that we can’t put people’s rights up for a vote. But, in effect, that’s all we ever do regarding people’s rights. People have rights because we’ve all agreed they do. Because of our human emotions and logic and ideas like the golden rule. Actions aren’t moral or immoral because they adhere to some imaginary Platonic form, but because the people involved all pretty much agree on the action. One person leaving a comment on my last post called this “freeing.” There’s not one way to be good.
But, still, more questions. A lot of morality and especially the application of justice is configured such that “crimes” are what poor people can do to rich people. And morally-neutral actions are what rich people can do to poor people. This is crap. Are poor people less human?
Also, what the hell does humanness matter? If we’re not created in god’s image, what makes us better than battery chickens in cages laying eggs all day, unable to move with their beaks torn off? Aside from us having all the power and them having none?
All morality seems deeply vested in power relations. Deists think something is good because God demands it and he’s got more power than us. Atheists think something is good because they want to preserve their position in life and understand this relies on mutual cooperation. The golden rule isn’t just a good idea because it helps use empathy to figure out right actions, it is also the test condition and justification for right actions. And we can’t imagine being chickens, and there’s no danger of being reincarnated as one because none of that actually exists, so who cares about them? And in these circles of “us” and “them” and powers to enforce, we decide right and wrong. Can we see ourselves in an out group? Then they’re in. Otherwise, they stay out.
Which is what it’s been all along. And knowing that might be freeing because we’re free to negotiate our relationships with others however the people in them want. And we take whatever life has handed us and try our best with it. Or not. And it won’t turn out fine in the long run. In the long run, we’re dead. And either other people stop caring or it all becomes somebody else’s problem. And they might not solve it either.
So let’s say you wanted to have faith because somebody told you it was a good idea. You want to put it somewhere. Where? You can’t put it in god, because he doesn’t exist. You can’t put it in a happy future because that doesn’t exist either. You can’t put in humanity because they could very easily decide that ‘personhood’ no longer applies to queers or some other group you think it should. You could put in your friends, but in the short term, they might not be up to it. In the long term, one by one, they’ll die or leave and then, you die. Despite that, you could have it in yourself, which would be a nice heartwarming thing to do, but what is that but the idea of fate and happier future? That’s crap. So fuck faith. Drown your faith like an unwanted kitten.
I don’t know if it’s freeing, but I can live with it. What choice do I have?
I do feel better, though.

Star Wars, Torture and War

During my morning showers, my mind seems to be turning often to the new Star Wars trilogy. Thankfully, not to Jar Jar Binks, but instead to the oft-repeated moral of the story: anger leads to hate. Hate leas to the Dark Side. (I might be forgetting a step in there, but anyway, don’t get pissed off). When the movie came out, I read a short newspaper article complaining about this morality. The author said something along the lines of, you can’t get pissed off at the Nazis or you become a Nazi yourself. Therefore, according to Lucas, there’s no place for outrage in a moral society. However, I think there’s another reading to this story.

Jedis aren’t regular folks. You don’t run into them at the super market. They wear funny robes and live in a temple. They’re specifically a warrior caste. Therefore, advice given to a warrior caste might specifically relate to their day job. If you’re going to use violence as a means of problem solving, you can’t act out of anger. It’s like spanking kids. People who rationalize that it’s good teaching tool (almost) all agree that you shouldn’t do it when or because you’re pissed off. Being a Jedi is a sort of a parental role in society. Sometimes, they have to administer spankings, so they better not do it when they’re angry.
Many of you, like me, probably think that’s just not a good idea to hit a child. Violence is not really a tool for problem solving. However, this is an action movie. What’s more, it’s an American action movie. Most Americans (especially those watching action movies) beleive that there are circumstances where violence is a tool for problem solving and indeed, there are situations where it is the only tool. (for instance, see Nazis in the first paragraph). Therefore, advice given to a fictional warrior caste might be applicable to the voting public of a democratic war machine.
A newspaper (the Washington Post?) recently ran a profile of three torturers. One was from Israel, one from Northern Ireland, one an American stationed in Iraq. All of them acting as government agents. One of them said, “you can’t fight evil and stay good.” A lot of the debate about torture is whether or not it works, which is morally moot. (It doesn’t work, but that really doesn’t matter.) The point is trying to stay good. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to detainee abuse. Detainee abuse is the dark side.
I’m listing to a CD of Howard Zinn speaking of art in a time or war. In the part about Catch-22 he talked about the Allies – the good guys, doing bombing runs on towns and villages with no military targets. War makes you bad, he said. Even if you start out good, it makes you bad.
Is there a way to fight a war without anger?
Let’s consider again the story of Anniken’s downfall. A very smart, very promising kid has to deal with some very painful blows. He’s got a phyisical, military sort of power and an incredible feeling of entitlement. He wants to do good and to protect what he values. At the same time, he wants to gain power for himself. In so doing, he starts making sacrifices. He sacrifices some of his values towards the greater good of protecting what he values. In the end, power becomes the most important thing for him.
Now, imagine a young-ish country, flush with military power. After a devestating loss, they turn outward to defend themselves and start striking in anger. In order to protect some of their values, they have to sacrifice some of them. They trade civil rights for some increased security. Eventually, the ruling class loses all sense of protecting the people and turns instead to increasing their own power.
Maybe the story of the entilted kid who is well meaning but also greedy is a story that really is logically consistent. The seemingly mututally exclusive motivations represent fractured motivations with himself and the differing motivations of different segments in society. Advice that is silly for individuals could be really useful to that kid, to public leaders and to entire societies. America: don’t get mad!

Semantic Question

Is it immoral, unethical or both to napalm children in Cambodia?
It distresses me that some politicians equate morality with accepting Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior, even as they prepare to bomb the heck out of Iraq, a war that will kill 500,00 children or more (brining the child death toll by US action in Iraq up over 1 million). Source:
Perhaps morality should have something to do with right action? Chomsky calls himself a moralist. Maybe he could be persuaded to run on the Green Party ticket next time. Chomsky/Zinn in 2004!