Sunday, June 26

The Architectural Circus

Buffalo, NY [photos by fanni terrette] (11760)

Tuesday, June 21

“War Is the Health of New York State.”

The title of this post is not just an abstract “leftist” slogan or a phrase torn from a page of a George Orwell novel. It comes from my observation that Randolphe Bourne’s original line, “War is the health of the state,” written in the midst of the First World War, has again taken on concrete significance for citizens of the United States. Indeed, it could very well serve as part of the figurehead from the mail that I’ve been receiving from New York State senators. As a case in point, I have scanned a portion of a letter I received today from New York State Senator Mary Lou Rath.
At issue in Senator Rath’s letter is her attempt to keep the Niagara Air Reserve Station open. This is a social drama that is playing out in communities all over the United States today in which military bases are being threatened with closure by the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) Commission. As Senator Rath writes, in lines scanned below (and, here, with my underscoring):

“Local, state and federal representatives, along with the Niagara Military Affairs Council (NIMAC), are banning together in a monumental effort to keep our base open, keep thousands of workers in quality jobs and keep our economy alive. We know how much is at stake!”
The kicker, for me, comes in the second paragraph shown here, where the senator argues for the military base’s importance (click on image for enlargement):

In other words, as Senator Rath sees things, keeping the economy alive requires nothing less than a robust “War on Terror” so that the Niagara Air Reserve Station can continue to be a critical component in the nation's perpetual war-making. Note, as well, the importance granted to the “war” by the senator’s use of capital letters. Not only did she dispense altogether with both scare quotes and a judicious use of “so-called” before the expression “War on Terror,” she also, with a stroke of self-important capitalization, made the so-called war on terror look, in print, like the title of a Hollywood blockbuster.

On another note, one wonders if local and federal officials are so lacking in imagination that they can think of no other jobs than these, to stimulate local economies.

For the blog, here, typed out, is the handwritten response I mailed to Senator Rath:


June 20, 2005

Dear Senator Rath:

In response to your letter of June 14, 2005 regarding the Niagara Air Reserve Station, I would like, first, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as follows:

“We are spending all of this money [on the war in Vietnam] for death and destruction, and not nearly enough for life and constructive development… When the guns of war become a national obsession, social needs inevitably suffer.” (1968)
Compare, if you will, the oft-cited words of President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." (1953)
Respectable senator, Erie County's debt has grown to an estimated $113 million and, at the same time, the amount the County's citizens have paid in taxes to support George Bush's gratuitous take-over of Iraq is rapidly approaching $100 million. [Editor's note of July 10: the actual figure for Erie County's expenditure on the Iraq War is 764.7 million dollars, as reported in March by National Priorities.] The latter figure will surely outstrip the amount of estimated debt soon.

In light of this, you have written to tell me of the need to "keep the economy alive" by contributing further to the so-called war on terror.

Respectable senator, I do not believe in your “War on Terror.” What I do believe is that the relentless militarization of our national and local economy is unhealthy for the citizens of this State, and surely unhealthy for the thousands of civilians the US government has killed, and is bound to keep killing, in Iraq and elsewhere. If supporting George Bush's murderous campaign of corporate self-enrichment that wraps itself in the U.S. flag and fans fear among the populace is the basis of your defense for the Niagara Air Reserve Station, then the sooner the Station closes, the better.

You can take your “War on Terror” and leap into Lake Erie, respectable senator.

Regards, (signed)

Wednesday, June 15

A Comic Genius Among Us

I would like to signal the emergence of a talented comic strip artist, Nicholas Gurewitch. Nicholas recently was a student a little over to the right of me in the State of New York, though I have yet to have the pleasure of meeting him. His self-introduction and a generous if not complete series of links to his comic strip, the curiously named "Perry Bible Fellowship," can be found at his website of the same name. I first discovered his work in the locally-distributed magazine The Beast.

In breaking with the nearly-uniform principle of presenting only images that I myself have taken or produced in one way or another, I offer a few of Nicholas' strips below because Nicholas kindly agreed to let me reproduce them here and because merely talking about comic strips would not do them justice.
The test of a great comic strip must reside in two parts: one part, belly, one part, brain. The first of these is hammered on pretty soundly by the Perry Bible Fellowship. Before the belly has even come to rest, however, the brain starts to secrete some of its more delicious fluids, and if there is something like an after-taste in the frontal lobe, I must have experienced it several times upon discovering Nicholas's most recent strips. So it is that one is able to return to these strips repeatedly and, lingering on lines drawn with the strictest economy, savor, for instance, the intense expression of a hairless human figure devoid of color and shadow.

I will sample only five of the strips and leave the curious reader to visit the many links of the Perry Bible Fellowship archive.

1 "Moving Birthday" (alternately titled "April 2"): this is the first strip of the Perry Bible Fellowship that I came across. The strip dips into the ambiance of the times and, without crassness or mockery, imagines a humorous and authentically human response to penury as experienced by a small family unit. The father's action is a step cleverer than those of Roberto Benigni's character in the film "Life Is Beautiful," for it is laced with the ambiguity of a subterfuge that is both survivalist in its impulse and turned against the child it is meant to placate or assuage. That Nicholas was able to convey all of this in four meager frames is what made me seek out more of his strips.

2 "Book World" presents a wry recollection of happy-happy education propaganda the sort to which children the world over are surely exposed. Who can view this strip and not chuckle nostalgically at all the well-meant but insipid institutional morale-boosting of one's early days in school? As often is the case in the Perry Bible Fellowship, the gleeful look emanating from the beady black eyes of the child in frame #2 portends an ironic reversal.

Out-on-a-wing speculation: possibly some of the Christian purists who huffed and puffed over the black magic contained within the Harry Potter series could, with a little touching-up of the book title, turn "Book World" to their own propagandistic effect?

3 "Lord Gloom" : The Perry Bible Fellowship, a name whose sense somewhat escapes me, is at least at times anachronistic, since the comic strip is peopled by what appear to be figures of Nicholas's own mythological invention that nonetheless owe their features and dress to various realms of archeological or pre-modern history, including dinosaurs and armored knights, but that Nicholas endows with what I believe are original character traits. "Lord Gloom" exemplifies this no less than "Colonel Sweeto." (For the latter, see the archive.) It is surely one of the outstanding features of The Perry Bible Fellowship that its characters are so diverse, even to the point where they are depicted by means of a completely different illustration style than are other members of the Fellowship. Similarly, one never knows into which period of time the Fellowship will next travel. Moreover, the printing type or font is not mechanically uniform from one strip to another but varies to reflect emotional or historical elements in keeping with the figures presented. These ever-changing aspects open up a vast range of perspectives and attitudes that, we can only hope, the Fellowship has just begun to explore. In this, the comic strip is a true "fellowship" of moods and comic turns of mind and is thus superior to the typical comic strip that is limited by a set of characters defined narrowly from the out-set (say, "geeky white-trash suburban family from the 1950s") or, worse, by a single, rigidly conceived character ("indifferently arrogant cat").

All that being said, Nicholas works illustrative economy to such an effect that, at times, he simply dispenses with words and lets the images speak for themselves, as in the following strip:

4 "Chew Boy" : This is one strip among several whose title is indispensable (although, strangely, the strip titles do not appear in the paper in which I read The Perry Bible Fellowship). Here, as elsewhere, Nicholas chooses his title with economy and in a way that plays up possible ambiguities. "Chew Boy" : Is this the once frequent command of a dog-owning parent who at holiday time lacked foresight in crafting a son's or daughter's costume? The corporate name of a dog toy? Or, perhaps, a curt evocation of the hapless costume-wearer's fate?

This eloquently silent strip puts to shame whole reams of conventional Sunday comics. Its joke is all in the viewer's mind. Or, rather, Nicholas has slipped it into the interstice between frame #3, where a boy waves in holiday cheer, and #4, where the dog, whose fate may well appear unjust, simmers under its muzzle. In the interstice it is less our eyes than our mind that is called to linger... and laugh.

5 "Mittens" : With apologies to cat lovers everywhere, this strip concentrates its comic energy discreetly in frame #2, whose significance, I think, may not be apparent on first viewing. (Click on the strip to view an enlargement.) As with any comic strip that hits both brain and belly, "Mittens" pulls the reader's gaze back to frame #2, where it discovers the apparently immobilized image of a cat that, one soon realizes, is in fact in a fatal free fall. From this the reader's eyes return to frame #1 to savor the eloquently traced human faces. And, with this back-n-forth waking rapid eye movement, the final frame depicting a "father sitting in judgment" only gains in comic power.

All images presented by permission of the artist, Nicholas Gurewitch.


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Tuesday, June 14

In Memory of B.B. and Others

In the wake of another teenage shooting in the United States, I would like to address a message to friends of Brandenn Bremmer. Not believing that Brandenn had made a single enemy in his short life, this includes everyone. And if the name "Brandenn Bremmer" means nothing to you, please see my original post on this child prodigy and apparent victim of suicide in early March of this year, at the age of 14.
It seems that approximately 10,000 visits to my blog have been made in just over one year of its existence. I have also received hundreds of comments and occasional e-mail correspondence from readers. Recently, I received e-mail from someone claiming to be "a very close friend of Brandenn's." This person, who signed their initial comments as "FriendsofBrandenn," requested by e-mail that I remove my March 28 post on Brandenn an account of the fact that she found it offensive. Although the necessity of the request was questionable to my mind, since, I thought, the person could simply choose not to read the post, I carefully weighed the reasons given for the request. In the end, I found none of them compelling. The person writing to me identified herself, in a final message, as the mother of Brandenn's close friend, and I surmise that her name is Mary Smith.

Although Mary Smith was unable to provide compelling reasons for my removing the fictional letter that constitutes the centerpiece of my March 28 post, I am going to discuss our correspondence here as a contribution to the issue of juvenile gun access laws in the United States.

Despite my informing Mary Smith that I was considering printing our exchange of messages, I cannot, in good faith, reproduce all of her messages word-for-word, since she has announced that she would not like to continue corresponding with me and I have not obtained her permission to reproduce her words in their entirety. I will, therefore, paraphrase the exchange briefly and reproduce only the most telling parts or parts that I wrote.

First, a brief summary: on March 28, I posted a fictional letter, identified as such, whose main purpose was to raise the following questions: why, in reporting the apparent suicide of 14-year-old Brandenn Bremmer, did the AP staff writer Sharon Cohen make no mention of parental responsibility in the matter, if only to ask how and why Brandenn had been given unsupervised access to a loaded weapon? And what does this omission suggest about the reporter's assumptions concerning the reading public? In other words, in the mind of Cohen or those for whom her article was intended, did the fact that a 14-year old was given unsupervised access to a loaded weapon count for nothing when it came to assessing the responsibilities for his death? Raising such questions was, as I said, the main point of the avowedly fictional letter. A second point was to question the reported rationalization for Brandenn's suicide as stated by Brandenn Bremmer's mother and, at other times, paraphrased by Cohen on the basis of the mother's comments. According to this line of rationalization, Brandenn may have killed himself because he was extraordinarily intelligent and because God had assumed a special role in his life on the day of his apparent suicide -- specifically, the role of helping Brandenn accomplish things not possible on Earth. It was implicit, but clear (at least to the readers who responded to the post by leaving comments in the comments box below it or by speaking to me personally), that in amplifying this rationalization by means of a fictional letter, I meant to draw attention to its insufficiency in explaining both the causes and responsibilities surrounding Brandenn's death. Of the former, we may well forever remain in the dark; but when it comes to the issue of responsibilities, much, I am sure, can still be determined. This seemed necessary to point out because, for one, the reporter Cohen did not herself draw attention to the exorbitant nature of the rationalizations, which may, admittedly, have been the fruit of a traumatized mind. Still, the rationalizations returned me to what they appeared to cover up or at least obscure: the role of parental responsibility.

Below is how, in sum, Mary Smith responded to my post. The possibility that, as someone who knew Brandenn well, she may have made these charges in a state of great emotion has not been lost on me; nonetheless, I feel compelled to give at least schematic replies to them (which I will do after each charge is paraphrased):

The message is essentially of two parts. In one half of her message, Mary Smith argues that I should remove the fictional letter because, in it:

1. I criticize someone I do not know personally;

my reply: I do not need to know someone personally to be able to establish a good reason for examining their reported words critically, especially when my criticisms are not ad hominem in nature, as they clearly were not in this case;

2. I criticize Brandenn's mother for not having handled the press well, when it is likely that I myself would not have handled the press perfectly if I had been in the mother's place;

my reply: my comments were not critical of the manner in which the mother handled the press but of the content of her rationalizations and the fact that the mother, as well as the reporter Cohen, omitted to question whether Brandenn's unsupervised access to a loaded weapon was a contributing factor in his apparent suicide;

3. I write with 'tunnel vision' because I am likely from the East Coast and likely do not have children;

my reply: it is strictly irrelevant whether the author of the letter has children or whether the author lives on the East Coast, neither of which conditions, whether they have been met or not, would restrict the significance of the letter in any way or cloud its author's "vision";

4. I base my criticism on an AP report that took the mother's comments "out of context."

my reply: the question of "context" is precisely the question to which the post was most sensitive, since the parents' not restricting or supervising Brandenn's access to a loaded weapon was surely, to my mind, a crucial part of the context out of which the mother's comments were taken; therefore, it is unfair to accuse me of having taken the AP reporter's words for granted -- as if I had assumed that they encapsulated the entire incident and all the relevant issues. Moreover, there is no conceivable "context" that would recast the mother's surmising that "maybe the physical, earthly world didn't offer [Brandenn] enough challenges and he felt it was time to move on and do something great" as a justification for the reporter's not raising the question of the parent's responsibility to supervise the child's access to a loaded weapon. It is unpersuasive to assert or imply that, by showing skepticism toward this rationalization, I had distorted it by omitting certain contextual elements.

So much for the reasons this good friend of Brandenn gave for requesting that I remove the fictional letter posted on March 28.

In the second part of her message, Mary Smith comes to the defense of liberal gun access for children and teenagers. In this, she reveals that she understood that my real purpose in writing the fictional letter was not, as she suggests in the first part of her message, to attack someone ad hominem or to respond uncritically to a single AP report but, rather, to raise a serious issue. I should say that this longer, more developed part of the message left me somewhat confused. If the mother had been offended by the remarks of someone who, to her mind, wrote insensitively about a friend, why also go to such lengths to defend easy gun access? I at first suspected that the author of the messages had only signed their comments as "FriendsofBrandenn" and not signed their e-mail at all so as to operate as a front for the National Rifle Association. Possibly, I thought, I was receiving mail from an NRA member masquerading unscrupulously as an acquaintance of Brandenn. Indeed, it took several days before I was able to put this suspicion to rest when, in a final, brief communication, Mary Smith revealed her identity and the nature of her relationship to Brandenn.

To defend lax gun access laws, Mary Smith provides a rebuttal consisting of three parts:

1. A "regionalist" argument. I provide this section of the message verbatim:
"Here in the Midwest, it is common (and our right as Americans) to have firearms...because hunting is a common tradition/sport, kids learn about hunting/firearms and archery at a young age, hunting with friends and relatives starts at a very young age. Deer hunting in the fall, turkey hunting at Thanksgiving - this tradition can start as early as ages 5 -8 yrs old, and very common from about 10 yrs old and on. No one around here would have considered Brandenn 'too young' to have access to firearms. And NO ONE would have reason to think he shouldn't."
my reply: While it is true that gun access laws vary from state to state, in Nebraska, where Brandenn lived, the laws relating to juvenile gun access are not radically different from those of New York State, where I currently reside. In short, in neither state are gun owners held responsible for leaving guns accessible to kids. In other words, there is "no state requirement that gun owners take responsible steps to prevent children from gaining easy access to their firearms. Gun owners are not held accountable for leaving loaded guns around kids, even if a young child shoots themselves or someone else with a gun left in plain sight" (source). So, in a legal sense, Mary Smith is correct to assert that the parents cannot be held responsible, but this is not a reflection of regional culture. I might put this point differently by noting that the NRA's influence expands far beyond the State lines of Nebraska.

Moreover, no matter how "common" the unsupervised or supervised access to guns among 5-year-old kids in the "Midwest" may be, does the "common" nature of an absurd and dangerous situation make it any less absurd or dangerous? The questions I have raised are not: Should one be permitted to have or not have guns? Does the Constitution allow for having or not having them in general? The question is: should parents be held responsible for supervising their own children's use of guns?

The lax gun laws as they relate to parental responsibilities do not justify what I suspect may well have been a clear case of parental negligence in the death of Brandenn Bremmer; rather, these lenient laws are themselves the problem. The reason I say this does not stem from my currently residing on the "East Coast" or the fact that I have not raised children. It comes from my assessment that letting kids use loaded weapons is at best negligent. It is further supported by my awareness that an increase in juvenile killings and suicides has been linked by the Department of Justice to increasingly lax gun laws.

2. The second part of Mary Smith's rebuttal consists of a "hyperbolic" argument that is developed as follows: Because some teens kill themselves with means other than guns, such as tree limbs and ropes, or household drugs, and because it would be foolish to conclude from this that only bad parents would ever allow their children access to ropes, trees, or medicine cabinets, then it is equally foolish to conclude that parents who give their children free, unsupervised access to guns should be held responsible for doing so in cases where their children use these guns to kill themselves or others.

my reply: This argument is based on the fallacious assumption that there is no difference in danger or power between all objects capable of being used as instruments of self-destruction. Guns -- I think I understand this much about them -- not only are powerful in a physical or mechanical sense but, in the United States especially, enjoy an exalted status as symbols of power, sex, justice, adulthood, manliness, ruggedness, free-spiritedness, frontiersmanship, decisiveness, and -- yes -- freedom. Given this situation, it is not surprising that, in such a society, the more guns one makes available, and the less supervision one insists upon for the children and teenagers who would be tempted to use them, the more killings there are sure to be. That we know this to be so is shown in studies such as the one conducted by the Department of Justice a few years ago, which concluded that "easier access to firearms contributed to a huge rise in the number of U.S. homicides and suicides among juveniles" (source). The opposite tendency is understandably also true: "From 1993 to 1997, the number of juvenile homicides and suicides dropped, according to the study, which credited the decline in part on tighter laws regulating access to firearms" (ibid., my emphasis).

So, in respect of the knowledge that, in whatever region of the United States it occurs, easing children's access to high-powered weapons contributes to a huge rise in juvenile homicides and suicides, my post was meant to draw attention to the lamentable state of affairs in Nebraska, New York, and many other States in which "there are no restrictions on juveniles possessing rifles or shotguns including semiautomatic assault weapons" and in which, when juvenile suicides by gunfire are reported in the press, questions relating to unsupervised juvenile gun access are not even raised, and those who may raise them in their own public forums are accused of being insensitive and asked to retreat into silence.

3. In the final moment of her message, Mary Smith suggests that, instead of concerning myself about gun legislation, I should have done "something actually helpful" like writing about "understanding the complexity of gifted individuals." When I asked her to explain what she understood by that phrase as it relates to Brandenn's death, instead of taking responsibility for the connection she had implied between the two, Mary Smith provided a number of web links to sites that she feels address "the complexity of gifted individuals."

my reply: this suggestion only repeats the tactic which I was critical of in Brandenn's mother's comments. It is surely possible that "the complexity of gifted individuals" -- whatever that phrase is meant to evoke -- played some direct or indirect role in Brandenn's untimely end, but my point is that I am not willing to simply accept that possibility as a fact. Nor am I willing to take this supposed fact as grounds for dismissing out-of-hand all other questions concerning the precise factors that led to Brandenn's apparent suicide.

If I may address my displeased reader frankly: I know it must suck to feel that some long-winded East Coast liberal who probably doesn't even have kids is trying to tell you right from wrong, but please know that I read the newspapers and see the incidents of juvenile suicide and homicide tallied month after month, and the whole thing has made me wonder: What's going on in this country? However much you'd like to believe that Brandenn Bremmer took that gun in his hands in a quiet little corner of Nebraska -- a place with its own rules and customs and that, as such, is radically exceptional to things that take place on the East Coast or in regions where liberals haven't developed a proper fondness for weapons -- the fact is that Brandenn killed himself in a nation where such incidents are common and where laws regulating minors' unsupervised access to guns are uniformly lax. Moreover, these laws are lax not because of some Constitutional right that the framers of that document set down in law so that all the nation's children could take up arms against a potential new wave of British Redcoats, or so that seasonal hunting traditions in the Midwest would go undisturbed, but because the National Rifle Association has long targeted our politicians in Washington with its powerful lobby and thereby assured its friends gun-sale profits at the expense of all social, regional, and safety-related considerations. If the NRA could facilitate the sale of semi-automatic rifles to all the teenagers of this nation, believe me, it would. And no amount of killing of and by our children would ever allay the NRA members' passion for peddling and glorifying weapons. Their short-sighted and self-serving claim will always be: "it's not the guns that kill, it's the shooters."

Let me say, too, that there's a lot that I don't know about Brandenn's particular case. I don't know what kind of weapon he used, what his personal acquaintance with guns was, whether he hunted regularly, or why on that day in March he had private access to a loaded weapon. Here, as in many such reports, all such details -- details over which legislators split the finest of hairs -- have been brushed aside and the whole incident has been boxed up and shipped off for public consumption under the journalistic rubric of "genius mind too genius for its own good, does self in." Given this hasty summation of the event and the lack of information available to the public, it is hard to draw fast conclusions about the nature of the irresponsibilities that likely contributed to Brandenn's death. Still, that fact does not relieve me, as a citizen of this nation, from the responsibility of inquiry and action.

I don't pretend to have all the answers and what I'm suggesting is, I think, fairly modest. When children and teenagers kill themselves with guns, can the circumstances in which the suicides occurred -- the "context," if you will -- be discussed, and the question of parental responsibility not be eluded or buried with the facile and complacent evocation of such things as "God's benevolent influence" or "unpredictable genius"? To go a step further, can the laws of this land lay some measure of responsibility with parents who knowingly or negligently allow their children unsupervised access to powerful means of self-destruction?

In my final substantive reply by e-mail to Mary Smith, I made the following remarks:

[Beginning of copied and slightly modified e-mail message]

Your e-mail has confirmed for me the importance of sharing my views in the way I chose to at my blog and for that I thank you heartily.

The sort of presumptions that I found disturbing in the case of Brandenn Bremmer, as reported by the AP, are equally present in your exchanges with me. They include the presumptions to have fully understood that:

1) the sole factor leading to Brandenn's death was his genius;

(And I ask again: how do you know this to be so?)

2) not an ounce of responsibility for Brandenn's death can be leveled against anyone else, and especially not the parents who, despite all their wonderful qualities (which I do not deny), apparently gave their son unsupervised access to a loaded weapon;

(And I ask you: how do you know that no such responsibilities can be identified?)

3) there is nothing at all unusual about the AP reporter's not raising any question about the boy's having unsupervised access to a loaded weapon;

(And I would ask: why do you presume this to be so? And do you know for a fact that Brandenn was trained properly to use such weapons?)

In addition to sharing these unsubstantiated assumptions, which were the original focus of my piece, you also added, by implication, more presumptuous claims:

4) Brandenn killed himself with a hunting rifle whose sole intended purpose was for hunting fauna or fowl in accordance with time-honored seasonal practices and traditions;

(Do you know that to be a fact, Mrs. Smith?)

5) only people who have children can be sensitive enough not to raise questions of parental responsibility when it comes to the question of parents who allow children to have unsupervised access to lethal weapons;

(It is, I believe, the duty of every citizen to take an interest in preventing needless violence, especially when it is carried out by and against minors.)

6) there is no difference in force or danger between trees and guns, or ropes and guns, and therefore all legislation that would regulate their use and children's access to them should be uniformly lax and indifferent;

(That is a patently absurd argument.)

I am not "insisting" on "leaving that letter" on my site anymore than I am insisting on leaving everything else I have posted there. It is part of my blog and will remain there until someone gives me reason to remove it. Your communication with me these past few days, which I do appreciate, has only confirmed for me the letter's importance, and I do regret that you have not understood the intent of the letter, or have chosen to appear not to have understood it. Surely the questions it raises are questions that, to date, you have given little thought to. Perhaps one day you will be able to see them in a different light.

[End of copied e-mail message]

To wind up this very long post, I note that whereas I speak particularly of Brandenn, someone I did not know personally, I always have in mind the numerous victims of gun-inflicted violence who die before they become adults. We should never lose sight of the following facts:

In the United States, "we loose 928 children and teenagers every year to completed firearm-related suicides. This accounts for more than two young lives lost per day. Of the total 1,890 completed suicides in 2001 for ages 19 and under, 49% were firearm-related. Guns are the method used in 88% of male teen suicides and 12% of female teen suicides." (source)

Given that we are losing so many children and teenagers to firearm-related suicides every year in the United States, I invite all those interested in taking concrete steps to preventing further incidents of the sort in which Brandenn apparently took his own life to take a moment to address concerns over our nation's lax gun access regulations to media representatives and legislators. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence provides all relevant e-mail addresses for this purpose. See, in particular, their action page. Surely, this would be something "actually helpful" when it comes to preventing such violence.



Monday, June 13

Thanks for the visit

photo by terrette (9952)


Saturday, June 11

Preaching State Violence

This is part 6 of terrette's death penalty discussion.
terrette: I have read the Kerby Anderson piece and I would find it very difficult to discuss it as if it were a serious contribution to the topic of the death penalty. There is simply too much fluff, too many self-defeating contradictions, and too many outrageous claims in it for me to be able to approach the piece with the sort of care and attention I like to give to others' texts. So as not to appear dogmatic, dismissive and baseless in saying this, I will discuss at least one example of specious nonsense from Mr. Anderson. If I wanted to address all the specious nonsense in his piece, I would have to write a book-length study, and, as you can imagine, I have more important things to do now than to exert myself in this way.

However, before I discuss a single example of patent nonsense from Mr. Anderson, I need to ask how you position yourself with respect to Anderson’s piece as a whole. Your contenting yourself with pasting onto your message a few of Anderson’s statements showed, at the very least, a lack of generosity on your part (toward Anderson, but also toward me). It also now forces me to begin by asking you some elementary questions. You said that you have read Anderson’s piece carefully and that it "made the most sense" to you; and, so, without further clarification from you, I will have to assume that you wholly accept Anderson's:

i) transcendental monarchical politics and, specifically, the claim (which Anderson bases on a passage from Paul to the Romans in which Paul praises Roman government (13:1-7)) that government officials anywhere and everywhere are not so much voted into office and therefore accountable to voters as they are ordained by God and thus worthy of citizens’ unquestioned obedience (“…human government is ordained by God…”);

ii) fascist insistence, worthy of one of Hitler’s youth, on a principle of the government’s infallible use of violence (“We are to obey government for we are taught that government does not bear the sword in vain”/ “…we are to obey human government that bears the sword”);

iii) implicit but unmistakable call for the government’s widespread and frequent use of the death penalty ("So the increase in the crime rate [Anderson wrote his piece in 1992, before years of steady decline in all types of crime in the United States] is most likely due to many other factors and cannot be correlated with a death penalty that has been implemented sparingly and sporadically");

iv) refusal to recognize religion and politics as being of two essentially different orders and consequential desire for government (at any period of history, including that of the present-day United States) to be founded not so much on a democratically-supported constitution as on "moral principles," where this means a non-ceremonial "Old Testament law code" ("There is and should be a relationship between Old Testament laws and modern laws. We may no longer be subject to Old Testament ceremonial law, but that does not invalidate God’s moral principles set down in the Old Testament. Murder is still wrong [does anyone argue the contrary?]. Thus, since murder is wrong, the penalty for murder must still be implemented" [but the whole point of the discussion is to argue what the penalty should be, and why or why not it should be the destruction of a person's body. If Anderson is simply saying here that good government should not legalize murder, then I myself share his views; to the degree, however, that he believes that government is or should be an extension of a priesthood or Christian ministry that consistently creates policy on the basis of reductive, literalist readings of the Old Testament, then I cannot follow him].

v) simplistic and fantastical readings of the Bible, in which Anderson swiftly appeals to “the context” (as if there could only ever be a single context for a given passage) in order to reverse sensible readings, and refuses to take into account the many different registers of Biblical discourse, including, most importantly, the spiritual and/or prophetic import of certain books;

vi) wild speculation designed to feed and comfort fear-mongering (“…if the death penalty is used in a consistent way, it may deter as many as eight murders for every execution carried out”).

To Anderson’s credit, I can say that I sympathize with his desire to make two types of arguments. The first is that the complaints about the discriminatory use of capital punishment do not address what is wrong with capital punishment in principle; the second, that the claim that the government is committing “murder” by destroying the bodies of convicted murderers is not a sound one. Indeed, you will find in our recent correspondence evidence that I do not criticize capital punishment solely on the basis of its discriminatory implementation, nor confound “killing” and “murder” (though you have, possibly on the model of Anderson, argued on two occasions for the importance of this distinction, as if I had myself denied it or diminished it).

Let's now turn to the all-important "New Testament Principles" that Mr. Anderson dedicates a few lines to. This should be an important section to our discussion, because I have asked you to explain how it is that the teachings of Jesus Christ can be enlisted as support for what today we call capital punishment. So, how does Anderson’s piece, which you say “makes the most sense” to you, respond to this question? First, note that Anderson argues that such a question is not exactly relevant or necessary, since the idea that "murder is wrong" can be found already in Genesis 9:6 (as if that idea alone were sufficient to justify the death penalty!). In other words, Anderson argues that, strictly speaking, the rest of the Bible is unnecessary for our finding Biblical support for capital punishment. Nonetheless, despite Mr. Anderson's repeatedly arguing that the essence of what the Bible has to offer in support of capital punishment precedes even Old Testament theocracy, the fourth paragraph of this section takes on the daunting task of arguing that Jesus did not "set aside" "capital punishment." (Throughout this article, "capital punishment" is used with clumsy anachronism and a mindless conflating of religious and political orders and concepts. To speak with a minimal amount of seriousness about "capital punishment" and the Bible, one would have to ask where the juridical notion of "capital punishment" comes from and what its history is and not merely assume that the same notion is everywhere present, albeit in different language, in sacred scripture.) How does Mr. Anderson achieve such an ambitious goal of portraying Jesus as a supporter of "capital punishment" and so keep Jesus from contradicting a present-day political agenda based on a so-called creation-order principle? Let's read (I’ll underscore where necessary):

Some have said that Jesus set aside capital punishment in John 8 when He did not call for the woman caught in adultery to be stoned. But remember the context. The Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus between the Roman law and the Mosaic law. If He said that they should stone her, He would break the Roman law. If He refused to allow them to stone her, He would break the Mosaic law (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Jesus' answer avoided the conflict: He said that he who was without sin should cast the first stone. Since He did teach that a stone be thrown (John 8:7), this is not an abolition of the death penalty.
Do you have a Bible at your house, or can you find one in the local library? If so, read, will you, John 8:7 and tell me: do you agree with Anderson that Jesus is here teaching “that a stone be thrown” and that, moreover, by implication, not only does Jesus not offer an “abolition” (what an incredible word here!) of the death penalty, he clearly opens the door for its support and prescription? Is it reasonable, especially for someone like Anderson who finds such self-empowerment in a recourse to “the context,” to chop off half of what Jesus says in John 8:7, namely, his call that a stone be thrown only by one who is without sin, in order to flatten the entire teaching of forgiveness and moderation into a call for violence? Anderson: “Since He did teach that a stone be thrown (John 8:7), this is not an abolition of the death penalty.” Can you read such a statement without cringing at its patent reductionism? Can you take comfort in its obvious attempt to falsify the text? If I myself may be allowed to appeal to “the context,” I would find it worth mentioning that, four verses later, in John 8: 11, John concludes his narrative of this incident by writing that Jesus himself said: “Neither do I condemn you.” So, does Jesus show himself to be a “death penalty” advocate here? Please tell me how!

But I need to comment, as promised, on your use of this piece. First of all, it is a little embarrassing for both of us, I think, that you gullibly incorporated elements of Anderson’s commentary on the topic you and I agreed to discuss and did so, moreover, without addressing its radical fundamentalism (the likes of which only that of an Osama bin Laden could rival) and without—I see this as a minimal requirement of responsible reading—stating how you position yourself with respect to it (what you accept and what you do not accept, in general—see my example above, if you need a model). One consequence of your slavish appeal to Anderson is that, in mimicking his language, you repeated its vagueness and thus brought into our discussion a whole host of problematic assumptions that neither you nor Anderson has justified. What do I mean by this? Let’s look at the part of Anderson’s piece that you reactivated for your own purposes:

Here is the passage you quoted from Anderson in an apparent show of unqualified support:

Within this Old Testament theocracy, capital punishment was extended beyond murder to cover various offenses. While the death penalty for these offenses was limited to this particular dispensation of revelation, notice that the principle in Genesis 9:6 is not tied to the theocracy. Instead, the principle of Lex Talionis (a life for a life) is tied to the creation order. Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life. Even before we turn to the New Testament, we find this universally binding principle that precedes the Old Testament law code.
You then asked me: “What did you think?” Well, I think that this is a highly simplistic and vague series of statements. (It is also my hunch, but only a hunch, that these statements are most likely motivated by a narrow agenda of radical right politics including things like increasing the military budget in the United States and resisting universal health care and a living wage for US citizens, but that is another matter that we can discuss another day.)

First, it is improper and anachronistic to speak of “capital punishment” within Old Testament theocracy. The advantage of this improper use, of course, is that it allows Anderson to treat the Book of Genesis as if it were a document to be read not only from a purely modern vantage point, but from a purely political vantage point; that is, it allows him to read the Book of Genesis as if it offered a code of law on par with—to be classed and consulted alongside—any other contemporary law code in a court of law. (In this respect, it is much like the attempt on the part of orthodox Muslims in certain parts of the world, such as northern Nigeria, to erect religious states in which the Koran becomes the law of the land in all matters.)

Second, Anderson employs a term of relation—“is tied to”—in a similarly vague way that you employ the expression “based on.” To say that the principle of “a life for a life” is tied to the creation order means what? Are we supposed to allow Anderson to get away with making the entire Bible seem to fall in line with this one passage from Genesis, to be “tied to” it, once the passage has been distorted into a modern code of state and/or federal law? To make the New Testament so collapse, one would have at the least to rewrite the entire Mount of Olives episode so as to make it appear that Jesus in fact, however surreptitiously, opts for the Law of Moses (but then this would have brought the adulterous woman to a swift, violent end at the hands of the bystanders, scribes and Pharisees). As we saw, this is, indeed, what Anderson tries to do, and he does this in clear contradiction of the event, its outcome, and its spiritual significance. He turns the Mount of Olives episode into an apology for the Old Testament law and, by extension, for retributive justice in the form of summary, mob violence.

Let us, therefore, reread the Old Testament passage in question. Genesis 9:6: “Whoever spills the blood of man, his blood will be spilled by man, because in the image of God, God has made man.”

(Let me note, in passing, and as another contextual reminder, that in the verses that follow, Moses extends his “alliance” to animals. The implication of his doing so is that the blood of animals is equally sanctified. Would you, therefore, in an attempt to follow Anderson, call for the death penalty for those who, in a premeditated manner, kill and consume animals? You have already insisted on the sanctity of human life, so you should be attentive, perhaps, to your own distance from this pre-theocratic principle and be prepared to accept its consequences and thus not to embrace Moses’s “pre-theocratic” alliance so unquestioningly and on second-hand alone with respect to other points.)

This passage from Genesis can be said to presage the law of retaliation and retributive justice, but that in no way authorizes us to apply retroactively Anderson’s (on my view, irrelevant) arguments about the interdiction of murder that he bases on the sixth commandment to the Book of Genesis. We cannot so “tie” one to the other in good faith. Nowhere is it a question for Moses of “murder” or of “premeditation” in the sense that you and Anderson seem to understand these terms (that is, as legalistic categories implying the fully conscious and pre-programmed destruction of human life). Thus, we could more pertinently argue on the strength of this passage alone that whenever a life is taken by man, another life must be taken by man, and so on, until no men remain, and the same for animals. Indeed, on this more faithful understanding of Moses’s words, the “universally binding principle” can know no bound, and life after life will be spun away until all lives have been lost and all flesh has been destroyed.

Of course, Christians do not usually argue in this manner (at least not as far as I know), but if they find reason not to, they do so by appealing to the New Testament and not, as Anderson does, by trying to force capital punishment ideology into Genesis or, what amounts to the same, pre-Christian Jewish codes of law, and subsequently to argue that the New Testament is effectively irrelevant and, at best, redundant on the issue of the death penalty. Anderson says, “Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life.” This statement is anachronistic and vague. How does capital punishment, the state-managed destruction of life, find a Christian justification in the Old Testament, due to the sanctity of life? “Due to”? If life were sanctified, how could the Old Testament be arguing here for its destruction? And by the state, no less?

You also wrote the following in your response to Anderson’s piece:

“The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life. The state does not ‘murder’ the one guilty of murder. The criminal gives up his/her own right to life when he [sic] commits the crime.”
I recognize in your words Anderson’s argument about the distinction between murder and killing (a distinction that I find compelling, but, as I said, irrelevant to our discussion), but I see that you have departed from Anderson in two significant ways (there is nothing necessarily wrong in departing from Anderson!).

Here, you argue in a way that I find highly problematic and that I’ve discussed in my previous letter that the right to life of the criminal is “given up” the moment he or she commits premeditated murder. This way of arguing is problematic because it tries to diminish the responsibility that agents of law and citizens of a democracy have in determining whether or not destroying convicts’ bodies is just; further, it is problematic because, if we accept it, then the logical consequence is that, in murdering others in a premeditated fashion, criminal citizens effectively “express” the value of human life, since their actions, you argue, immediately bring about the revocation of their right to life and this revocation—-these are your words—-is itself an“expression”of human life as a whole.

Your argument would thus inspire us to be good Christians by murdering our fellow citizens in a premeditated fashion. Insofar as the “expression” of human life has the importance for Christians that you attach to it, and insofar as that “expression” can only be achieved through the immediate “giving up” of one's right to life -- a revocation that is immediate and conclusive and that is only made official by means of the death penalty. Then, I suppose, we may as well start killing one another if we wish to celebrate the ultimate value of human life. Either you have to embrace these implications of your argument, and horribly murderous consequences follow; or you have to admit that there are other, equally good means of “expressing” the value of human life, and thus the argument for the necessity of the death penalty as an essential condition to expressing life's value is greatly weakened, since what it affords us can be had easily by other, less violent means. So, which would you prefer?

Tadoussac, Quebec. photo by terrette

Friday, June 10

Selling Death, Expressing Life

This is part ⑤ of terrette's death penalty discussion.
terrette: My response to your mail will have to be in different parts. I'll state, in my own words, what I think your defense of the death penalty is so that you can verify if I have understood you well. Later, I will return to the Anderson essay, although I am less interested in Anderson's piece per se than in how you use Anderson or arrive at or make your own arguments. And, lastly, I will present, briefly, my own position on the death penalty.

First, however, I need to point out that you passed over some questions from my previous letter. For that reason, and for your convenience, I will copy them once again here and reformulate them so that I can be sure that you have understood them.

1) Why is it fair and just that the United States remains the only so-called Western democracy that practices the death penalty? I think this is an important question. I try to imagine you raising your children in a Christian heritage and I see such a scene as this: one of your children hears on the news or reads in a newspaper that one of the criteria for a nation's admission into the Federation of Europe is the abolishment of the death penalty. Said child then asks: Mom, why don't the Europeans execute evil people like we do here in the United States? What is wrong with Europeans? Do the Europeans not know the importance of the God-ordained value of human life? Do they not understand the importance of expressing that ultimate value? Has something changed in Europe, Mom? Are Europeans less God-fearing than we Americans are? Don't they understand that when someone takes another's life, his or her right to life is thereby revoked automatically, without anyone having to "take" it, and that, therefore, the death penalty is just? (You will appreciate, I hope that, in formulating these questions and in fictionalizing this scene, I have tried carefully to remain faithful to your own language, just as I imagine one of your children would.)

So, what do you tell your inquisitive child when such questions arise? And how, generally, do you understand this evolution away from the death penalty exhibited by all but a few developed nations (the United States, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia--to name those that surpass all others in the application of the death penalty today)? Are you against the international movement away from the death penalty? Do you see it as a sign of moral decrepitude or degeneracy on a global scale? What are the consequences, do you think, of the "ultimate value of life" not being "expressed" by means of the death penalty in European states? Is the ultimate value -- life -- better "expressed" in the U.S., Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, today, than in other parts of the world?

2) Did God ever command for us to destroy the bodies of our fellow citizens? I am particularly surprised that this question received no clear reply from you. Indeed, I am surprised at how little use of scripture you make, given that your point of entry in debate (into this one, of course, but most likely as a rule) is to demand who is Christian and who is not, and who believes that Jesus is the savior and who does not. Can one seriously argue from and for Christianity by relying only on second-hand commentaries? I think my question would be more pertinent if, in it, I changed "God" to "Jesus" (though most Christians would see no difference between the two), since using "God" allows death-penalty apologists to make a facile recourse to certain texts in the Old Testament without, however, confronting the thought of Jesus Christ -- the figure who at the outset of our discussion seemed immensely important to you and whose importance I myself argued for, since Christ's having died at the hands of a mob-incited sovereign has, in my view, left a legacy of death penalty appropriations, permissiveness, and support throughout history. The problem with not citing the teachings of Jesus, of course, is not simply that it makes us look like poor scholars; rather, it tends to suggest that an important part of Christianity—Jesus!—has been obscured intentionally or unwittingly by the Christians who would speak in his name so as to defend the destruction of others' bodies. So, to repeat: where does Jesus teach that we should destroy others' bodies? Doesn't the most obvious, most widely recognized, teaching of Jesus go in the opposite direction, namely by insisting that we not use a recourse to violence, and not take steps to destroy the bodies of those who have or would harm us? If you feel I am simplifying or distorting the Christian message, please tell me how you think that to be the case, for, to this point, I simply cannot make sense of your keeping the voice of Jesus silent on the issue of the death penalty. Should I see significance in the fact that, when faced with the task of arguing on the “basis” of Christianity, you leave the Bible unopened and put your faith in Anderson’s Probe Ministries and….President Bush? A vestige of your Catholic upbringing, perhaps, this apparent recourse to “authorities” and a corresponding neglect of the Book itself? (Let me add here, in passing, that I did find, as you had asked me to over the phone, a substantive statement on the death penalty made by George W. Bush: it was the erroneous and long-ago debunked claim—that nonetheless appeals to the vengeful and fear-throttled masses— that the death penalty is dissuasive.)

I hope these comments have made my questions clear. Now, finally, I have a moment to read your message once again. You wrote:

Starting from the end of your letter, we were not talking about the same woman. All of the comments that I included about the Florida case were from her mouth, not from mine. I saw her speaking on television, and I later read her comments in a news magazine. She said that it was her desire to get the execution over with, that she knew she was guilty, that if released she would kill again, and that she didn't want to cost taxpayers any more money, or the families any more heartache.
Actually, I have been able to verify that we were speaking of the same woman. The State of Florida does not put so many female convicts to death for us to have been speaking about two different women. Moreover, my suspicion concerning the unstable and thus unreliable nature of the woman’s declarations was also supported by a number of accounts about which I’ll speak in a moment. But, before we explore the consequences of your insisting wrong-headedly that we were not speaking of the same woman, the question remains as to why you bothered to paraphrase her (here saying that the comments were “from her mouth,” as if there were no difference between paraphrasing and quoting), as if one could always, according to some sort of infallible ground rule, always be sure, in paraphrasing another’s words, to have identified and carried away another’s “actual” meaning, and be certain, moreover, that the other in question was master of all that their words “actually” mean.

The woman in question was named Aileen Wuornos.

In comments I found online, Ms. Wuornos also said, in what were apparently her final words, that she “would come back on the ‘big mother ship’ with Jesus.” Here are a few more of her words, whose actual meaning I would be wary to announce to others in a cocksure paraphrase, let alone claim to have understood myself: “I'd just like to say I'm sailing with the Rock (Jesus) and I'll be back like Independence Day with Jesus, June 6, like the movie, big mother ship and all. I'll be back.” It is notable that she makes more references to Jesus in her final statement than you have till this point in our discussion. It is notable, precisely, because, as I said earlier, in the award-winning documentary on her that I viewed, Ms. Wuornos made several sarcastic and bitter comments about her trial lawyers’ greed and, notably, their attempt to “Christianize” her experience by claiming—in the face of her then staunch refusal of guilt and her unmistakably irreconcilable attitude—that Ms. Wuornos felt ready to die. They did this, she explained to the interviewer, with the sole purpose of ending her life so that they, the trial lawyers, could collect their money and be rid of her. Now, I am not sure that I can take as being reliable of any of what Ms. Wuornos said either during the program I watched, or on the news that you saw or read in a magazine (what magazine?) and subsequently reported to me. I say this not only for abstract reasons concerning the difficulty of interpreting another’s intentions. I say this, in addition to the reason I have just discussed, in light of the following information, which comes from another report on the documentary (no longer available online, where I first retreived it):

Wuornos' last interview was given to Nick Broomfield, the British filmmaker who in the early 1990s made a documentary film on Wuornos entitled, Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Following the interview, Broomfield told reporters that Wuornos was "mad" and "totally lost her mind."
In the same report, we learn that, shortly before putting Ms. Wuornos to death, the State of Florida contradicted this finding and stated that Ms. Wuornos was sane. But, in all this confusion, are you still so sure that you can paraphrase Ms. Wuornos’ statements without the least bit of concern for their reliability? Without the least thought as to whether they might not actually mean what they seem to mean? Personally, I think that, given her statements concerning the “big mother ship” and the “Rock,” the possibility that she might have been exercising, as I believe her to have done in the documentary named above, bitter, dead-pan sarcasm, must at least be taken into account. Just as we must take into account the very real possibility that Ms. Wuornos was not entirely in her right mind and might, for that reason, not even herself understood what she “actually” meant.

In the face of all these difficulties, what did you do? Without properly quoting Ms. Wuornos, and without citing your sources, you tried to stiff-arm me into sharing your cavalier approach to her statements and, subsequently, you roundly rejected my hesitation and concern whether we were speaking of the same woman. You tried, moreover, to convince me, afterwards, that you had done nothing but faithfully portray her actual thought; that you had added nothing and not expressed your own opinion, not even by implication as you included the paraphrase (unidentified as such) in the midst of your argument for the death penalty. You tried to make me believe that your paraphrasing what you heard on “the news” (what televised news program were you watching?) and included in the midst of your argument for the death penalty could not itself be interpreted as a reflection of your views or intentions, at least not without violation of Ground Rule #2. Listen, once more, as you do this:

You are in violation of one of our ground rules which was that you would not attribute to me any statements that seem to you to be what I would say. I did not add any of my personal opinion to her statement, nor did I express my opinion regarding her comments.
This is so easy for you to say, isn’t it? It is childlike in its simplicity. But why—I repeat myself—why did you include a paraphrase of her comments in the first place? Contrary to your claim that I was in violation by trying to understand your paraphrasing her words, there is good reason for interpreting your paraphrase as I did. Why do I say this? Because something you report her as having said seems to support your own views on the death penalty. It is central to your understanding that no one be held accountable for the death of the convict other than the convict themselves. No one “takes” the life of the convict, you say, since the convict, in killing another in a premeditated manner, has by that very act, “given up” their right to life. Given this logic, isn’t it conceivable that, whether you were aware of it or not, you paraphrased Ms. Wuornos for the reason that her supposed willing and non-ironic and wholly sane acceptance of her sentence would exemplify or console this very idea of a self-assumed self-destruction?

Wouldn’t it be convenient if all convicts threatened with the death penalty would spare the rest of us the shame we might feel or the guilt we might bear in seeming to have to “take” their lives from them by simply offering their lives up, willingly, in trustworthy, wholly sane, final-hour speeches whose meaning struck us all like a bolt of justice and reason?

One could certainly think you had had such a thought for the reasons I have just indicated, and that that is what appealed to you in how you understood Ms. Wuornos’ statements. But whether or not this was the case, it would be at least responsible for you to counter what you see as my misinterpretation of your paraphrase by saying why in fact you paraphrased Ms. Wuornos. It would be more responsible of you to say how I am to understand your including a paraphrase in a discussion about the death penalty than it would for you to enter into some kind of cat-and-mouse chase in which I am left guessing at why you asked me if I had heard the news of Ms. Wuornos’s death or paid attention to the words she reportedly spoke (and in which game I am deemed "in violation" of a ground rule if I guess incorrectly).

As a final note to this part of your message, let me recommend an interesting documentary that you might find at your public library or perhaps, like I did, see on cable television. It was done by the British filmmaker Nick Broomfield and is called Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. With this film, viewers are able to explore many different types of people who profit from the demonizing and physical destruction of convicts in the United States. You, personally, can also, perhaps, reflect on your own gullibility in having swallowed whole and with apparent eagerness another death-penalty story packaged for your consumption by the press (which press?).

In the next part of your message, you give what I see as the clearest statement of your understanding of the necessity of the death penalty, first by remarking that,

Capital punishment does not 'increase ' the value of human life.
As I explained in a previous message, I have noted the correction that is implied by your use of quotation marks around a word that I myself used to characterize your thought. Now, I understand: capital punishment does not “increase” a value that always remains the same, that always remains, as you say, “ultimate.” What it does is simply to “express” the value. Here are your words, of which I underscore a few, to better draw out the line of questioning that follows:

Human life is of ultimate value because human beings are created in the image of God. The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life in that the highest penalty that could be imposed on a violator is required of one who would take someone else's life without just cause. Again, I don't see the criminal justice system as the big, bad guy here. The murderer gives over his right to life when he commits the crime.
Parenthetically: I don’t understand your use of the word “Again,” as if we had already characterized the criminal justice system as “the big, bad guy.” What were you thinking of when you used that expression? Did someone else characterize the criminal justice system in that way? Did you already take your distance from such a characterization? Where? When? With whom are you having a discussion here, other than with me?

Concerning the “expression” of the value of human life, I wonder: how do you understand the importance of “expressing” this ultimate value? Are there other ways of expressing it? If so, how do they compare with that of the death penalty? Is the death penalty necessary, as a means to “express” the ultimate value? Is it the best means available for expressing it?

Is the death penalty better at expressing the value of human life than, say, developing a universal health care system in the United States, much like humans enjoy in Canada, the European Union, or other parts of the world from which the death penalty has been banished? Is it more effective at expressing the value of human life than would be restraining corporations from polluting the air and soil in a way that leads to untimely sickness and death among humans living in the US and elsewhere? If I mention these two examples, it is, of course, because the same political groups that vociferously support the death penalty tend also to be those that argue against the regulation of corporate sovereignty and who forestall and obstruct in myriad ways the development of universal health care for US citizens. One could, of course, mention many more aspects of the ”conservative” agenda that seem, at least on the surface, to be very poor means of “expressing” the “ultimate” value of life. (By asking questions, you understand, I am purposely leaving you room to make corrective statements here, should my understanding of these issues appear to you to have gone astray).

One might also wonder if other “expressions” could be compared to the “expression” of life that you find in the death penalty. For instance, does playing volleyball with friends and family express the value of human life, as you understand these words? Does hugging our loved ones, or preparing food for them, also express the value of human life? However you understand the relation between these particular examples, the point remains: if you believe that the value of the death penalty resides in its capacity to “express” the ultimate value of life, you should at least be able to state what importance you attach to this “expression” and how it compares to any other way one might “express” the value of life. Is the expression of the value of human life via the destruction of others’ bodies somehow unmatched and irreplaceable? And if this is so, why is this so?

And what, generally, do you understand by “expressing” the value? Does the value remain only “implied” before someone “expresses” it? Why must the value be “pressed out,” as the etymology of the word “expressed” would have it? How am I to understand the existence of an “ultimate” and timeless value that, despite its ultimate nature and timelessness, calls for the destruction of human bodies in order to be “ex-pressed”?

There is a troubling implication of your argument that I'm sure you haven't noticed, and it can be stated as follows: Isn’t it true that the expression of the value of human life via the death penalty is implicated by if not accomplished in the very act of premeditated murder (since, you have argued, the murderer “gives over” his or her life when taking that of another, and so no judge, politician, or group of voters need “take” it)? Do not pre-meditating murderers accomplish the very expression that you find necessary or important? Isn’t that the irrefutable consequence of your thought, and not simply what you “would say”? Isn’t it an undeniable consequence of your death penalty logic that self-destructing sinners by themselves accomplish the “expression” of the “ultimate value” of life? Isn’t it a clear implication of your argument that, not only by their own deaths, but by those they inflict on innocent people, premeditating murders “express” life’s ultimate value and help us innocent bystanders and television news consumers appreciate the expression of the ultimate value of life? If you reject this implication, can you explain to me how you manage to do so, without falsifying your own arguments? Read yourself once more, since all of what I have said here is found, overtly or by necessary implication and not mere conjecture, in your own words:

I didn't say that God alone has the power to 'take' a life (I don't like the word 'take' here because I argue that the murderer gave over his [sic] life, but neither do I want to trivialize execution).
Neither the murder nor the execution which you see as following in a machine-like, nearly automatic fashion, can be trivialized, it is true, since they are mutually implicated. If I understand you correctly, one cannot think of a pre-meditated murder that does not call for, at once, the counteraction of an “expression” of human life (via the destruction of the murderer’s body). As for the next sentence from your message, I am afraid that I simply do not understand it well:

I said that because God creates life, not all cases in which God takes life are relevant to the question of whether men ever have authority to do so.
Simply put: when does God “take life”? What are you thinking of? More importantly—and this would be another question that you have left in abeyance from a previous letter—why do you think “men” have the authority to “take” life? (I assume that you mean to keep the idea of “taking” under reserve, even though you have left off the so-called scare quotes this time.)

You will notice that I do not find convincing this attempt to minimize human responsibility by suggesting that no real “taking” is going on, and that, simply, principles are being recognized, expressed, etc. So, the questions remain, no matter how passive and lacking in responsibility you would like to portray those who support and carry out the death penalty (and that would include you and me, in so far as we remain responsible for our government’s policies): Does God give them this authority? Does Jesus? When does this happen? How can we be sure? And if this “authority” were given, would it be automatic, in the sense that it wouldn’t require a responsible decision on the part of “men;” that is, would it, as you seem to be arguing, apply automatically, by implication or necessity, without ethical intervention on the part of humans?

Now, in your next statements, you are, I am sorry to say, in gross violation of Ground Rule #2, and for reasons that can be shown easily, reasons which any slightly attentive reader can find in our previous letters. Just to be sure, I will quote from the previous letter, after we read once again what you wrote to me:

Did you miss the part that I found most compelling about Anderson's essay? The Old Testament law code was tied to a kingship of a particular people. The principle behind that law code is without fault - human life is of ultimate value. No one in the United States is lobbying to extend the death penalty to fortune tellers.
From these statements, it appears that you think that I was concerned about the possible state-sponsored killing of fortune tellers in the United States. You argue as if I thought the particular crimes considered punishable by death were of utmost importance, in and of themselves. What did I write, though? :

I thought it was significant that Anderson did not on principle reject this wide-ranging list of brutal punishments, but only vaguely distanced himself from “particulars.” In any case, the Old Testament prohibitions whose transgression merited death by a sovereign power are interesting in that they remind us of how arbitrary the criteria and application of the death penalty can be, depending on cultural and period preferences.
In other words, I am not arguing only or primarily at the level of the “particulars,” whether that mean fortune telling or any other crime. The death penalty is indeed applied unevenly and with the effect of destroying individuals groups that are felt to constitute a threat to a perceived majority. For an example of this, one would only have to think of the thousands of black Americans lynched at the rate of one a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by hate-driven white mobs. But the more important point, as I see it, is that, whether or not it is clearly arbitrary or discriminatory in nature, the death penalty is, in principle, not just. That is why I wrote that it was significant that Anderson did not on principle reject the death penalty in its wide application.

As I will make clear when I finally get a moment to offer my own views on the death penalty fully, I don’t think that a convincing argument against the death penalty can ever be made at the level of such particulars. Many liberals or left-wing politicians, however, remain caught up in such short-sighted arguments (but for reasons that I sympathize with, since it is not easy to persuade the mass of vengeful and fear-driven citizens on the basis of principles alone). Are many more blacks and Hispanics and prostitutes put to death by state governments in the United States than are wealthy white men? Do blacks in the US give much less support for the death penalty than do whites? Yes, to both of these questions, we know the answer to be “yes.” Do these facts seem at least worthy of investigation? Yes, they do. But do they define the essentially unjust nature of the death penalty? No, since the death penalty is unjust no matter who is its victim and no matter which group is, at any particular time, singled out by it, or falsely comforted by it.

Like me, it seems, you wish to argue on principle and not be bogged down by a discussion of the wide variation in the application of the death penalty. On that we can agree and I think our discussion is the better for our having reached this point of accord. But, once we reach this point of accord, I begin to lose your argument, for I cannot fully understand the nature of the “principle” on which the penalty would be based, nor—and this is equally if not more important—how you understand the relationship whereby the one would be “based” on the other. So that my questions will be more easily understood, let us pick up what I consider to be the most resounding statement of your views, the one which holds closest to the principle that would justify and necessitate the destruction of others’ bodies in cases of premeditated murder:

If the execution is the right punishment for premeditated murder, based on the principle on the God-ordained value of human life, then it is right.
Let me see if I can follow the structure of this argument — if A is right, then A is right. I have to say that, simplified in this manner, yours is an argument with which I would find it hard to disagree. But let me not simplify it in this way, precisely because the subordinate clause that appears between the two identical halves of your pseudo-syllogism appears to carry all the weight of the argument, however odd that may seem (given that it has been subordinated). In particular, the highly indeterminate expressed “based on” is asked to carry all the weight of the demonstration. But isn’t our debate, in one sense, precisely about what it would mean to “base” legal codes on ethical principles? What does it mean to “base” execution on a principle? Does that mean that the principle should apply in every case where “premeditated” murder has been determined (and we will have to leave aside, for the time being at least, all the complexities and precariousness of the notion of “premeditation”)? If that is so, if the penalty were deemed to be automatic, if it flowed from the principle ineluctably, then no ethical, truly responsible decision would be necessary, would it? We could simply line up convicted premeditating murderers and allow the principle to apply itself like a beam of light emanating from the night sky. In this way, we could say, execution would be “based” on the God-ordained value of human life — based on the value because not based on human action and human responsibility. Indeed, it seems to me that, with such an irresponsible idea that our actions can be pre-programmed, or rendered irrelevant, by a single, ultimate principle, we have left the realm of ethical behavior altogether and entered a fairy-tail scene in which we all passively witness the auto-application of a single, timeless, “ultimate” principle.

The problem with this scenario, as I see it, is that once we begin to think and hope for such an action-determining principle, we have no reason for acting responsibly; since justice, we presume, simply happens, always and everywhere, and that all that there remains for us to do is, at best, to "express" it.

Of course, you may respond by saying: “No, I don’t mean that humans don’t have to do anything at all. Someone has to apply the lethal injection; someone has to hit the switch on the electrical chair; I only mean that they are not responsible for what they do in the same way that the convict was, and that their actions are not unjust, since they apply a principle that itself is just, whereas the convict broke the principle and so acted unjustly.” But to this objection, I would ask: have you thought what it means to “base” one’s actions on a “principle”? As I see it, there are two widely different ways of understanding this formulation. On the one hand (and this hand seems to be yours), one may think of this formulation as increasing the righteousness and certainty of our actions, since, like a mathematical principle, their “truth” can be demonstrated easily. For instance, how shall we act when we are asked to complete the following equation on the “basis” of the principle of addition? 2+2=____. I will take that principle—it is, you would say, “without fault”—as the basis of my response and write “4.” In this way, I am certain that I have acted on the “basis” of the principle and I am certain that I have acted righteously and given myself the basis on which to make heated arguments with those who would question the necessity of my responding by writing “4.” On the other hand, however (and this is the hand that I suspect is much more relevant in the case of the death penalty and, indeed, in all truly ethical situations), one can understand “basing” one’s actions on principle to mean that the principle does not conclusively determine the nature and righteousness of one’s actions. This is not to say that the principle is itself weak or relativistic, but only that, by itself, it does not suffice to pre-program and decisively regulate human decision-making and actions. (In other words, in accepting this “other” logic of principle-based action, I am in no way opposing “relativism” to your “absolutism” or “ultimatism.”) What, I think, is involved in “basing” one’s actions on such a principle is all the conditions that make for a particular context in which the principle would act as “base.” The “base” remains a “base” but it does not, by that token (as in the application of the mathematical principle) decisively prescribe a specific response or action. If it did, then the action would not be ethical, it would be, rather, of the order of knowledge. But once we have admitted that it is of the order of knowledge, then the action that would be “based” on it is in fact wholly determined by it; it is defined and circumscribed by the principle. It is the principle, caught in an act of perpetual self-application. As a human agent, I don’t need to make a responsible decision; I need merely to plug in a rule (that, moreover—and this is confirmed in your manner of arguing—essentially plugs itself in). That is, in fact, the illusion that you tried to pluck from the Mount of Olives and offer up as the fruit of knowledge in our discussion of the death penalty.

There is another significant point of obscurity in your way of talking. Specifically, with respect to the principle that you have repeated, namely of “the ultimate value of life,” it is, first, not at all clear how this “principle” is to act as a “base” in your view of the death penalty. Assuming that by “ultimate” you mean not only “final,” but fundamental, in the sense of that which “explains itself” and cannot be submitted to further analysis—what philosophers call a “first principle”— I should say that, strictly speaking, taking as “ultimate” such a value would mean that not even the value of justice could preempt or forestall the value of life, and that, therefore, capital punishment itself would have to be suspended if one wished not to defame, uproot, or contradict this ultimate principle. Indeed, with the strict application of this “ultimate” principle, one would no longer have the means to distinguish between the just and unjust taking of life, since life itself, it is assumed, is of ultimate value. No taking of life could warrant or justify further death, whether that death be “taken” or “given.” That seems to be a clear indication of your “ultimatism,” and yet you seem to prefer abandoning your own logic while at other times you repeat it. Can you explain why this is so? What do you understand by an "ultimate" value? Once you admit that there are lives that are just, and others that are not, then the "ultimate" value of life no longer appears "ultimate," does it? Rather, it depends, in your view, on a divinely-inspired government official's assessment of whether a principle, expressed as an ambiguous fragment, has been respected by a given citizen.

Allow me to explain what I mean by "ambiguous fragment." It strikes me as interesting that your “principle” hardly qualifies as a principle in so far as it remains a fragment, “the ultimate value of life” that can be read either as a subjective or objective genetive (i.e., life's value is ultimate or valuing life is ultimate). In either sense, however, it seems no more a principle than does “the price of coffee in Peru.” Stated in the more conventional form of principles, one could say: “Life is the ultimate value.” However, between this vaguely articulated principle and the principle that “those who commit premeditated murder revoke their right to life, give their life over (and the state, representing God's will, needs to make sure that they do),” I have trouble understanding the relation. What, if you will, is the principle that links these two principles? If I understand the relation by once more striving to grasp the meaning of “ultimate,” I find that the one principle hardly leads necessarily to the other and in fact undercuts it. So, for your thought to be consistent or comprehensible, the relation must be different and, moreover, “ultimate” must not have the sense in your discourse that one normally gives the word. Can you tell me what that relation is?

It seems significant to me in this respect that while there are certainly passages in the Bible that could be used to support the ambiguous fragment that you call a "principle" -- namely, the “ultimate value of life” (however vague and impressionistic it remains) -- the principle that says that “those who commit premeditated murder must be put to death” is nowhere, to my knowledge, to be found in the Bible. So, is this truly a Christian principle? Does Christian doctrine, in its undiluted form, speak even of “premeditation”? We cannot forget how central to your argument for the death penalty the idea of premeditation is— no matter how subordinated it may appear—since, without it, the death penalty is not justifiable, in your eyes. Consequently, no notion of premeditation in the Bible means no Christian defense of the death penalty as you understand it. But, strangely, not even this obvious consequence seems to have given you pause.

Not to neglect any part of your message, I will let resonate the final words in which you return to the necessity of discussing the issue of the death penalty in terms of principles and, at the same moment, as before, place the weight of your argument on the subordinated, ambiguous and wholly indeterminate and unstable use of “based on.”

If it is wrong, based on the same principle, then it is wrong. Issues of timing, expense, 'heartache', or other cultures seem less important.
In my next letter, after I discuss the Anderson piece, I will suggest why the application or enforcement of a capital punishment that is "based on" the principle that life has "ultimate" value is misguided.

(11838) photo by terrette. Chautauqua Lake, NY

Thursday, June 9

What He Specifically Commands

This is part ② of terrette's death penalty discussion.
Beth: I found this essay by Kerby Anderson and some others on a quick search. The Anderson essay made the most sense to me.

[Note: this piece, "Capital Punishment," by the minister Kerby Anderson, argues that the Bible supports the death penalty. The article is quoted in the letters that follow.]

The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life. The state does not 'murder' the one guilty of murder. The criminal gives up his/her own right to life when he commits the crime.

The author used Old Testament references to God taking life. I don't see this as on par with man taking life. He gives life; he can take it. We have to take our direction from that which He specifically commands for us.

I thought the distinction between the theocratic principle regarding the value of life, and the later need for 'law' was helpful. Here it is in Anderson's words (mine are coming out a bit foggy):

Within this Old Testament theocracy, capital punishment was extended beyond murder to cover various offenses. While the death penalty for these offenses was limited to this particular dispensation of revelation, notice that the principle in Genesis 9:6 is not tied to the theocracy. Instead, the principle of Lex Talionis (a life for a life) is tied to the creation order. Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life. Even before we turn to the New Testament, we find this universally binding principle that precedes the Old Testament law code.
What did you think?

Did you see the news on the lady from Florida that was executed? Apparently it was her desire to get the execution over with. She knew she was guilty, felt that if released she would kill again, and didn't want to cost taxpayers any more money, or the families any more heart ache. I have the direct quote from her if you are interested.

terrette: Allow me to begin by quoting your letter in a few different spots and interjecting comments:
The Anderson essay made the most sense to me. The death penalty is an expression of the value of human life. The state does not 'murder' the one guilty of murder. The criminal gives up his/her own right to life when he commits the crime.
The questions I have with respect to these statements of yours are: how does the state's destroying the bodies of criminals increase the value of human life? What justifies the state's assuming absolute authority in the question of who should live and who should die? Why is the "right to life" administered, controlled, and, most pertinently, withdrawn by government officials? What are the consequences of entrusting state apparatuses with the capacity to destroy the bodies of citizens? And, most generally, why is it fair and just that the United States remains the only so-called Western democracy that practices the death penalty?

Both authors used Old Testament references to God taking life. I don't see this as on par with man taking life. He gives life; he can take it.
If that is the case, the question posed above becomes even more pertinent: why entrust the state with a power that you see as belonging to God alone?

We have to take our direction from that which He specifically commands for us.
Did God ever command for us to destroy the bodies of our fellow citizens?

It is interesting to note the wide and truly outrageous types of "crimes" that were deemed punishable by death in the Biblical passages discussed by Anderson, of which I recall, at the moment, fortune-telling (cf. Lev. 20:27). I thought it was significant that Anderson did not on principle reject this wide-ranging list of brutal punishments but only vaguely distanced himself from "particulars." In any case, the Old Testament prohibitions whose transgression merited death by a sovereign power are interesting in that they remind us of how arbitrary the criteria and application of the death penalty can be, depending on cultural and period preferences.

I thought the distinction between the theocratic principle regarding the value of life, and the later need for 'law' was helpful. Here it is in Anderson's words (mine are coming out a bit foggy):

"Within this Old Testament theocracy, capital punishment was extended beyond murder to cover various offenses. While the death penalty for these offenses was limited to this particular dispensation of revelation, notice that the principle in Genesis 9:6 is not tied to the theocracy. Instead, the principle of Lex Talionis (a life for a life) is tied to the creation order. Capital punishment is warranted due to the sanctity of life. Even before we turn to the New Testament, we find this universally binding principle that precedes the Old Testament law code."
What did you think?
I think I'll have to reread Anderson before responding to this one passage. I'll save that for my next letter. In the meantime, could you give this week's one hour of thought to my questions above?

Have you seen the news on the lady from Florida that was recently executed? Apparently it was her desire to get the execution over with.
I didn't see the news concerning the lady you speak of. However, I have often seen a great eagerness on the part of the executioners and those who support them to elicit such verbal acts of "contrition" and "moral resolve," since such declarations, which are sometimes vehemently denied by those on death row in the face of the hollow and self-serving "Christianizations" of their experience that are orchestrated by others, give death-penalty supporters a feeling that their brutality has been justified on spiritual grounds. If such spiritual grounds do not appear sufficient, then death penalty supporters appeal to presumed financial and emotional gains, as you did in your next comments:

She knew she was guilty, felt that if released she would kill again, and didn't want to cost taxpayers any more money, or the families any more heart ache.
It is extremely rare for a convict to claim that he/she will kill again if released, and their doing so would in no way justify the state's destroying the body of said convict, since, for one, incarceration for life would be sufficiently preventative. Moreover, it is widely known (that is, outside of some narrow-minded circles that support the death penalty) that court costs necessitated by the death penalty sentence far surpass the financial burden of maintaining a convict in prison for life.

I have the direct quote from her if you are interested.
Sure. It could be interesting to read. We could also read the quotes from the woman put to death for killing her abusive sex partners (it may, paradoxically, be the same woman we are speaking about) in which she attacks her profit-motivated legal consultants for forcing words of contrition into her mouth. I watched a two-hour long program on this woman's plight, and I was stunned at the mediocrity of her legal support. Destroying this woman's body did very little to raise the value of life in the United States, believe me. If it did anything, it reinforced among the populace the idea that violence is a proper and just solution to society's gun-wielding criminals, and that the state is a sovereign, King-like entity whose authority is on par with that of God. [end of letter]

Addendum to this moment of the discussion. The following are acts that deserve the death penalty, according to the Old Testament:

1. Murder (Gen 9:6, Ex 21:12, Numb 35:16-21).
2. Hitting one's father or mother (Ex 21:15).
3. Speaking a curse against one's parents (Ex 21:17).
4. Committing blasphemy against God (Lev 24:14-16,23).
5. Breaking the Sabbath (Ex 31:14, Numb 15:32-36).
6. Practicing magic (Ex 22:18).
7. Fortune telling and practicing sorcery (Lev. 20:27).
8. Leading others to turn away from faith God (Deut 13:1-5, 18:20).
9. Adultery and fornication (Lev 20:10-12, Deut 22:22).
10. A woman having intercourse before marriage (Deut 22:20-21).
11. Two persons having intercourse when one of them is engaged (Deut 22:23-24).
12. The daughter of a priest practicing prostitution (Lev 21:9).
13. Raping someone who is engaged (Deut 22:25).
14. Having intercourse with animals (Ex 22:19).
15. Worshipping idols (Ex 22:20, Lev 20:1-5, Deut 17:2-7).
16. Incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14, 19-21).
17. Lying with another man (Lev 20:13).
18. Kidnapping (Ex 21:16).
19. Bearing false testimony at a trial (Deut 19:16, 19).
20. Being in contempt of court (Deut 17:8-13).

Now, that's a lot to be killed for! Number 3 alone, if practiced today, would surely lead to the execution of nearly every teenager in the nation. Number 15, for its part, would arguably lead to the mass extermination of all Catholics by the world's governments.

Personally, I am left wondering how it is that, among these twenty conditions that, according to the Old Testament, all merit death, Christians who argue for the Biblical support of the death penalty feel justified in choosing only number 1 and passing indifferently over the other 19, precisely when it is they who claim to take their direction from what "God specifically commands."