Monday, November 8, 2010

The Horror

Certain crimes cut through the sensibilities of even a culture besotted with media images of crime. As Durkheim reminded us, the horror these crimes invoke tell us what our central values are. The 2007 attack upon the suburban Connecticut home of Dr. William Petit, which included rapes, kidnappings, arson, and ultimately murder was spectacular example. The articulation of this horror and its revealing features has factored heavily in the just completed jury trial and capital murder of sentencing hearing of the first of two defendants in the case, Steven J. Hayes.
As described by William Glaberson's reporting in the NYTimes

The details were stark: two habitual criminals invaded the quiet suburban home of a doctor and his family after spotting them in a shopping center parking lot the day before. In a night and morning of unimaginable terrors, they beat and tied up the doctor, forced the mother to withdraw $15,000 from a bank, before sexually abusing her and her younger daughter, then strangling the mother and setting a blaze that killed her two daughters and blackened the home.The killings brought a searching review of criminal justice and corrections practices in the state and, particularly during the recent election, came to be the prism through which the state viewed a debate about the future of the death penalty.

While the violence and the vulnerability of the victims can fully explain the outrage that many persons around the country and in Connecticut where the jury appeared to have wrestled with strong reservations about sentencing Hayes to death, several features make this incident horrifying beyond its violence.

The crime took place inside the sanctity of the home. As others have pointed out, the home, especially the privately owned, suburban home, has become the essence of the American dream (one that explains are tolerance for dangerously overextended real estate markets). The fact that the violence came upon the victims inside the home makes it a greater crime than if it happened on the street or in a public place. A killing is a shocking lapse of security. A lethal attack by strangers invading the sanctity of the home is an attack on the very possibility of security. Such crimes, including the 1959 Oklahoma farm house murders described in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, and the Manson family's Tate-Labianca murders in two posh Los Angeles area homes in 1969, have an enduring fascination that can rivet attention on crime even in periods, like today, when overall crime appears more moderate than in recent years.

The two men charged with the crime were strangers with known criminal paths. The vast majority of people (including children) killed in their own home, are killed by someone they knew, often another occupant of the house (typically father or husband), but those killings are almost never the subject of enduring fear. It is the stranger invading the home to commit violence that invokes it.

The father was rendered helpless before the crime began. Victims who are killed by their own father, or who do not have a father (or husband) to protect them seem less violated than ones whose protection has been strategically eliminated by the home invaders. The criminal father is far less frightening than the stranger who overthrows the father and usurps his place with the intent to criminal violate what the father is supposed to be protecting.

When these strangers are men with a known criminal past, who have been in prison already, something true of the Oklahoma and Los Angeles murders as well as of the two defendants in the Petit murders, there is the added outrage that the state has betrayed its protection of the families by failing to keep the criminal locked up in prison (the polar opposite of the family home in its sense of security and the comfort of its residents, and the State's very own "Big House"). It is for this reason that these crimes almost always have an influence on state penal policies far beyond their relevance to overall crime.

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