Thursday, December 1, 2011

Zombies, Humanitarians, and the Twilight Zone Between Dignity and Security

The shock is palpable. For those of us used to United States criminal justice as a baseline the decision seemed in explicable. According the news that broke yesterday, Norway's prosecutors have decided that Anders Behring Breivik is insane and should not face criminal prosecution (read the AP report here). Breivik was arrested last summer after methodically gunning down scores of Norwegian youths and young adults on an island conference center after allegedly setting off a deadly bomb blast near government buildings in Oslo. He himself described those acts as part of war to save Norway from Muslim immigrants. Prosecutors, based on the evaluation of their own forensic psychiatric experts, concluded that Breivik lives in a “delusional universe,” and should not be held criminally responsible. If their decision is approved by a judicial process, Breivik will go to a secure psychiatric hospital for at least three years, after which he could be released if found to be no longer a danger, rather than to a trial and imprisonment.

In the US insanity is also a possible basis for dropping a prosecution or acquitting a defendant with a similar result; only it rarely happens and certainly not in high profile cases. Consider the on going prosecution of Jared Lee Loughner, who killed several people at a Tucson store last Spring and critically wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords; and who everybody agrees was deeply psychotic, but where the prosecution is fighting to the keep the case on track for a criminal trial and possible death sentence. By strange coincidence, yesterday also brought news that John Hinckley, who shot President Reagan in 1981, is seeking leave a psychiatric hospital for visits of up to several weeks at his mother's home, more than 30 years after being acquitted by reason of insanity. News that Hinckley would escape "punishment" and "prison" led to popular outrage and a significant shift in state and federal law to narrow the grounds on which a person may be acquitted by reason of insanity. Now even people who both prosecution and defense agree are and were deeply psychotic, and who killed in the midst of severe delusions, are likely to be convicted of murder and sent to prison for life or perhaps even executed (so long as they are not insane at the time of execution). In the meantime the suggestion that, Hinckley who has been in remission for decades and has apparently threatened no one since being hospitalized, be released is raising strong opposition from present and former prosecutors.

The contrast between the two nations should shock us. But the question is what kind of conclusion to draw about which nation is extreme. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders offers in vivid terms what I suspect many of my fellow citizens (and possibly even readers) think (read her column here):

So why do I think Oslo's chosen experts have decided that Breivik was insane? They're so sublime, they don't know how to recognize evil.

Saunders sees Norway as epitomizing a perverse and elitest commitment to humanitarian values like dignity,while no non-sense American justice delivers security to ordinary citizens by dealing harshly with those that would harm them. In Saunder's view, admittedly drawn from the nightmare world of US popular media, people like Norway's prosecutors or Americans who oppose capital punishment and mass incarceration, are practically allies of the evil doers.

In AMC's zombie series "The Walking Dead," tensions build between an old-fashioned veterinarian farmer named Hershel Greene - who thinks zombies have a disease that may be cured someday - and a caravan of gun-packing refugees led by Deputy Rick Grimes. Because Hershel wants to protect the zombies he has hidden in his barn, he orders Rick and company to leave his property - even though leaving could make Rick, his family and friends easy pickings for the undead.

It's disturbing how self-congratulatory humanitarians can be willing to endanger the lives of others in order to maintain their worldview.

As a columnist Saunders often has the lonely task of defending conservative views in admirably witty style, to liberal San Francisco, but on this note I suspect she's singing with the chorus not only here but in most of California, and thus her logic is worth a closer examination for what it tells us about our penal imaginary. Saunders sees people who commit violent crimes, or may be all criminals, as zombies, monsters who have forfeited all claim on our humanity, and who can never change their instinctual drive to kill innocent humans. Those who think they can change them are not only pathetic, but dangerous themselves, because they can use their cultural and legal power to stop righteous avengers from using violence or permanent imprisonment to destroy or incapacitate the monsters.

It is all too tempting as a criminologist to dismiss columnists like Saunders as, well, delusional. But her vision accurately reflects a culture of fear in the Golden State, built up by a variety of social, media and political trends over the past four decades and which has produced nearly a thousand people on death row and a prison system holding more than four times the portion of Californians incarcerated in the 1970s (when serial killers were actually common in the state). The prisons, whose overcrowding and humanitarian crises shocked even the US Supreme Court in Brown v. Plata hold tens of thousands of seriously mentally ill prisoners, most of whom probably committed their crimes due to untreated mental illness and who are not receiving adequate treatment to control their disease while in prison.

For not only Debra Saunders, but many Californians, prisons are acceptable (despite their obvious failures) because they contain monsters who would otherwise be in your community or house. In this view, it is civil rights lawyers and and hapless humanitarians who endanger Californians by demanding dignity and human rights for prisoners. In reality, security is more of a twilight zone, where extreme efforts to punish and incapacitate our way to safety regularly backfire (remember Abu Grhaib) and where creating real security requires both courage and dignity. Consider San Francisco where Saunder's lives or at least writes from. There in 2008 a teenage girl was almost beheaded by a knife wielding man. The girls family sued the state for failing to protect her. Was he released early by some naive humanitarian parole board? Hardly, according to Saunder's newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle (read it here):

The suit claims Scott Thomas, who was suffering from bipolar disorder, was never treated during his months in solitary confinement in San Quentin. After he was released without supervision on May 18, 2007, Thomas randomly stabbed Loren Schaller, now 16, and 60-year-old Kermit Kubitz at a bakery near Miraloma Park.

Thomas, 26, who was sent to prison nine times for nonviolent crimes between 2000 and 2007, has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial and is incarcerated at Atascadero State Hospital.

Dealing with those who commit terrible acts of violence, whether psychotic or not, will always pose the gravest of problems for government committed to law and human rights. Punishment as an expression of social solidarity, as well as to provide a guaranteed minimum of incapacitation has its place. People may be responsible for buying into hateful beliefs about others, even when their disease leads them to make deranged judgments based on those beliefs that no healthy person would make. Norway has chosen a strikingly different path to the ours. I'm not sure its the right one. Did the prosecutors give enough weight to his racist ideology? But I do respect Norway's sense of penal restraint. As Saunder's notes, even if Breivik was convicted he could not have faced either the death penalty or life without parole, sanctions which are both inhuman and unnecessary but common in California. But he is also likely to spend a lot longer than three years in secure psychiatric confinement, where Norwegian authorities can hold him for the rest of his life if they deem it necessary for public safety. In the meantime in California, where both Debra Saunders and I live, we have proven that abandoning your humanity and dignity in in the name of security, cannot make anybody safe.

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