The bizarro world of State-sponsored executions

Ronnie Lee Gardner is scheduled to be executed in a little less than an hour from the time at which I’m writing this.

These stories are always difficult for me to read, but for once I made it through to the end of one, and I’m struck by a number of things.  First of all, this is all very bizarre.  A spokesman for the State of Utah informs the media that the time of the execution has been settled, that the inmate has been moved to his observation cell, and that he’s been occupying his time with sleep, eating, watching a movie, reading a book, etc.  It’s all a little too reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.  One might even expect to hear Mr. Bureaucrat wish us a happy visit to the zoo at the conclusion of his remarks.  Are events like this, rather than the Super Bowl, the modern American version of the Roman Coliseum?  The controversial act of a State execution plays into both our curiosity and our barbaric need for occasional gore in life.

One can hardly miss the fact, too, that one of the five marksmen charged with this grim task will be given blanks, so that none of them really knows who fired the fatal shot.  Question:  If this is really a just act, why is this necessary?  Say what you want about Medieval executions, but at least those executioners had the cojones to do what they did with awareness.  Whatever the justice or injustice of their act, they had to live with their consciences.  Heaven forfend that modern State functionaries should have to do the same thing.  It brings a whole new meaning to the saying that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

The death penalty is a touchy subject, and yet it shares some essential things with all kinds of conversations these days:  When it comes up, people have a tendency to discuss the irrelevant and the unimportant rather than the crucial things which are really at stake.  Deterrence and revenge are high on the list of fables that only serve to make the world a perpetually fallen place.  State-sponsored execution was reinstated decades ago, and yet many of us live in cities which have not seen falling murder rates but rather quite the opposite. Ronald Reagan’s sacred myths about the death penalty win elections but they don’t save the souls of our cities.

Much as the deterrence mentality is mistaken, it is at least presumably offered up by those who mean well.  The same cannot be said for people who simply want revenge.  The punishment should fit the crime, etc.  This, too, misses the point and is a maniacal application of the principle of proportionality.  If this kind of logic were to be used, then one could argue that those accused of involuntary manslaughter should be eligible for an ignominious descent into That Good Night, courtesy of the local governor.  In any case, revenge makes barbarians of us all; indeed, it makes apparatus of the State worse than the criminals, since executions are always well-planned.  At least some murderers were acting in the heat of the moment.  That means that they are quite possibly more gentle people than former Texas Governor George W. Bush.

The Catholic Church has done an admirable job of late of standing up against the death penalty.  She has brought good arguments to the discussion which do approach the essence of the matter—issues such as human dignity and the sacredness of every life.  This is all to the good.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that the Church still teaches that the State has the right to execute certain criminals who pose a particular threat to society.  The late Dr. Wojtyla argued that this almost never happens anymore, given the high security of modern prisons.  Ok.  This is better, and largely a welcome outlook on all of this, as far as I’m concerned, but even with all the talk about the sacredness of life—surely an important matter—a crucial element is left undiscussed.

What few people seem to get, what even the commendable Catholic position has not approached, is the insidious implication in State-sponsored execution:  If the State can execute you, then the State owns you.  You do not belong to yourself.  You do not have any self-determination.  Your very life is in the hands of the State.  Criminals may surrender certain rights by virtue of their misdeeds, but I do seem to recall that certain rights are inalienable.  But the idea of inalienable rights is an achievement of the philosophers, and Americans don’t know much about philosophy.  “Ahhhh, what sort of thing is that?” asked the American tourists in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  Consequently, no one seems to ask the question after an execution:  If the State can do this, what else can it do?  I am personally frightened by that thought.

You may think I’m paranoid, and ten or twenty years ago that might have been a plausible reaction to my position.  But now the U.S. government has given itself the authority to assassinate U.S. citizens which it considers to be threats.  How could such a premise stand if we did not surrender, at least in principle, our very beings to the State?

“Oh, philosophy.  That’s the meaning of life— you know, why are you here?”

“Well we were in California last year and Miami the year before that….”

Ignorance is the bedrock on which tyranny is built.

Politically incorrect thoughts on air conditioning

Summer is finally here, and while for me that means more time to read outside, enjoy the heat, and take trips to the beach, for many it means that they get to turn on the air conditioner and live in a meat locker for the next three months.

It’s interesting to me that air conditioners often begin making their first appearances of the season in weather that isn’t much hotter than seventy degrees.  This March we had a bit of a “heat wave” in Philadelphia, and some shops and restaurants were climate controlled such that you’d wonder if they were trying to build igloos in the back.  I ran into an acquaintance during this “heat wave” and kvetched mildly about all this.  He agreed that the natural air was perfectly fine.  Of course he’s European, and our good friends from the Continent seem to have a chillier opinion about air conditioning than we Yankees.

The thought has crossed my mind that air is like music these days:  people will like any type of it, as long as it is not real.  By all means, goes this philosophy, listen to music on your iPod or to a soloist bellowing into a microphone, but don’t ever listen to live, natural, acoustical music, whether it’s the fast fingers of Emmanuel Ax or the slow hand of Eric Clapton.  If noise is not being pumped through a speaker, many people think they can’t hear it.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but trust me.  I’m a musician.  I deal with these things.  Similarly, when it becomes ever so slightly too warm to sit in the house with the windows shut, the air conditioner goes on.  Heaven forfend we should open a window!

One of the ironies of our age is that, while we pride ourselves on being so open to everything—open-minded, open-hearted, and far too often open-mouthed as well—we are really closed off to just as much as any other generation has ever been.  The only difference is that the prejudices have changed.  Sometimes I wonder if we’re cool to anything that takes more time and effort than it takes to prepare a microwave dinner from Boston Market (very tasty, by the way).  We can’t even open our own windows and break a healthy sweat.

In these giant refrigerated buildings loom white elephants—very, very large ones, to be sure.  We’re talking, of course, about obesity.  Lest you think I speak from a sense of moral superiority, please realize that I have been in this situation, and corrected it.  When I lost forty pounds I was able to appreciate so much more weather because I was carrying around far less superfluous insulation on my frame.  The simple fact is that most of us are far too fat for our own good, and air conditioning is not helping the matter.

A little anecdote:

When I was a child, my parents installed central air in the house.  It was quite a major event, the kind of thing the adults talk about at picnics for months.  It was all very wonderful and probably to the good, but I noticed something shortly after the system was put in.  My brother and I got lazy.  Previous summers had been spent outside, riding bikes and playing baseball and talking to the neighbors.  But in the air conditioned world, these activities were much curtailed.  So the question is this:  does the air conditioner make us lazy, and therefore fatter?  Does it make us less friendly with our neighbors because we don’t see them as much?  That latter question is borderline ridiculous—or is it?

I am not arguing for the abolition of air conditioners, or even of iPods, but it would seem that we have lost all sense of proportion.  Someone once remarked to me that the American mentality is that if a little bit of something is good, a lot of it must be great, and we seem to have gone that way with the air conditioner.  By all means, an elderly couple at home on a hot July day needs an air conditioner, and it certainly makes for a wonderful sleep aid.  But what about those among us who are able-bodied and sensible enough to dress for the weather?  Is it really necessary to have these machines cranked 24/7?

Turn off the computer and live

A few years ago a friend of mine—a world-famous musician who is one of the most talented lights in his generation—was giving an interview when he said, “Turn off the television and live.”

I have begun to take the same approach to the internet:  “Turn off the computer and live.”  From blogs to news sites to Facebook, the internet offers so much distraction, so much virtual straw.  I saw a t-shirt not long ago which said, “No one cares about your blog.”  That is certainly the case with this blog, though it must hastily be added that going six weeks without a new post isn’t exactly the way to drive traffic.

Ah, yes.  Driving traffic.  This seems to be the goal of so many blogs, and they’ll say anything to do it.  I can think of one particular blog which lauds everyone from Murray Rothbard to Rand Paul (who is about as libertarian as Attila the Hun), and one wonders if this isn’t an attempt to widen the “customer base.”  Well, no one cares about my blog, and that’s just fine.  And I don’t care about traffic.  If what I have to say brings traffic, so be it, and if not, pound sand.  Live and let live.

The other temptation of blogging is to publish immediately—something which I am admittedly about to do with this post, because I don’t have all afternoon to spend on this crap.  In this situation all kinds of stupid things are said, and God knows I’ve said them.  The comment feature only makes things worse, and I can’t help but think that maybe the whole milieu promotes a smug self-righteousness with everyone, especially since we’re arguing with “handles” and not with people, kind of like the way aggressive drivers thrive on their anonymity.

News sites increasingly try to look like blogs.  There are few places left anymore where you can just read the damn news and get on with your day.  Too many opinion pieces, too few in-depth pieces.  Of course I don’t believe in un-biased reporting. Our frail human knowledge requires us to interpret the facts around us to the best of our ability to paint a picture; this means that everyone will be somehow “slanted,” and this doesn’t bother me.  But the news has become something else entirely:  caterwauling.  It’s impossible to read the news these days without taking blood pressure medication first.

Then there’s Facebook, which I’ve come to believe is a cry for help for many people.  They’re lonely, and they hop onto their computer to communicate with faraway friends in a very unsatisfying way, and to do it they sacrifice the time needed to get out and make new real-life friends.  Facebook can also be the location of very intense debates about subjects that probably shouldn’t be discussed in polite company.  Again:  I plead guilty, though my friends will notice a recent change in my approach.  Many people on Facebook also spend hours on a game called Farmville, and the time and productivity wasted must surely be staggering.

In short, the internet seems to be a giant version of Mom’s refrigerator, where everyone goes to say, “Hey, look at me!”  “Look at what I drew in school today!”  And it’s all pretend.  As George Carlin said, “It’s bullshit, and it’s bad for ‘ya.”

Yet for all the use of these electronic devices to debate people or to promote our own self-images, the art of real conversation seems to have fallen apart.  How many of us have sat at a dinner table where the “conversation” is a string of timid, unrelated statements, not unlike the way Hank Hill and his neighbors stand in the yard and take turns saying, “Yyyyyup”?   There seems to be little communion in life, and maybe it’s because we don’t cultivate the affection and love which is necessary for real human interaction.  Intelligence is not enough.  I, who sometimes resemble Ethan Brandt a little more than anyone should, am still learning this lesson.

But this is where I start:  By turning off the computer and living, by being with people and not their Facebook profiles, by going into the woods and sucking all the marrow out of life (with apologies to Thoreau), rather than by staring at artificial blue light all day long.  (There will still be the occasional blog post, though, I suppose.)

I wonder how long I’ll last with this new endeavor.