Saturday, October 22, 2005

Hearing Voices

A couple of days ago, a woman named Lashaun Harris drowned her three children in San Francisco Bay. Apparently, voices in her head told her to do it. Rumor has it that the DA in this bastion of softheaded liberalism will be pursuing the death penalty, despite the fact that Ms. Harris is schizophrenic.

Rumor also has it that George W. Bush was directed by God to invade Iraq. Thousands upon thousands of children are dead as a result, and one may assume that most of the mothers who survive them, unlike Ms. Harris, aren't protected from full consciousness of their loss by clinical insanity.

Of course, to suggest that Mr. Bush is a madman would be to sully civilized discourse. And to demand that he be tried and executed for listening to the voices in his head would probably invite a visit from the Secret Service. A deranged homeless woman who murders her children is a figure of moral horror. A wealthy white man - who has never suffered from any material want, nor any lack of opportunity, nor any lack of access to medical assistance - may put his pathology on display by murdering thousands of children, and be hailed as an exemplar of moral courage.

However hard it may be to practice egalitarianism in this world, we ought to be able to agree that there can be no moral hierarchy among those figments of the imagination that counsel people to murder innocents. All of them, at least, must be treated as equals. And yet, amazingly, the voices in George W. Bush's head seem to be more deserving of respect and deference than the voices in Lashaun Harris's head.

When you come right down to it, we all hear voices. We hear them on the radio and on television, and their weird propositions often sound as reasonable to us as those Ms. Harris heard surely sounded to her. They preach the Paracelsian doctrine that "like cures like"; the sovereign remedy for brutality and murder, they say, is more brutality and murder. America's "liberal hawks" listened rapturously to such voices in the run-up to the Iraq War, and they're paying a stern price today (i.e., a tiny but irksome amount of professional embarassment).

The decision to kill, in almost every instance, is based on disordered, pathological thinking. The paradox is that pathological thinking is often rigorously logical (G.K. Chesterton once argued that the lunatic is someone who has lost everything except reason). Ritual killing - the death penalty is a perfect example - invariably pretends to have a rational basis; it's barbarous, apotropaic superstition masquerading as morality, or even as science.

The ritual killing of the insane, of course, is particularly irrational. One can claim no deterrent effect for it (some insane people may even be attracted to the pomp and circumstance of capital punishment, like mosquitoes to bug zappers), nor can one claim a punitive effect (who is being punished?).

We generally understand this, but we've often been willing to ignore it when there were insane or retarded minorities or poor people to be executed. It's hard for me to avoid the conclusion that such executions are ultimately based on Hitlerian notions of social hygiene: the eradication of "life unworthy of life."

But rather than show its true colors, and be accepted or rejected as it actually is, this ritualized killing pays lip service to the axioms of morality, and to a warped sentimentality that turns easily and naturally towards brutality. It exploits the death of children - who are symbols of innocence, and are thus of special rhetorical utility to hypocrites - to create a thirst for justice. But justice is a mirage; the only desire satisfied is bloodlust.

A society that listens to voices that justify capital punishment - particularly in a case like this one - is at least as crazy as Lashaun Harris, and a good deal more dangerous. A society that listens to voices that justify illegal and immoral wars of conquest is a good deal crazier, and infinitely more dangerous.


GrrlScientist said...

*clap* *clap* *clap*


Anonymous said...

Another accurate and precise analysis by Phila. This phenomenon is so dichotomous as to elude common understanding. Its roots, whether in the sick murderer of several children, or in the sick murderer of thousands of children, seem to be the same, only the opportunity for carrying out the wishes of the voices is different.

The resolution is so clearly a rejection of the legitimacy of the voices, whether at the citizen level or the highest levels, that it's hard to see how anyone could embrace anything different. But so it goes.

Anonymous said...

And then, of course, is our execution of juvenile offenders. We're one of a dozen countries that think it's just to kill people who committed crimes when they were children. The other countries have a total of a dozen juvenile offenders on death row. We have over 2000.

Yes, innocence is relative as all things are in our Bush-created "reality."

Another excellent post, Phila. Brilliant.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested...

Dr. Omed's wife Elsbeth has a post about Lashaun Harris and the Doc's struggles with manic depression. It's a beautiful personal essay.