The Right Coast

March 20, 2005

Serial killers and torture
By Tom Smith

Probably everything that needs to be said, and more, has been said in reaction to Eugene's post endorsing the torturing to death of the serial child-killer in Iran. Like others, I was surprised to see Eugene, whom I view as moderate in all things, taking such an extreme view. So I guess Eugene is moderate in all things, including moderation.

Still, I want to add a few things to the debate that may be idiosyncratic enough not to have been said yet. I think the desire to torture extremely depraved killers is natural enough, but not something we want to turn into public policy. One reason we should not do so is that this sort of deliberate infliction of agony is evil in itself, and evil is the sort of thing that is difficult to manage. I don't find it hard to believe that evil has a supernatural dimension, but even if one dismisses that, both evil and good acts have a strange ability to propagate through social systems in seemingly mysterious ways. The analogy would be perhaps how atoms adjust themselves in lattices or spin glasses. We may think we are just creating disincentives or satisfying the preferences of victims' family members, but that is just our crude social science at work. We are also displaying what some people will find seductive examples of cruelty, and giving the sadists in the audience something to get excited over. When the secret policeman in the mob that witnessed the flogging in Iran, goes back to his prison to flog and rape some political prisoner, because the flogging got him so worked up, that is just as much a consequence as whatever may be deterred. I think it is part of the logic of evil that it gets us to imitate it, and say we are doing good. If the idea is to inflict pain for pain, then why not have the relatives of the raped children sodomize the rapist in front of the crowd, before strangling him? That would fit the magical thinking of the punishment better, wouldn't it? The reason we would not is presumably that we think the proceeding would be too degrading for everyone involved, and we would be right.

With all due respect for Eugene, I don't think he is giving evil enough credit. It is not like some debit on a balance sheet that can we wiped out by an entry on the other side of the ledger. It is more like a virulent disease that we don't really understand. By torturing torturers we deter some, undoubtedly, but we also spread the taste for torture and other forms of degradation. We know that whole cultures can fall into that madness, and it is nothing to be fooled around with.

When I was in the mental hospital legal clinic at Yale, another student and I interviewed a serial killer who was incarcerated in the Whiting Forensic Institute, the maximum security mental hospital in Connecticut. He nom de guerre was the "Connecticut Valley Strangler;" he raped and strangled prostitutes. His accommodations were in the super-max Ward D within the institute, entered through double steel sliding doors. The orderlies stayed inside a station that looked like the booth of a drive through teller at a bank, watching the hallways through thick glass. When you entered the hallway, you took a "panic button" that looked like a garage door opener. If you were attacked, you were supposed to push the button and the orderlies would come and rescue you. In theory. My classmate, a lovely woman who is now a partner at a large firm, and I went into the Strangler's room, and met the fellow. Our job was to see if he had any beefs, for we were there to represent the inmate/patients. He was one ugly spud. Well over 6 feet, 300 pounds or more, and heavily acne scarred, he had an odd tone to his skin, as if he had recently been to a tanning salon. His speech was slurred from the thorazine, and I say, thank God for thorazine. (All those security precautions you saw in "Silence of the Lambs" were nonsense. They just would have kept Hannibal Lectur so gorped up he would barely have been able to lift his head from the pillow.) Strangler guy immediately began to pick on (the person I'll call) Jane, punning on Jane, "plain Jane" and so on. He wasn't too drugged to be cruel. Jane had an unenviable face, but apparently didn't scare easily. There was also something flirtatious in his attention, in a very, trust me on this, creepy way. I just wanted to get out of there. Stupid, leering, oddly articulate, highly sexually motivated evil has that effect on me. Strangler guy was exhibit one for the verdict "not guilty by reason of insanity, but not fit to live, either."

The reason I favor the death penalty is that I think there are some criminals so depraved that world is a better place with them out of it. I think many (but not all, I realize) opponents of the death penalty are relative innocents who do not realize whom they are dealing with in the likes of, say, sexually predacious serial killers. This Nova episode is a good introduction to the phenomenon, and an introduction is about enough.

The main reason I am against torturing even these monsters, and that's a good word for them, is that I don't see how that would be possible without making or encouraging some people to enter into the same world as the monsters live in, and that is to be avoided. We don't (or shouldn't anyway) let children watch pornography, and for similar reasons, we should not make a spectacle out of flogging and hanging. The main things you want to accomplish with a death penalty are accomplished with an execution that is as dignified, efficient, private, and painless as possible. It should be done in a way that does not spew the disease of degradation and sadism into the air like a bunch of evil spores. The killer has already done that. The death of the killer should satisfy the victims' survivors as much as they can be satisfied. I think psychological science, and traditional morality, suggests vengeance beyond that does not really contribute to recovery anyway.