Monday, August 31, 2009

Crooked Timber of Humanity

This is a good story about random human follies.

And in a related note, here's my thought for the day:

Trying to convince a politician to stop supporting a stupid but popular policy is like trying to convince the manager of Wal-Mart to stop selling cigarettes.

And I'll also give a review of Fritz Lang's movie 'M'.

This is a good movie.  Although it was made in 1931, in a foreign country, it feels very modern.  Aside from a few odd camera angles, and the fact that all the men wear hats, it does not seem like a foreign film or period piece.  This may be partially because Fritz Lang helped set the standard for what movies should be.

The plot is driven by the unsolved murders of children.  The police respond with a clumsy and heavy-handed crackdown on the 'usual suspects', making life difficult for the local criminals.  They decide to hunt down and kill the murderer partially in order to defend themselves, and partially because they honestly want to stop kids from being killed.

The criminal underworld is portrayed as being amazingly organized; even the beggars have an organization that is capable of giving them all orders about where to go and what to watch out for.  They are interested in keeping society stable, they see their occupation as a job like anyone else's.  (This may have been the inspiration for the guilds of assassins, thieves, and beggars in the Terry Pratchett books.)

At the climax of the film, the criminals capture the child killer (Peter Lorre) and set up a show trial in the basement of an abandoned brewery.  He is given a defense lawyer and a chance to plead his case, but it is clear they plan on killing him no matter what.  He and his lawyer plead for him to be given mercy and turned over to the law, while the head criminal argues that he is a beast who deserves no mercy.  He has already been released from an asylum once as being 'harmless'.

I mostly agree with the criminal mob.  The defense lawyer says that 'No one has right to kill a man who is not responsible for his actions'.  The crowd starts yelling, and one of them yells, in German, 'He is no man.'  This outburst was not subtitled, but I think it should have been, because it is an important point. 

The lawyer's statement is nonsense.  Anything that is not responsible for its actions should not be considered a human.  The whole reason humans are special, the reason we are given more rights than animals, is because we are sentient.  That means we understand who and what we are how our actions affect others; we have the ability to control our actions and are expected to do so.

If you encounter a bear, wolf, or tiger, you assume that it will kill you without thought if you do the wrong thing.  You cannot reason with it, you know it is guided only by instinct.  We try to preserve their animal rights and let them live in peace, but of one of them starts killing people it will have to be destroyed.  It is perfectly logical to treat anyone who has an uncontrollable compulsion to kill the same way.

Now, I do not support the death penalty.  I agree that cases like this should be handled mainly by doctors.  But you should never let a misguided notion of justice do things that put the innocent at risk.

Questions about law and order are a lot easier to deal with if you stop thinking of prison sentences as being for 'justice' or 'punishment' and think of them as 'medical quarantine'.  Questions of 'guilt' or 'responsibility' are pointless; the simple fact is that people who are likely to cause damage to society should be isolated from society.  Almost everyone will agree that it is right to lock up anyone who is carrying a virulent disease that will spread and kill people.  It doesn't matter that the person locked up is innocent and does not deserve to be imprisoned.

Of course, we try to make sure that the conditions of medical quarantine are as good as possible.  The same should be true of prisons.  There is some truth in the idea that criminals are who they are because they were warped and twisted by growing up in a rotten environment and culture.  The fact that they may not be responsible for their actions does not change the fact that they should be locked up, but it does mean that we should not be unnecessarily harsh.  The current situation of prisons means that people who go through them end up even more warped and twisted, making them an even greater threat to society.

This is a hard problem.  If you lock someone up with a bunch of criminals, they turn into even more of a criminal as they absorb criminal culture and skills.  But if you lock them up alone, they quickly go insane.  I've never understood this.  I would much rather be locked up alone than with a bunch of criminals.  But I guess most people need human contact and can't handle solitude.  And of course, you can't lock them up and force them into extended contact with normal people.

I guess the ideal situation would be to lock them up with a bunch of human-like robots who are programmed to follow the proper set of cultural norms.  That should satisfy the need for human contact, while teaching them how they should act in society.  That way, when they have served their time and are released, they should be able to fit back into society ( I am talking here about normal criminals, not the truly insane, like the one in the movie.  I drifted off topic a little.)

1 comment:

Lou said...

Enjoyed this I do most of what you write. Interesting points about prisons & (potential) behavior modification. Stanley Kubrik in his movie 'Clockwork Orange' (a disturbing film) dealt a bit with this. Dad