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Monday, November 30, 2015

NSA ends telephone data collection, now no one cares who I call

by John MacBeath Watkins

Today is the first day in a long time the National Security Agency is, according to it, no longer engaged in gathering telephone metadata. This is a tragedy my future biographers will lament.

Now, no one cares who I call, and the record of customers calling to ask if I have a copy of some obscure tome is no longer being kept. The NSA'a metadata -- who calls me and who I call and when -- is just going to disappear into the ether. Future generations will never be able to go into the eventually declassified metadata and chronicle my long, twilight struggle to disconnect from Comcast, or determine whether I have drunk-dialed my ex-girlfriends.

I know the project was not intended primarily to provide a resource for those who might, one day, want to chronicle the life of someone who has had no perceptible effect on the history of the world, who has never starred in a movie, recorded a hit song, or assassinated a world leader. But consider that the NSA was keeping one of the very few records of my life in existence.

Yes, my friends and relatives will remember me for the rest of their lives, or until dementia erases all memory of me, but they will fade, like me, into unrecorded history. Only a few records in an NSA database will persist, in the manner of secret files no one cares about. It will be too much trouble to decide what is important in those databanks, to much trouble to actually determine that my data need not be preserved, so I expect those few records to remain on whatever media the NSA deems most archival.

But tragically, all record of my calls ends yesterday, unless some rogue agent is secretly keeping the record of my existence alive.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Laughter and the soul: Proof from the rat tickling experiment

by John MacBeath Watkins

Aristotle thought the soul entered a baby when it first laughed, which he estimated happened about 40 days after birth (recent research indicates it's more like 90 days for most kids, but Aristotle may have been truly hilarious by baby standards.).

And that's important, because the age of ensoulment is generally considered the age at which the baby
Was Aristotle available
for children's parties?
is human. St. Augustine thought ensoulment happened at the quickening, that is, when the mother could feel a baby kick. As long as this was Catholic doctrine, abortion was permitted until the quickening.

But what interests me here is the question of why Aristotle would choose, among all baby vocalizations, laughter.

What does laughter mean? It doesn't always occur when someone has made a joke. In fact, it seems to mean, "we're just playing." And play, as Karl Groos noted in his 1898 book, The Play of Animals, is important because it is how young mammals of all species learn. In fact, he said that it is not so much that animals play because they are young, it is more like they have a period when they are most inclined to play so that they may learn.

Aristotle was the sort of polymath who had theories about everything. He even wrote a natural history book, the title of which is usually translated History of Animals, in which he attempted to sum up what was known about zoology. He also wrote a book on comedy, of which unfortunately there are no extant copies.

It was in The Parts of Animals (De Partibus Animalium), a book on anatomy, that he speculated warm air most easily reaches the soul through laughter. Barry Sanders, author of Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History, says that Aristotle thought only humans laughed, and only laughter could animate the soul, which is why he thought laughter separated humans from animals, and called us animal ridens, the beast who laughs.

However, scientists have determined by tickling rats that they laugh. In fact, it seems to be a behavior common to all the mammals they have managed to tickle.

In short, animal ridens is not a mere genus, it is an entire class of animals, the class of animals who play. Aristotle, however, thought laughter was connected to a sense of superiority, which makes me wonder about his sense of humor. He said people laugh at an ugly mask during a play because they can feel superior without causing pain. Perhaps he was fond of slapstick, of seeing people do silly things.

But I do think he was on to something with his theory about the importance of laughter. Perhaps laughter signals that the baby is ready to move beyond instinct, to engage in the sort of play that will enable it to learn behaviors that are invented rather than instinctive. The longer childhood lasts, the longer an animal is supposed to engage in play, which may tell us how much of a species' behavior is passed on through teaching rather than through genes, although there are probably adjustments for size (nerve impulses move the length of a shrew more quickly than they move the length of a whale, so they may be living and learning quicker.)

So what was Aristotle seeing that made him think a baby was ensouled when it first laughed? Well, in its first days, a baby is a creature of inarticulate appetites. It cries because its wet diaper is uncomfortable, because its belly is empty, because it is too cold or too hot. It learns to smile in the first month, but the first vocalization that says, "I am playing, therefore I am learning," is laughter.

Aristotle was a teacher, which may be why he noted the insolent laughter of youth. Unlike his fellow teacher, the more dour Plato, he approved of laughter in moderation. Perhaps he noticed that people who laughed together liked each other more. Perhaps he even noticed that students who were laughing were learning.

But he did not notice that rats laugh when you tickle them, and therefore, by his standards, have souls.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Islamophobia and endless war

by John MacBeath Watkins

This could change as more of them are identified, of course, but so far all of the terrorists in the Paris attack that have been identified were European nationals.

One had what appeared to be a Syrian passport, but that turned out to be fake. And why carry a fake Syrian passport? Because one of the motivations for the attack is to create a backlash against the refugees fleeing the war zone where Islamic State is fighting.

And it's working. All the propaganda tropes Islamic State is using seem to be working, including naming themselves Islamic State, when they are neither a true state, nor do they represent most of Islam.

Right-wing political correctness dictates that we call the terrorists "Islamic extremists." This ties in with the right's desire to blame the Muslim religion for the actions of the terrorists, because they really want this to be a clash between their version of Islam and Christianity. Islamic State is attacking the religiously tolerant west to destroy religious toleration, to polarize the world into one defined by extremists on both sides.

Which is what Christian extremists want as well.

We can't let extremists define either group. That way lies endless war, a war of annihilation between faiths, as long as there are believers fanatical enough to pursue it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Religious extremists and their fear of liberal democracy

by John MacBeath Watkins

Two of the most important works of liberalism, were written by men (Thomas Hobbes and John Locke) in exile from their native country, and both men had reason to fear for their lives based on what they had written. Hobbes concluded that governments gain their legitimacy from the service they do for those they govern, rather than from God, and Locke realized that religious strife happens not because people believe different things, but because people try to make them all believe the same thing.

Both insights lead to a more secular state then has generally existed in human history.

If they were writing today, they would find that there are still parts of the world where expressing their ideas of the rational, free, and secular state can get you killed -- which is why so many of the surviving Bengali bloggers live in exile. Those still in Bangladesh risk being hacked to death for expressing secularist views.

People with views similar to those who hacked Bengali bloggers to death flew jetliners into the World Trade Center in Sept. 11, 2001 and blew themselves up after murdering random people in Paris in November 2015. In these cases, it is not what individuals have said, it is an attempt by fanatics to provoke the enemy they desire: Liberal democracies.

The reason they want liberal democracies to act as their enemies, and resort to such extreme measures to get them to act like enemies, is that in the natural course of things, such societies tolerate Muslims' faith without much difficulty. That creates a sort of gray zone, where Islam exists without dictating how people live.

In a statement after the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2014, the Islamic State argued that terrorism in European countries would "compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens."*

Marxists used do something similar called heightening the contradictions in capitalism, which was supposed to make things better eventually by making them worse right now.

In either the case of an attack on an individual or an attack on a society, people who want religion to rule see liberal democracy as the enemy. And this has been the case, as long as the idea of a government whose legitimacy did not rely on religion has been involved in politics.

It used to be that pretty much all governments claimed to serve God or the Gods. The idea that the government should serve, instead, the people it governs, is a threat to those who arrogate to themselves the power to decide how God wants people ruled. And threats of death against those who proposed secular sources of legitimacy for governments have been a feature of public life since at least the 1640s, when Thomas Hobbes fled his former allies among monarchists in fear that they would kill him.

For centuries, it has served the purpose of those in power to make it seem that liberal democracies are a normal, ordinary, logical way of governance, and to obscure how radical its ideas were and are. But liberal democracy represents a clean break from most of human history, a new way of thinking about the legitimacy of governments. For most of human history, we have been ruled by faith, force, and custom.

Force is easy enough to understand. The man on horseback in the expensive armor, helped by his knights, could physically compel commoners into doing his will (and for most of history, it was men who held this role, especially in young dynasties where someone had to establish dominance.)

Faith is more complicated. Religion concerns itself with the greater questions about why we exist and how we should live our lives. It is also concerned with our concept of virtue more intimately than most institutions.

The question of virtue is the question of who is acting rightly. This is a position of great power, determining who shall be stoned to death in the public square and who shall be heaped with praise and rewards. Virtue addresses the question of who may act legitimately and how, and who, if they act, will be acting illegitimately.

It takes a lot less force to rule a willing people, so if the holder of force can get the arbiters of virtue to approve their rule as legitimate, the ruler will have greater stability and require less expenditure on force.

So, when someone comes along and questions the legitimacy of the Gods themselves, that person is a threat to both church and state in such a society. When Athens tried Socrates and executed him, the charges were impiety and corrupting the minds of the youth, because he questioned the accepted notions of justice, which were supposed to be passed down by the Gods.

I find it revealing that this happened during a period of Athenian decline, when they were being defeated in the Peloponnesian wars. It is when a society most needs a major rethink that those who have led it into decline are most eager to suppress those who would question their wisdom. Perhaps that is why we so often see this behavior in places where people fear they are weak, such as Germany during the Depression or the Islamic State, which considers Islam under siege from the encroachment of western civilization.

Part of the problem was that Socrates did not live in a secular society, and with no separation of church and state, there was every incentive for those who could use the force of the state to kill him to do so on behalf of those who were the arbiters of virtue. Socrates was a threat to religious authority not just because he questioned their judgment, but also because of the way he did it. He started from a position of doubt, and tried to determine the truth through reason.

Reason is not always a friend to power, and it has not been the dominant means of organizing society for most of human existence.

For most of the time there have been humans on this earth, living with their strange, symbolic world of language and culture, the world has been explained in terms of myth and metaphor. These things deal with truth in a very different way than reason does.

Consider the evolution of culture. Does culture need to be rational or even explicable in order to work? In theory, you could have the people of a culture believing things that are neither rational nor, in any logical or empirical sense, true, and those beliefs could get people to act in ways that produced an orderly, productive society that is able to perpetuate itself and produce generation after generation that hold those same beliefs.

Such a society might not be terribly adaptable or able to deal with a rapidly changing world, but as long as things are stable, this might be the best way for a society to function. For example, little changed in the 1,500 years of the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms of Egypt. In such a society, kings were gods and priests were servants of God, and things went smoothly, all great and good fun until someone invents iron.

The Golden Age of Greece followed the Late Bronze Age Collapse, a dark age in which populations fell and knowledge was lost. The old ways stopped working, the new technology of iron was creating new winners in the world and the old Gods were falling. Doubt set in, and new thoughts flourished. When the old ways didn’t work, people had to find new ways of thinking. Until, or course, the vibrant new civilization started to get old, and to fear the questioning of its arbiters of virtue.

But it turned out the Greeks were real pikers when it came to fearing those who questioned the arbiters of virtue. Later Europeans made a regular practice of killing people who questioned the arbiters of virtue, and gained great power by this tactic. And great power led to corruption, and rebellion against corruption, and reformation. One of the things involved was a 30-year long war that killed off so many people that parts of Europe – Germany in particular – that they had a third fewer people at the end of it than at the beginning.

But does questioning the wisdom of an established religion cause violence? John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, argued that this is not the cause of violence, it is the attempt to prevent people from holding non-sanctioned views that begets violence. But that points to a society where religion does not dominate the state, and the state itself is not the ultimate enforcer of religious orthodoxy (such as when a judge in Scotland ordered Thomas Aikenhead to be hanged for making atheist statements in 1697, and an executioner employed by the government did so.)

Locke's insight still holds. If Islamic State hopes that a few terrorists can change the way the liberal democracies treat Muslims, and they hope this will make the very regime some of them are fleeing seem more attractive to them. Only if they can spread intolerance will they have a chance of being proved right.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The irony of the surveillance state

by John MacBeath Watkins

Video cameras seem to be everywhere. If you'd told civil libertarians that 50 years ago, they would
have assumed that this would restrict the freedom of ordinary people.

In fact, the message that the technology of ubiquitous video would lead to a police state was essential to the plots of 1984 and THX1138, as well as many other works of fiction such as Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

But instead, it seems to be working against authority figures. Consider this:

On Nov. 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann, 25, of the Cleveland Police department shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child who had been playing with a toy gun. Loemann and his partner, then 46-year-old Frank Garmback told a story that seemed to justify the shooting.

They said that Rice was at a table with other people.

They said as they pulled up, Rice grabbed a gun and put it in his waistband.

They said they got out of the car and told Rice three times to raise his hands, but he refused.

They said Rice pulled the pistol and Loehman responded by shooting him.

Those four statements, if they were true, would get Loehmann off the hook. But what the officers did not know at the time they made those statements was that a surveillance camera  captured the entire incident.

There were no other people.

Rice already had the toy gun in his waistband.

Loehmann fired within 2 seconds of arriving, too quickly for him to have told Rice three times to put his hands up, and too quickly for Rice to have complied if he had.

Rice never removed the toy from his waistband.

The officers got their story straight, and told a tale that would have justified Loehman's action. 20 years ago, that would have been the end of it. But the ubiquity of video tripped them up, and although they have since had independent reviews rule that they were justified in shooting, this is not going to look good when the wrongful death suit goes to court. Nor is the four minutes they spent doing nothing in the way of first aid for Rice, who died the next day. All they did was throw his sister to the ground when she arrived, distraught.

And additional footage, this time with audio, has surfaced. In it the girl can be heard wailing "you shot my baby brother." This is important, because one defense of the officers' actions was that they had no way of telling that she was the sister of the boy Loemann had just shot.

This sort of thing keeps happening. Michael Slager, a North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer didn't think he was being taped when he shot a man named Walter Scott, who was attempting to run away from him. Slager had pulled Scott over for a broken tail light. Scott fled, Slager chased, they tussled, Scott fled again, and Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times. They he want back to where they tussled, picked something up, and went back and dropped it by the body.

Shooting a fleeing, unarmed man is illegal. The only way it's legal to shoot a fleeing suspect is if he might be a threat to others, the shooting could be justified. Therefore, in the review of the shooting, it would matter a great deal whether he was armed.

Slager didn't know a bystander was shooting a video of the last part of the incident. Slager claimed Scott had taken his Taser, and he therefore feared for his life. Had Feidin Santana, who shot the video, simply been a witness to this alleged deception, the authorities would simply have preferred to take the officer's word for what happened. The prevalence of video made it impossible to paper over what had happened.

In 2013, a complaint stated that Slager had Tasered a man without cause. Slager was cleared, even though the alleged victim and witnesses to the incident said they had not been interviewed.

Santana had considered erasing the video and leaving town, because he feared retaliation if the video came out. It is clear that police do not like being filmed. Police have on many occasions ordered people to stop filming, or even seized telephones and deleted footage. A bill in Texas would have made it illegal to video the police, but was withdrawn amid public backlash.

Why didn't ubiquitous surveillance turn out as 1984 or THX1138 foreshadowed?

Simple. The state did not manage to get a monopoly on surveillance. The police in the Tamir Rice case were caught on security cameras, which are common at businesses, non-profits, and public buildings. The policeman in the Walter Scott case was caught on smartphone video.

The democratic distribution of technology has proven to be as important as the technology itself. What we must guard against, then, is the state restricting the recording and distribution of recordings of its representatives.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

More on the allure of the authoritarian

by John MacBeath Watkins

The reactions to Enlightenment ideas in traditional societies can be violent. To many people,
Sayyid Qutb
tribalism and religion are their identity, and they feel the secular state is a threat to that. Both al Qaeda and Islamic State are examples of this. Both are anti-democratic because they see democracy as fundamentally wrong, and freedom of conscience as fundamentally wrong. If you don't believe what you are supposed to believe, you are wrong, and deserved to die. Certain things can, in the view of Islamic State, make a Muslim an apostate, and one of them is voting in elections. Another is simply being a Shiite Muslim.

All of this fits with what Theodore Adorno, who fled Germany in the 1930s and returned after World War II, referred to in his 1950 book, The Authoritarian Personality. From that authoritative book:

The most crucial result of the present study, as it seems to the authors, is the demonstration of close correspondence in the type of approach and outlook a subject is likely to have in a great variety of areas, ranging from the most intimate features of family and sex adjustment through relationships to other people in general, to religion and to social and political philosophy. Thus a basically hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent -child relationship is apt to carry over into a power- oriented, exploitively dependent attitude toward one's sex partner and one's God and may well culminate in a political philosophy and social outlook which has no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong and a disdainful rejection of whatever is relegated to the bottom. The inherent dramatization likewise extends from the parent-child dichotomy to the dichotomous conception of sex roles and of moral values, as well as to a dichotomous handling of social relations as manifested especially in the formation of stereotypes and of ingroup -outgroup cleavages. Conventionality, rigidity, repressive denial, and the ensuing break -through of one's weakness, fear and dependency are but other aspects of the same fundamental personality pattern, and they can be observed in personal life as well as in attitudes toward religion and social issues.
On the other hand, there is a pattern characterized chiefly by affectionate, basically equalitarian, and permissive interpersonal relationships. This pattern encompasses attitudes within the family and toward the opposite sex, as well as an internalization of religious and social values. Greater flexibility and the potentiality for more genuine satisfactions appear as results of this basic attitude.
Looking at a few lists of the characteristics of authoritarian personalities, I'd boil it down to this:

--Rigid conventionalism and a tendency to think in rigid categories.
--Uncritical submission to the moral authority of the group to which they belong.

--Authoritarian aggression, that is, looking for those who violate conventional norms in order to condemn them, reject them, and punish them.

--Opposing the subjective, imaginative, and empathetic or sympathetic.

--Superstition, that is, a tendency to believe in mystical things that affect peoples' fate. An example would he Benito Mussolini's insistence on changing airplanes if he thought one of his fellow passengers had the evil eye.

--A preoccupation with toughness, identification with those who seem powerful, and with the powerful/weak, winner/loser, dominant/submissive dimensions of character.

--Hostility and vilification of human nature, projection of unconscious urges, therefore a belief that horrible and dangerous things are going on, and a cynicism about the world.

--A focus on sex, sexuality, and what sexual things others are doing.

There is some question in my mind whether any of this is innate. There is no question in my mind that society can choose to be ruled by the authoritarian among them or by the more flexible alternative that Adorno described. 

It strikes me that as civilization has developed, we have gone from the small band, to the tribe, to the village, to the nation, and at each stage our definition of who is “one of us” has become broader. And the greater our inclusiveness, the greater the size of our cohort. Acceptance of the “other” into the cohort increases the power of the cohort, so in the end, those who are suspicious of outsiders are less likely to increase the power of their society than those willing to include them. The bluster of the nativist is a defensive posture based on fear. Every new group of immigrants to the U.S. has been opposed by them, before being accepted and considered an asset. Those who demonize outsiders are exposing their weakness, not displaying their strength.

Now, it strikes me that any ideology or in-group can contain people with these traits, from self-righteous hipster assholes to fire and brimstone preachers and "citizens for decency." Many will be attracted to conservative causes, because of the conventionalism of the type, but that also depends on the conventions they are raised with. It is also quite common for people who have generally conservative views to be kind, empathetic, and accepting. How conservative or liberal you are depends more on your upbringing than your temperament, but how authoritarian you are depends more on your temperament.

Consider the following passage, from Sayyid Qutb's The America I have Seen:

“...the American girl is well acquainted with her body's seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and the expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs – and she shows all this and does not hide it.”
In this brief passage we have on display lust, disgust, condemnation, envy, and a concern with the sexuality of others. It seems safe to say that Qutb, an early firebrand of the Muslim Brotherhood, was an authoritarian. He reacted to the open society with revulsion. Qutb was one of the founding figures in the jihad movement, an advocate of religious law over secular law, and wanted women to know their place (and everyone else, as well.)

What Qutb wanted was a return to the old system of governance by force, faith, and custom. He would be more comfortable if everyone knew their place, instead of trying to shape their own lives. If Allah is the ultimate source of truth and good, why would you rely upon the judgment of people, who after all might be seduced by the licentious freedom of the West?

Culturally, this was happening around him. Egypt's last king was an obese playboy given to pleasures of the flesh (Farouk I died at the ages of 45 and the weight of 300 lb, collapsing after a heavy meal. In his defense, he may have been poisoned, though it is not necessary to suppose this is the case, and no one bothered with an autopsy.) Its dictators were secular. The Muslim Brotherhood was having none of this. They believed God's law was above man's law, and wanted a society where God's law overruled man's law. This is only a problem if you don't happen to belong to the same church as Qutb and his brethren. If, for example, you happen to be a Coptic Christian, under the rule of religious fanatics of a different faith, it sucks to be you.

Every civilization needs some degree of conservatism, some value placed on tradition and order. But for a civilization to learn and grow, it must also be open to new ideas and new experiences, and in a time when the world faces rapid change, these needs are in conflict. The psychologically conservative will be disturbed by the disorder of rapid change, while those with minds more open to change, the need to adapt society and leave behind old prejudices will lead them in a different direction.

When people look at Islamist extremists, and tell me that this is a clash of civilizations between Muslim and Christian civilizations, I think of the Christians in our own civilization who want religion to overrule secular law. The clash is not between religions, it is between tolerance and intolerance, between liberty and authority.

What we are seeing is not a clash between regions or cultures or religions. We are seeing a clash between people who want to conserve traditional values and people who want to open society up to new freedoms. Tip the balance one way, you have the Islamic State, tip it the other and you have San Francisco.

When the world changed slowly, these groups were not much in conflict. New experiences were rare in Egypt's Old Kingdom, and the need to adapt to a changing world was rare. We no longer live in that world, and many people are made profoundly uncomfortable by this, while others delight in it.
Count me among the delighted. And I am happy to see that surveys of young people show them sharing more and more of my views as I get older, because they are adapted to the changes that have occurred. I find that more and more, I live among the delighted. But I still recognize the need for a counterbalance, even if I sometimes become impatient with the way people cling to what I feel are outmoded views. I only ask that they use persuasion rather than force when they attempt to get people to follow their older ways.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Death with dignity and the death penalty, a drug story

by John MacBeath Watkins

On Nov. 1, 2014, Brittany Maynard took drugs prescribed by her doctor, and died peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones. She had moved from California to Oregon to take advantage of the state's death with dignity law, choosing her time to die rather than suffering a lingering death from brain cancer.

On July 23 of the same year in Arizona, Joseph Rudolf Wood III died, apparently after nearly two hours of agony following a supposedly lethal injection. Arizona Republic reporter Michael Kiefer was there as a witness.

"Suddenly he opened his mouth," Kiefer says. "His mouth sort of made this funny round shape, and you could see this expulsion of air, and we all jumped. This was something different."

Kiefer started making hash marks every time Wood struggled for a breath. He'd made 640 hash marks by the time Wood succumbed to a combination of midazolam and hydromorphone amounting to 15 times the dose that had been deemed lethal prior to the execution.

Why are we able to humanely end the life of people using the death with dignity laws, but not people being executed by the states?

Well, for one thing, drug companies are not eager to sell drugs for the purpose of executing people. It's bad for business. Perhaps this is why the state of Arizona was using an opiate on a man with a history of substance abuse, who might be expected to have a higher tolerance for opiates than most people.

Some experts had warned that the drug cocktail proposed for this execution might not be effective. In the end, it took 15 shots of the supposedly lethal dose to execute Wood.

On Jan. 9, 2014, Michael Lee Wilson, being executed by Oklahoma, gave us these last words:

"I feel my whole body burning."

European drug companies will not sell the barbiturates used in death with dignity cases to states to use in executions. States are turning to untested drug cocktails and drugs to which convicts are likely to have a high tolerance.

There is a long and unpleasant history to executions. There was a time when people were publicly beheaded, or even drawn and quartered. Here's the Wikipedia version of what was involved:

Convicts were fastened to a hurdle, or wooden panel, and drawn by horse to the place of execution, where they were hanged (almost to the point of death), emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered(chopped into four pieces). Their remains were often displayed in prominent places across the country, such as London Bridge. For reasons of public decency, women convicted of high treason were instead burned at the stake.

While the American constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, traditionally public cruelty was a major part of what punishment was.

And that's one important conflict with the death penalty. It is a barbaric holdover from an earlier time, when the notion of kind and usual punishment would have seemed self-contradictory. It is an act of vengeance carried out by the state. Proponents argue that it acts as a deterrent on others considering capital crimes, but this is not borne out by research. In any case, in earlier times, it was thought that executions should be public to deter others, not held in a quiet chamber where only a select few witnessed the execution.

We no longer display heads on pikes, and I think we are better for the change.

So why do we use lethal injection? Well, when it works, it is a quiet death that leaves no easily seen disfigurement of the body. The methods of execution we have abandoned are those that met the earlier standard of execution -- they disfigured the prisoner in a way that it was assumed would discourage others from committing similar crimes.

But executions are no longer a public spectacle; we hide them away, with just a few witnesses to assure ourselves that it isn't because we're ashamed of state-sanctioned killing.

And now the drug companies think it isn't good business to sell the substances that will allow this charade to go on. It isn't a rare instance of pharmaceutical companies taking a moral stand, it is fear of consumer backlash. This is because public attitudes are changing toward the death penalty.

The number of people favoring the death penalty peaked in 1994 at 80%. The number opposing it reached its nadir in 1995 at 13 percent. Since then, the number in favor has dropped to 61% and those opposed has climbed to 37%. (All figures are from Gallup, here.)

In 1966, only 42% favored the death penalty and 47% opposed it. By the late 1960s, virtually no people -- and in some years, actually no people -- were executed.

It seems as people got further from actual executions, the popularity of executions rose. As the number of executions increased, support for executions declined.

It is all very well to support execution in theory, but supporting it when actual people, no matter how bad, are dying, is harder to do. And investigators such as the Innocence Project have uncovered evidence that people on Death Row were not guilty of the crimes for which they were scheduled to be killed. Usually, after a person is executed, the evidence is destroyed (in most states, evidence is retained only until the period of incarceration ends, such as when a person is executed.) The cost of storing such evidence, compared to the cost of convicting a prisoner and carrying through all the appeals that tend to accompany such convictions, is minimal. Illinois, which saw the death penalty suspended in 2000 for fear the innocent were being executed, has a law requiring permanent retention of evidence in death penalty cases, and at about the same time abolished the death penalty. Occasionally, a legislator tried to bring the death penalty back. There will always be those who want revenge.

Illinois Gov. George Ryan had seen Anthony Porter come within 50 hours of execution before his innocence was established. That put a human face on the failings of the justice system, but it was the fact that so many cases were overturned that really ended the death penalty in the state.

When people think about the death penalty in the abstract, they don't have to think about how any human institution actually functions, or doesn't. It is when the system has been in place for a time, and the failures become evident, that the flaws become evident.

Why is death with dignity not a threat to the profits of the drug companies? Because it applies for people who have chosen to die. The problem of unjust killing under color of law does not arise.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


by John MacBeath Watkins

Like some uncharted evening
at some unbalanced ball,
the dancers are all leaving
changing colors as they fall
and trees bare limbs are reaching
for anything at all.

Hibernating bears are grieving
for the departure of our sol,
old men's knees are creaking
as they struggle through cold halls
and the migrant birds are seeking
asylum from the fall.