This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Executioner's Song

From Nov 2009:

There is a story I read in one of those collections of tales of murder and mystery Alfred Hitchcock used to introduce, mostly published back in the 1950s and 60s, well before I was born. My dad was an aficionado of those stories, which is why my bookshelves are loaded down with those books.

This story I mentioned was about a man who shot himself, and the relevant fact was that the author talked about the “other fingers” that he said were on the trigger, in this case the finger, specifically, of his jilted girlfriend’s sister. It wasn’t much of a story, except for that.

Now, I read on the net about the execution of the Beltway Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, for the shooting and killing of ten people in 2002 and the wounding of several others. I remember, at the time, watching the somewhat breathless TV coverage of the Beltway Sniper Attacksand wondering how on earth one madman (as then thought) with a gun could run rings round the self-professed Leader of the World. It was quite an interesting sociological phenomenon, anyway, to watch Police Chief Moose (if I recall his name right) pontificating on camera (as seen on BBC News) about how the shooter was a “weekend warrior” who had a full time job during the week, and white, since most victims were white. A lot of criminological theories probably quietly bit the dust when Muhammad and his teenage associate Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested; two of them, black, and unemployed to boot.

Since I had watched the whole thing unfold on TV, I was interested in what happened to John Allen Muhammad in a way I wouldn’t be in the case of most Thomases, Richards and Harriettas who end their lives at the receiving end of the US penal justice system. The only other equally interesting, to me, case was of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, who was as fascinating, and, I’m convinced, part of the same syndrome as the Beltway Sniper.

Before I get any further, let me lay out my position on the John Allen Muhammad case. I, personally, am convinced the man was guilty of at least some of the killings of which he was accused. You don’t have a sniper outpost built into the boot of your car, complete with scope-sighted high-powered Bushmaster rifle, if you’re innocent.

OK, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it was some kind of bizarre coincidence; Mr Muhammad was playing out a fantasy of going around the country shooting people from the boot of his car while – absolutely independently – a completely separate psychopathic sniper was at work shooting people at random. Fine, you just might be right. Unlikely, but you might be right. Coincidences do happen.

But then you have to ask just how Mr Muhammad and his teenage friend happened to be in the area when the shootings happened, how his voice was on a phone call to the cops, and suchlike evidence. You have to explain why the shootings stopped when he was arrested. You have to explain away the other evidence in the case. You’ll probably have to explain away too much. There is such a thing as too many coincidences.

The logical answer is, therefore, that Mr Muhammad was guilty of some or all of the killings that were attributed to him, although one can’t really shrug off the possibility that one or more of the killings laid at his door might have been the work of copycat killers or were actual random coincidences. Even if so, for the majority of the murders, Mr Muhammad is by most standards of logic, guilty. He was the Beltway Sniper.

Well, then, we get back to the question I heard that story ask: how many  fingers, other than his, were on the trigger?

Let’s take a look at Mr Muhammad’s life history. Wikipedia’s entry on him (I wonder if I’ll ever have a page of my own on Wikipedia!) says Mr Muhammad was a US military veteran with service in the anti-Iraq war of 1991 and holder of an expert rating as a marksman. He was also trained as a metalworker, which must have come in useful when it came to fixing up his car as a sniper post. His service training practically fitted him to become the sniper he was, but of course it can’t be blamed for making him a sniper.

Now I’ll probably stick out my neck when I say this: there is such a thing as delayed random blowback. If you put young men into a high stress conflict environment where they have to kill and see people getting killed, often in acts of random senseless violence, you can’t expect them not to be scarred by this. As the Vietnam War’s veterans so clearly demonstrated, the war doesn’t stop when it officially stops. It lives on in the minds and the hearts of the survivors of the war, and surfaces, sometimes many years later, in random and ugly ways. You might call it post-traumatic stress disorder, you might call it psychosis, or you can go ahead and call the person exhibiting it a sociopath. Whatever it is, one finger of those on the trigger would be that of those who send soldiers off to an unnecessary war with no thought to what happens to them afterwards.

(And there again you have the connection to Timothy McVeigh, another veteran who called his victims “collateral damage”. In the context of recent US military activities, you would have to say that from his standpoint he was quite right.)

Then again, one might ask, would Mr Muhammad have been able to embark on his killing spree if he hadn’t been able to lay his hands on high-performance weaponry? I’ve repeatedly raised this question on this website and elsewhere: where does the right to own lethal weaponry stop being a good idea and become a dangerous and stupid one? Michael Moore and Bowling For Columbine apart, even if Mr Muhammad had fantasies of going on a lethal rampage, what could he have achieved if he had been unable to purchase a weapon? Run amok with a bread knife? So, there you have another finger on the trigger: that of the gun-supporting lobbies.

While I’m on the subject of lethal rampages, there seems to be a major contradiction in Mr Muhammad’s motives for his murder spree. One the one hand, he was supposed to have begun the killings only to camouflage the planned homicide of his ex-wife in order to secure the custody of his children. At the same time, here’s what his associate revealed about Muhammad’s plans which

consisted of three phases in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas. Phase one consisted of meticulously planning, mapping, and practicing their locations around the DC area. This way after each shooting they would be able to quickly leave the area on a predetermined path, and move on to the next location. John Allen Muhammad's goal in phase one was to kill 6 white people a day for 30 days (180 per month). Malvo went on to describe how phase one did not go as planned due to heavy traffic and the lack of a clear shot and/or getaway at different locations.
Phase two was meant to be moved up to Baltimore. Malvo described how this phase was close to being implemented, but never was carried out. Phase Two was intended to begin by killing a pregnant woman by shooting her in the abdomen. The next step would have been to shoot and kill a Baltimore City police officer. Then, at the officer's funeral, they were to create several improvised explosive devices complete with shrapnel. These explosives were intended to kill a large number of police, since many police would attend another officer's funeral.
The last phase was to take place very shortly after, if not during, Phase Two. The third phase was to extort several million dollars from the United States government. This money would be used to finance a larger plan. The plan was to travel north into Canada. Along the way they would stop in YMCAs and orphanages recruiting other impressionable young boys with no parents or guidance. John Allen Muhammad thought he could act as their father figure as he did with Lee Boyd Malvo. Once he recruited a large number of young boys and made his way up to Canada, he would begin their training. Malvo described how John Allen Muhammad intended to train all these boys with weapons and stealth, as he had been taught. Finally, after their training was complete, John Allen Muhammad would send them out across the United States to carry out mass shootings in many different cities, just as he had done in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore
Read over this again. Does this (assuming Malvo was telling the truth) sound like the product of a rational mind? Do normal thought processes produce drivel like this? Somehow, I don’t think so.

And, if we arrive at the conclusion that a person thinking along these lines isn’t sane, should he be executed? Are mad people guilty for the actions they commit?

And, dare I ask, did executing Muhammad bring his victims back to life?

So, finally, we arrive at the death penalty. I’ll say this right away before going any further: as some of you, those who have been long-term readers of mine undoubtedly know, I have a hang-up about capital punishment. One of my recurrent dreams (described here, for instance, and here) is about my own execution, always in unpleasantly vivid terms and always without any indication of what it is that I’m supposed to be guilty of. I am, therefore, unable to be objective about the death penalty. Everything I say from this point on will be coloured by my own, quite personal, abhorrence of capital punishment.

Still, biased or not, these are my objections to capital punishment, per se (I won’t talk about methods here; if I’d have to choose a method, I’d put the firing squad as the only acceptable one):

1.    Capital Punishment is not, worldwide, applied equally across the board. Whether one is guilty or not, one’s chances of being sentenced to death and of the sentence being carried out increase drastically if one is poor or from a religious or ethnic minority.

As an illustration, the last person executed in India (which has many persons on death row but is now observing a de facto moratorium on capital punishment) was one Dhananjay Chatterjee, convicted and hanged for the rape and murder of a girl named Hetal Parekh. The point isn’t whether he was guilty; the point is that another man was, within days of Chatterjee’s hanging, convicted for an identical crime and only sentenced to life imprisonment. Chatterjee was too poor to afford competent legal representation. The other man was not. And another man, Manu Sharma, who shot dead a model named Jessica Lall in front of a roomful of witnesses (including, allegedly, Hollywood tough guy Steven Seagal), not only virtually got away with his crime for years, buying off witnesses and so on, but is currently out on jail on parole and partying it up, or so say the TV channels. Oh well, he’s rich, very rich. You know how it is.

Similarly, just as in the US, the percentage of black inmates on Death Row is disproportionately higher than that of blacks in the general population, in India a convicted killer stands a much higher chance of being sentenced to death if he happens to belong to one of the “lower castes” or is Muslim.

2.    Capital Punishment may irretrievably punish the innocent. The annals of execution are loaded with tales of people who were either extremely likely to have been innocent (like Cameron Todd Willingham, for instance, who was almost certainly wrongly executedby grandstanding courts and politicians) or have been, after their execution, proven not guilty. You could release a wrongfully imprisoned person and financially (undoubtedly inadequate, but better than nothing) compensate them for the years of lost liberty. What can you do for someone who’s been executed? Issue a posthumous pardon? I’m sure his ghost would love to use that as toilet paper.

3.    Capital Punishment undoubtedly does not deter murder. If it did, nations that apply capital punishment would be either murder-free or have much lower homicide rates than those which do not have the death penalty. My knowledge on the subject may be a mite deficient, but as far as I know that is not the case. In fact, the truth may be the reverse.

While I’m on this subject, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some murderers commit their crimes as a convoluted way of committing suicide by forcing the state to do it for them. This was undoubtedly the case of the American serial killer Ted Bundy, who deliberately searched out jurisdictions in which he was most likely to be sentenced to death and committed his crimes there.

4.    Capital Punishment may turn unsavoury people into martyrs. Remember Saddam Hussein? He was undoubtedly an unsavoury dictator and had people killed, besides being responsible, as a CIA agent in his younger days, for crimes including crushing the Iraqi Communist Party and beginning the Iran-Iraq War. But by hanging him, the occupation forces made him (by then irrelevant to the Iraqi freedom movement) into a martyr. Nothing was gained by hanging him except exposing the brutality and stupidity of the occupation and its puppet collaborators to everyone, quite apart from raising suspicions that he was killed to stop him from telling all he knew.

So far as terrorists of a particular martyrdom-seeking stripe are concerned, of course, execution is a positive badge of honour, and far from being deterred, they may actively take actions calculated to achieve it. Therefore capital punishment can actually increase your chances of being blown away.

5.    Capital Punishment is more about retribution than about justice. On death row in India sits a man named Afzal Guru. He was convicted and sentenced to death for planning a jihadist suicide attack on the Indian Parliament that took place in December 2001. Though there are such glaring reasons for suspicion about the evidence against him that the Indian Supreme Court acknowledged that it was possible that he was innocent, it confirmed the death sentence because, in its own words, the “collective conscience of the society” demanded someone be punished for a crime of this magnitude. In translation: “he should be hanged because the mob’s baying for someone’s blood.”

As a corollary, I have never understood this practice in the US of allowing “witnesses” including the relatives of murder victims to watch the convicted murderer being executed. What’s the idea? To satisfy their bloodlust? From this site, I got the following piece about the reaction of one of Muhammad’s victim’s relatives, who was flown to the execution by, of all things, the organisers of a TV show:

Several relatives are due to witness the execution. Among them is Marion Lewis, 57, of Mountain Home, Idaho, whose daughter Lori Lewis Rivera was shot dead by Muhammad and Malvo - who pulled the trigger is not known - at a petrol station in Kensington, Maryland.
He is being flown to Virginia by a syndicated television show and told The Washington Post he was looking forward to seeing the death penalty imposed.
"I want to see what he made me see. He forced us to look at our little girl laying in a coffin. I want to see justice done. I want to see him take a last breath...I want to be able to describe it to the rest of the family.
Muhammad will be given the chance to say some final words. Mr Lewis, who said he would have preferred a more "gruesome" execution method, wished he could say something too. "It would be short and simple: 'I'm here to see you die...son of a bitch'."

This is not justice. This is brutalisation and playing to the camera.

6.    A majority of murders tend to be crimes of passion, decided on the spur of the moment. In most of those cases, the killer can’t afterwards ever forgive himself or herself anyway. So if you exclude these crimes, where do you draw the line? How about the person who murdered someone who was making his or her life hell? You exclude him or her too? Then what about those who killed in cold blood? You’ll execute them? Fine. Now how are you to decide who killed in cold blood? Suppose someone’s family was slaughtered before his eyes and the state did nothing. Would you kill him for planning and wreaking revenge on the perpetrator? No? Yes? What?

7.    Capital Punishment for some crimes can actually serve to make the crimes worse. For instance, let’s take rape. If one makes rape a capital crime, as feminist groups very often demand, doesn’t it make it more likely that the rapist will kill his victims to minimise the likelihood of their testifying against him in court?

8.    Ultimately, of course, the stupidest thing about the death penalty is that the really big criminals can’t be touched by it: the politicians who send armies off to war, the capitalists who ruin entire ecologies and are responsible for the deaths of millions, the profiteers who ensure that those who can’t pay their rates don’t have access to such basics as food, shelter and clothing, and so on.

As long as they aren’t punished, what the hell’s the point of executing the killer of only a few people, anyway?  

Note: Yes, the title of this blog post is taken from Norman Mailer's book on the execution of Gary Gilmour.

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