Edmund Burke didn’t really say it, but it still rings true: All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. In a test of this maxim, filmmaker Casey Neistat tries to steal his own bike in several locations around New York City and finds that most people do nothing about it—even when it’s done right in front of a police station.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal today, William McGurn looks at some of the root causes of the catastrophic decline of the city of Detroit. Census information released last week showed the city — once the fifth largest in America and a place which had such awe-inspiring industrial might that President Roosevelt labeled it the Arsenal of Democracy — had lost more than 25 percent of its population in the last decade. Detroit’s population fell to 713,777 in 2010, the lowest since 1910 (two years after Henry Ford’s Model T was introduced). The city, vasts stretches of which are depopulated, is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
As McGurn points out, much of Detroit’s problems are of its own making. There was no tsunami or hurricane to blame. He quotes Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, on the cultural factors that have contributed to the city’s demise:
Most Americans did not need to be told that Detroit is in a bad way, and has been for some time. Americans know all about white flight, greedy unions and arrogant auto executives. The recent census numbers, however, put an exclamation mark on a cold fact: A once-great American city today repels people of talent and ambition.
“Detroit is a classic example of how a culture that was legendary for enterprise and innovation was slowly eroded by toxic politicization from the 1960s on,” says the Rev. Robert A. Sirico, president of the Michigan-based Acton Institute. “It’s been class warfare on steroids, and the inevitable result is that so many Detroiters who had the means—black and white—have fled the city.”
Another way of putting it is this: Unlike New Orleans and Japan, the ruin we see in Detroit is entirely man-made.
Read “A Requiem for Detroit” in the Wall Street Journal.
Yesterday I noted some items related to the question of punishment and restorative justice in the American criminal justice system. And in the past we’ve looked here at the PowerBlog of the issues surrounding political and social activism on prison rape.
Now today Joe Carter, web editor at First Things, considers the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the broader cultural attitudes toward prison rape:
While such laws are a useful beginning, what is needed more than any legislation is a change in attitude by the American public. While jokes about conventional rape are always considered in bad taste, humor about prison rape is common and broadly accepted.
Joe makes an important case, and it is worth serious consideration. Given his position on water boarding and torture more generally, I’m sure that Joe agrees with what I’ve written previously on this issue: “Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.” One of the things it means to treat someone with the dignity they deserve as a human being is to not subject them to conditions where the threat of rape is rampant.
With regard to the relationship between humor and prison rape, Joe is right to point to the double standard. One commenter on one of my previous posts contended, however, that “I don’t think the vast majority of people who joke or threaten about prison rape are seriously indifferent to it when it comes to making real decisions about the penal system. Instead, I think they are simply pointing out one of the ugly realities of any penal system.” You can judge for yourself the accuracy of that claim.
But I wonder too whether one aspect of why prison rape humor is so relatively prevalent in our culture is that, as Joe has noted in his always worthwhile 33 Things, comedy has something to do with “making immoral behavior seem harmless.” In this sense, then, the danger isn’t that humor about making prison rape seem moral, but rather that it makes prison rape seem inconsequential or “benign.”
In a fine post over at the History News Network (HT: Religion in America), Jennifer Graber, assistant professor of religious studies at The College of Wooster and author of the forthcoming book, The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America, reflects on what the Michael Vick saga (to date) shows us about American attitudes towards crime, punishment, and redemption.
Graber briefly traces the development of public policy and social attitudes towards punishment for violent and heinous crimes. She writes,
In the colonial era, government authorities issued tough criminal sanctions. They branded thieves; they put forgers in the stocks; they hanged murderers and even counterfeiters. The punishments came swiftly and were intended to hurt and to shame. They might deter future criminal activity. But no one expected them to prompt a criminal’s personal reformation.
But things began to change by the time of the American Revolution. At this time, she writes, “Americans encountered a host of new ideas about law, punishment, the body, and individual rights. Some citizens used these notions to call for a dramatic transformation of American criminal punishment.”
So there is a mixed legacy in contemporary attitudes toward punishment and imprisonment, particularly from a Christian perspective which emphasizes the personal transformation that is possible through God’s grace.
In round after round, the reformers claimed that a Christian nation necessarily supported criminal punishments designed first and foremost for reformation. Officials retorted that public safety demanded a realistic approach to corrections, one that used bodily punishments and shame to put unrepentant inmates in their proper place. This endless debate gave us the prisons we have today, institutions caught between simultaneous impulses to punish and redeem.
I survey four different Christian views on these matters in a 2008 law review essay, “To Abolish or to Reform? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice” (PDF). As I show in that piece, “it is more accurate to speak of a plurality of restorative
justice movements than of a unified and univocal restorative justice movement, particularly with respect to the variety of Christian approaches.” As Graber aptly notes, there are a variety of approaches to the relationship between punishment and restoration. Some hold that the two must go together, while other views hold they are antithetical to one another.
One lesson from the Michael Vick case, I believe, is that imprisonment can have a transformative effect, even if that transformation is note the sole, or even one intended, purpose of incarceration. Imprisonment is one way that society makes it clear to someone that particular behaviors are out of bounds and deserving of significant consequences. It puts the indelible stamp of “No!” on someone’s actions.
As for Vick, he’s recently made public his Christian commitment. Reflecting on his conviction and imprisonment at last week’s Super Bowl Prayer Breakfast, “I wanted a chance to redeem myself,” he said. “Pre-incarceration it was all about me. When I got to prison, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. The one thing I could rely on was my faith in God.”
Vick’s case is only one of the most recent of many such stories of prison redemption. It’s been said before, “Prison saved my life.”
Two of the things I’ve paid some attention to, one more recently and the other as an ongoing area of interest, came together in an Instapundit update yesterday.
Glenn Reynolds linked to a video of a NYC cop who “threatens a man taking cell phone video with arrest.” This picks up the attention given here and here to the question of law enforcement and ‘citizen photojournalism.’
But what really struck me about this story was the threat attributed to the (apparent) cop, who said, “Guys in jail are going to rape you.”
This is beyond the pale in myriad ways. Reynolds points out in an update that “when you have a badge and a gun you should behave better than the average schmuck, rather than having a license to be a jerk.” Public persons, like law enforcement officials, have a higher standard of conduct than private individuals.
But this story also gets at the necessity of prison reform, and the importance of Christian engagement of the criminal justice system.
The term dehumanization gets used often to describe what happens to a victim, particularly of a violent crime. But it’s all often what happens in the realities of the American system of criminal justice.
Simply because people commit crimes, heinous, violent, or otherwise, it does not mean that they cease to be human persons.
No matter what someone has done there are simply things that are not to be done to them, and certainly not within the context of a legally-sanctioned system of justice. This moral reality is what stands behind a good deal of the principled Christian opposition to torture, for instance. And it’s also what lies behind the proscription of “cruel and unusual punishments.” There are just some things that you don’t do to human beings in any situation or context, merely by virtue of their status as human beings.
The prevalence of prison rape in particular is something that criminals should not be subjected to. Evangelicals have been particularly active on this issue, including groups like the NAE and Justice Fellowship.
Holding criminals accountable is part of what it means to treat them as human beings, as moral agents. But the dignity of human persons, in their victimhood as well as their victimization, also means that there are limits to forms of punishment or to acceptable contexts for incarceration. It also means that imprisonment is not the final word, even in cases of life sentences. Inmates are still people, and therefore need to be treated as such, with all the challenges and potential that face all human persons.
This has important implications for what prison and imprisonment look like. For instance, in the latest issue of Corrections Today, one of the “top nine” reasons to increase correctional education programs is that “From a humanistic viewpoint, education is the right thing to do.” The brief article (PDF) cites a UN statement:
Education should be aimed at the full development of the whole person requiring prisoner access to formal and informal education, literacy programs, basic education, vocational training, creative, religious and cultural activities, physical
education and sport, social education, higher education and library facilities.
(Thanks to Dr. John Teevan, director of Grace College’s Prison Extension Program for pointing out that article).
My own view is that the broad realm of criminal justice, including various accounts of restorative justice and the relationship of Christians, both organically and institutionally, to the government system of punishment is especially ripe for fruitful engagement. And the issue of prison rape is a concrete instance of where Christian activism is of utmost importance.
On an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last month, professor Jay Parini of Middlebury College discussed his role in the criminal justice sentences given to students who were involved in the vandalism of the former summer home of renowned poet Robert Frost.
Some of the younger students involved took part in a class on Robert Frost as part of an alternative sentencing plea agreement. As Prof. Parini says, “It’s a sort of unique punishment, talk about the punishment fitting the crime.”
Be sure to listen to the show to get the details of the whole story. This sounds to me like a perfect example of jurisprudence, that is, wisdom in the application of law. By connecting the offenders to the reality of Robert Frost’s life and work, the real impact of what they had done was communicated to them.
The potential for alternative sentencing agreements like this is just one of the possibilities I discuss in a newly published essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 481-511. In that piece I lay out a basic scheme for understanding the different Christian approaches to restorative justice, particularly with regard to the relationship between punishment and restoration, along with some of the theological and practical implications for these various streams.
“It seems obvious that from a perspective of personalism,” I write, “relevant contextual differences should be considered in sentencing, and judges should have the ability to exercise prudential judgments on such matters.”
The case of the Frost house vandals underscores the value of this perspective, contrasted with that which emphasizes strictly controlled mandatory sentencing, especially for minors and youths. As Parini also says, “Poetry is about reparation and restoration.” The task for the prudential administration of justice is to balance and coordinate the necessity of punishment as an end in itself and as an instrument oriented toward reconciliation.
As an aside, I might also note that Prof. Parini would do his regular college students better service to teach them as he taught the offenders. Talking about his treatment of the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “When I teach the class to my students at Middlebury, it’s a you know sophisticated group, I do a fairly post-modern reading of the poem…. In a post-modern reading of that poem it’s more complicated.”
But in teaching the class of offenders Parini emphasized the recognition of metaphoric and symbolic values as a necessary part of coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of life: “I realized these kids are at a very simple level here and Frost is confronting one of the issues that we have moral choices breaking in front of us at every moment.” This latter approach does more justice, so to speak, to the duties of the moral imagination than the sophistry of a post-modern reading, in which there is really no “wrong” road to take.
The theme of this issue of the Ave Maria Law Review is “The Constitutionality of Faith-Based Prison Units,” and there are some valuable resources for coming to grips with a practical dilemma facing the relationship between church and state in America. Another noteworthy and timely essay in this issue is Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s “The Enduring Achievement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”
When thinking of southern Italy, Americans probably imagine the Amalfi Coast, Mount Vesuvius, and lemon groves, but to the average Italian the picture is of rotting garbage in the streets of Naples and the Mafia. These realities have been strikingly portrayed in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra (ET), which is also the basis of a newly-released motion picture in Italy.
Saviano is a young journalist who clearly describes the dark side of his country. It is probably the most courageous “j’accuse” ever cried out against the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. In order to write this book, the author disguised himself, took on another identity and infiltrated “The System”, as the Camorra is known in Naples.
Saviano’s reporting has won several awards. His book has been translated in 42 countries and has been a best-seller in Germany, Holland, Spain, France, Sweden and Finland. The New York Times classified it as one of the best books of 2007 and The Economist added it to its list of 100 best books of 2008. In Italy, it is considered the best book of the year and has sold over a million copies.
In chilling passages, the author explains the power of the organization and names the families, alliances, trafficking, corruption and misery surrounding the Camorra’s world. It is a shocking picture, even for those Italians who are well-aware of the criminal organizations infesting Italy. These corrupt networks seem impossible to defeat, a parallel country within the country.
It is incredible to recount the Camorra murders in Naples, nearly 4,000 in the last 30 years, numbers that can be compared to a war. Even more astonishing are the figures concerning the economy of this international organization that, together with the other criminal organizations, accounts 7 per cent of Italy’s gross domestic product, more than $127 billion in a year.
The historic, political and social reasons that have lead to this phenomenon can be summarized in one word: “corruption”. Never in any other European country has there been such a wide scale and longstanding connection between crime and political corruption.
But thanks to this book and civic movements that are starting to rebel against this kind of society, Italians are developing a deeper awareness of the problem. The film version of Gomorra has gotten off to a great start at the box office, with more than €2 million in ticket sales in less than three days.
The movie brilliantly summarizes the book and is courageously filmed in Scampia, the dangerous Neapolitan neighborhood where the story takes place. The movie is also showing at the Cannes Film Festival where the international press applauded Saviano’s courage and the courage of Italians like Saviano (who has been living with constant police protection since October 2006) who courageously face truth and stand up to crime and corruption.
This sounds like a book with a compelling narrative: McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld.
I’ve often thought about the connection between organized crime and legitimate governmental structures. In the NPR interview linked above, “Journalist Misha Glenny points out that while globalization may have given the world new opportunities for trade and investments, it also gave rise to global black markets and made it easier for criminal networks to do business.” There’s a lot of cogent analysis of trade issues and how government policy not only combats but also contributes to the existence of globalized “black markets.”
It has occurred to me more than once, in watching shows like HBO’s “The Sopranos,” that a good deal of the socio-political aspects of organized crime is explicable in terms of alternative (and often obsolete) forms of governance. That is, often when extorting money from business owners, superficially legitimate services are offered, like “protection,” i.e. protection that the official authorities like the police are unwilling or unable to provide.
Can Tony Soprano claim to be the “king,” or at least “kingpin” of a more feudal or monarchical socio-political structure? Perhaps, just perhaps, there is the hypothetical exceptional situation in which the “outlaws” represent a more legitimate form of governance than official but tyrannical structures (think of Robin Hood, for instance).
But there is at least clear precedent for understanding the reverse to be true; legitimate authorities can certainly degenerate into outright banditry even if bandits may not be able to rise to the level of authentic sovereignty. As Augustine has reflected on the nature of legitimate sovereignty,
Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)
And so the appeal to political legitimacy can only be made in recognition of the rule of law, the higher law or the “law beyond law,” that governs all human endeavors.
I have discovered this week that Florida has a major problem with teenage violence against the homeless. In a new twist on violent crime incidents the homeless are being attacked across this state regularly. In St. Petersburg two homeless men, ages 43 and 53, were shot to death in January in separate incidents. The two men indicted for these two crimes are 18 and 20. There were 41 incidents of violence against the homeless in 2006, more than in any other state. Eight of these led to deaths. A man was beaten to death in August by two teens, ages 13 and 16. Last April a homeless man in DeLand claimed ten teens attacked him with metal pipes and set his tent on fire.
The staggering thing about this new wave of crime is the most common reason being cited for the attacks. An online survey conducted by the National Coalition for the Homeless says 55% of the teens involved report “boredom” is the most common reason. 47% of people surveyed say such teens should face adult penalties for these crimes. I concur.
“Boredom?” Yes, boredom. It has become a major problem in a culture based on non-stop entertainment and the perceived personal right to pleasure no matter what it costs. And still people do not think we have a values problem in America. What we actually have is a virtue problem, which is far worse. Virtue begins in the home but the whole society undermines the pursuit of virtue by its endless rush toward secularism and hedonism. Bored kids, in modern America, are apparently now dangerous to the homeless and the helpless. This is another sad evidence of how deep our need is for true moral reformation.
John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."
The Detroit News ran my commentary from the end of last year on the role of religion and prisoner reform today, “Don’t prevent religion from helping to reform prisoners.” The version that ran today omits the references to Jeremy Bentham, which you can get from the original and this related blog post.
In related news, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley reports today that the “Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals has set February 13, 2007, for oral arguments in the appeal of the ruling against Prison Fellowship and the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI).” The appeal will be argued in St. Louis, MO and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be part of the three judge panel.
Get more information about the case at the IFI Ruling web page.