George Stinney, Jr., Number 260, an update

>> Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quite a number of years ago (2009), I wrote an entry here about juvenile justice in which I mentioned the youngest American executed in modern times, George Stinney, Jr..  George was executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.  They electrocuted him, and he was too small to fit in the electric chair when they killed him.  That's George, to the right, inmate 260.  All 95 pounds of him.  Ferocious-looking, isn't he?  (Newcomers to the blog are advised that that's grim sarcasm.  In fact, the child looks like he'd have trouble hurting an earthworm he was going to bait a hook with down at the local fishing hole.)

The update this week is that George's conviction has been thrown out by a South Carolina Circuit Court judge.  Judge Carmen T. Mullen, reviewing a depressingly-but-unsurprisingly incomplete record of the child's trial, which took a single day to hear and involved only ten minutes of jury deliberation, granted a request for a writ of coram nobis on the grounds that few of the young man's rights weren't violated: his confession was most likely coerced, his counsel was woefully inadequate, he could not possibly have received a fair and impartial trial in that venue, and it was cruel and unusual punishment  to execute a child.  The whole opinion can be read here--the format's a bit annoying, but many thanks to Mr. Robert Joseph Baker for posting it nevertheless.

While Judge Mullen's opinion is obviously the moral thing under the circumstances, it's hard not to feel depressed by the injustice that occurred long before our time, and the delay that truly has been a denial.  All of George Stinney's surviving brothers and sisters are elderly now, and have been robbed of growing up with a brother who liked art and airplanes.  There's no faulting Judge Mullen here: it's hardly her fault she was born seventy years too late to avert an injustice that occurred when the legal profession had barely more regard for an accomplished woman with a law degree and extensive legislative and litigation experience than it had for an African-American child.  But all she could do really does feel like too little and too late, at least to me.  (It may be consoling to the Stinney family--I hope it's something, anyway.)

In my pessimistic, jaded frame of burned-out listlessness, I can't help observing that this update is in some respects bad news: the youngest child executed in the United States in the modern era is now a legally innocent child.  One injustice has been addressed as well as it might be: it doesn't appear that George Stinney ever should have been convicted, if all they had was a probably coerced confession (one that was recanted, no less, according to a witness at the coram nobis hearing) and no physical evidence; a probably coerced confession that frankly seems hard to believe when one considers that one of the victims matched little George in size and combined they quite likely would have outmatched him.  Another injustice is irredeemable: a child is dead, one who shouldn't have been killed in the United States of America even in the unlikely event he did do something terrible.

I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I'm wrong, I hope George forgives us, however unworthy we may be.


Everything old is old again

>> Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I think I've said this before, I guess I have to say it again: it seems to me that if you believe in the efficacy of torture as an intelligence-gathering tool, you must necessarily believe in magic.  Because we know from historical experience--in medieval Europe, in colonial New England--that people who are tortured will admit to practicing witchcraft, to being in league with the Devil, to being werewolves.  And if you want to update that data with more recent instances, we know, for instance, from all the horribly detailed records at Tuol Sleng that prisoners of the Khmer Rouge confessed in detail to being participants in seemingly-absurd joint conspiracies in which the United States was allied with the Soviets, Chinese and Vietnamese.

When I think about this, two hypotheses present themselves.  The first is that there are witches and werewolves, Satan is a real guy who lurks in the woods with a big black book that he gets recruits to sign their names in.  And nations that are mortal enemies on the brink of nuclear war can set aside their rivalries for the sake of persecuting a small, insignificant and bloody land.  The second hypothesis would be that most torture victims will, at some point, say absolutely anything they think their torturer wants to hear, no matter how absurd, incorrect, misleading, or contrary to basic laws of physics it is.

One of those hypotheses seems self-evidently ridiculous to me.

There's a usual rebuttal at this point, to the effect that this only matters if torture is the only tool, but that "properly" used, "enhanced interrogations" supplement other data.  This seemingly reasonable response disintegrates upon inspection: if you already know what your victim is telling you, all he's doing is confirming biases; at best, he's telling you nothing, but at worst he's reinforcing mistakes you're already making.

The witch-hunters of Europe already knew damn well Satan was afoot and making people and cattle sick, and causing all sorts of other mischief; torture wasn't their primary or sole source of intelligence, either, it was mostly being used to gather confessions with which to speed up trials and executions.  Without having read the Congressional report on torture issued this week, one assumes the CIA used torture--excuse me, "enhanced interrogation"-- to similar effect: a victim who disagreed with the prevailing wisdom and known knowns was subjected to further "interrogation" until he stopped "lying."  That's how it works, didn't you know?  Resistance is your excuse for torturing in the first place, it's a feedback loop: we already know x, so if the subject isn't telling us x, we add a few more pounds to his chest, we turn up the voltage, we put him back on the board.

Because Satan himself is abroad in the land.


Dumb quote of the day, Pollyanna in ruby shades edition

>> Friday, December 05, 2014

"Here’s a problem, let’s go fix it," he said. "Put aside, you know, the ideological differences, let’s forge consensus around, this is a problem, how do we go from point A to point B to fix it."
- Jeb Bush, as quoted by John Dickerson,
"A Blast From the Past - Can Jeb Bush survive his own party?"
Slate, December 3rd, 2014.

Sure.  Yeah.  Okay.

I mean, look, he's not the only person who's genially spouted this kind of tripe.  Lots of well-meaning folks have, from both parties, and I'm not picking on Bush because he's a Republican or a Bush, I'm picking on him because he's the guy who said it this week and I'm irritable.  Hell, Jon Stewart, who I think is funny and smart, has said similar kinds of nonsense over the years.  So has the President, who I think is a pretty smart guy.  Friends have said this kind of thing.

It's the kind of thing lots and lots of people want to believe, and why not?  It sounds like the acme of reasonableness, of fairness, of moderation.  What kind of loutish partisan extremist could possibly object to the sacred kumbaya, the great coming together of hearts and minds that's part of the Great American Mythos in which we've somehow only recently become a nation in which the radicals have mucked everything up?  Surely we can get back to the start, back to the golden age of consensus and middle-American-ness and mainstreamosity that existed before the Leftists or Tea Partiers or whomever it was turned political discourse into a WWE wrasslin' show.

(Because, you know, nevermind the actual history that possibly the first, last and sole "non-partisan" American President maybe was George Washington, and after his second term the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists started waling on one another with the same vigor they'd gone at each other with during the debates over the drafting of the Constitution, and ever since then the parties have changed but the fury of the battle has rarely, scarcely calmed, whether it's Democrat-Republicans accusing the Federalists of being Secret Royalists, the Republicans accusing the Democrats of being Secret Commies, or whatever and so on, ad nauseum, the song remains basically the same they just change up the key and tempo and every so often.)

The reason the plea to moderation is so stupid, so inane, so hopeless is that it presumes there's some magical "consensus" out there, just waiting to put its head in a virgin's lap the minute the hubbub and furor dies down.  Which would be great, but you have better odds of getting a good holiday snap of Bigfoot palling around with Ogopogo on the sunny shores of Okanagan Lake in British Columbia than you do of getting people to agree what the problems are, much less how (if) they ought to be solved.

Take the matter of anthropogenic climate change: one party appears to accept that human activity is causing drastic, long-term changes to global weather patterns that will have dire effects on the environment, while the other party appears firmly committed to the alternative propositions that climate change isn't occurring, or if it is, humans have little to nothing to do with it, or if humans have some moderate effect on climate change it's not worth doing anything about or government shouldn't intervene since, if there is a problem, surely some entrepreneur will invent some clever way of stopping it, and besides, it's not like the people who might be driving climate change would do anything against their own interests (i.e. if it's a problem, the free market can handle it).  In short, you have one party that says there's a problem that must be solved, and another that says there's no problem at all.

Forge a consensus?  Go from point A to point B?  There's no consensus that the piece of paper you want to plot the points on even exists in the first place.

Racism in America?  One party says that racism is endemic, is an ongoing concern that demands some kind of solution; the other says that everyone would forget it's a thing if the other party didn't keep bringing it up in order to take advantage of people.  Sexism?  More or less the same thing, aside from one of the parties having a prominent and vocal thing that actually says sexism is a good thing, because, contrary to what hairy-legged, man-hating feminists and lesbians seem to think, men and women are fundamentally different and ought to remember their respective places and roles.

And then, of course, there are whole piles of issues that have the same kind of basic, inherent moral polarity that slavery had in the 19th Century.  Just as it was impossible for slaveowners to convince abolitionists that "just a little bit of slavery here and there" was ever okay, one must consider that either a woman owns her womb or a fertilized egg does, with "well, sometimes" simply being an untenable position.  (E.g. in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court came up with a trimester system based on viability, evidently failing to consider that viability was and will be a moving target: we've moved the age of viability back towards the beginning of the second trimester and, trust me, it's only a matter of time before a fertilized egg can be extracted even prior to implantation and injected into some kind of artificial womb.  Might not happen in my lifetime, even, though I won't be the least bit surprised if it does.)

There are surely issues, boring issues, on which some kind of consensus might be wrought.  Maybe banking regulation, though the fact is that in our two parties we have one that appears to be dominated by people for whom "regulation" is a dirtier word than anything the FCC told George Carlin he couldn't say, while the other is prone these days to saying, "Well, maybe just a little bit, as long as it doesn't make me look too socialist," with the insecure daintiness of a dieter hesitantly flinching towards a plate of hors d'oeuvres.  Maybe tax code stuff, though, you know, again with one party tending towards treating the t-word as a foul obscenity and the other helpfully trying to think up sterile euphemisms for it ("Maybe we could call it a 'penalty'... or a 'fee'...?")

The problem there being, Rome may or may not be in the process of being sacked while we politely agree about things that probably, most of them, don't matter much.  Agreeing to a minor adjustment to the costs of filing some form isn't going to grapple with the fact cops are killing people in the street.  A minor amendment to a bill about the pay scale for Federal janitors that three people have heard of (two of them being its sponsors) is probably not going to do anything to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic droughts here and flooding there as a consequence of carbon emissions, even assuming that's a thing, and one party says it totally isn't and accuses the other of making it up for... I don't even know--for reasons, I guess.

I think regular readers know where my sympathies lie, or can guess from this post.  But, you know, leave that aside, and leave aside the question of whether certain things are even true: one way or another, one political party and the segment of America they represent is being unreasonable.  Whether you want to say it's the Republicans for ignoring scientific evidence of climate change, or the Democrats for fraudulently counterfeiting evidence of a nonexistent climate problem, doesn't really matter, does it?  One of those groups must be acting crazy.  Whether you want to say the Republicans are naive bigots for pretending race isn't an American crisis, or whether you want to accuse the Democrats of being cynical demagogues tearing away at a scab that healed forty years ago, same thing--one of these groups must be... well, one of these groups is behaving in a way you'd really have to call evil, wouldn't you, without necessarily meaning to be pejorative to perhaps otherwise good people doing a terrible thing.

Off the top of my head, this is.  I mean, what's the compromise on gun control?  On healthcare?  On protecting endangered species?  On whether to frack for oil?  On building the Keystone XL pipeline?  (Maybe we can just build half of it!  Compromise achieved!)  On handling ISIS?  On government surveillance?  On net neutrality?  These are largely issues where there's not a common middle ground that everyone but the radicals and extremists and bomb throwers quietly agrees on and why can't the parties come to the center with the vast majority of everyone--these are largely issues (dealing with ISIS may be the exception I shouldn't have included) where one side (pick one) is right and the other is wrong, and there's not a lot of overlap.

The problem in American politics isn't extremism at the expense of centrism.  The problem is extremism at the expense of truth, whatever the hell the truth might happen to be.


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