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When Criminals Deserve To Die, Part III – Proximity Effect

November 14, 2009

Ellie raises a criticism that poses serious problems for my argument:

I don’t think the social paranoia argument works. It seems like the issue here is not necessarily a question of quantity, but proximity. Ft. Hood killings will in all likelihood leave public’s perceived threat level relatively at ease due to the illusion that we don’t live on military bases, therefore it can’t happen to us. Likewise for the collectively induced myth that, for instance, St. Louis is safe because all the murders (including multiple murders at the hand of one person) only happen across the river in East St Louis.

Panic sets in with the awareness that murder can happen anywhere and at random, not merely at random at the hand of one person. One should account for precedent- an isolated mass killing spree does less to incite panic than the accumulation of multiple, small scale murders happening everywhere, which necessitates multiple actors.

Ellie in the comments

I think this counter-argument assumes that what is necessary is the creation of a national, general fear of mass murder.  But this wasn’t my point.  For the state to justify taking a life, the crime should incite paranoia in a community, not the nation as a whole.  For example, if a serial killer took the lives of 15 people, but targeted only women, I would still say retribution demands his life as well.  This despite half the population not feeling threatened whatsoever (though definitely fear for wives, mothers, and daughters).

Hasan’s case is special because he attacked a military base as an Army officer.  He will be courtmartialed, not tried in a Texas state court.  If we reconceptualize the level of abstraction here from “state of Texas” to “the military,” for Ellie rightly points out that the crime was not directed towards Texans, then it makes a lot more sense why Hasan should be put to death.

He commits a crime that certainly creates a new fear of either a troubled officer or wannabe Jihadist going on a shooting rampage on a military base.  Most people in the military, and their families, live on military bases – previously thought of as safe environments. The military court should exact retribution based on the community it serves.  So the fear need not spill over to the general public to justify the death penalty, though I’m sure that it would be difficult to explain to any mother whose son was stationed at Fort Hood that Hasan’s actions had no effect on her.

Another person to look at might be Eric Rudolph.  Rudolph bombed the Olympics and a handful of abortion clinics.  He attacked the latter with a design to scare women away from seeking this procedure and doctors from performing it.  Rudolph created a specific fear while he was loose – if you were a woman going to Planned Parenthood in the South at the time, you of course had to consider the possibility that Rudolph would strike your local branch while you were there too.

This is what I mean by the creation of a specific fear.  We are always afraid of murder, as unlikely a possibility that is.  It’s a random walk whether we happen to be a victim of it, but we take precautions by altering our lifestyles in sane, non-intrusive ways like walking home at night with a friend.  However, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself from someone like Rudolph short of not seeking abortion at all.  Or McVeigh or Muhammad short of not going to work.  Or not going outside.  Their terroristic actions served to create the reasonable fear among the people in their communities (federal employees, commuters) that any one of them could go next.

Even if this was not true, I still disagree that fear decreases the less proximate we are to the crime. In fact just the opposite.  I argued as much in a post titled the “Crisis Proximity Syndrome” a month ago. Hopefully y’all following this argument read it, because I believe it applies here.  In the post I tried to explain why people in South Korea weren’t really shaken by new threats from Kim Jong Il, while Americans hopped up on yellow journalism may as well have built bomb shelters in their backyards the level of hysteria was so great.  My conclusion was “the more distant we are from the event, the more our conception of the place where it happens is consumed by the news coming out of it.”

The Virginia Tech and subsequent copy cat killings support this line of reasoning.  Seung-Hui Cho didn’t just attack Virginia Tech’s campus, he designed to strike fear in students at any university about attending class (he wanted strike out at the “rich kids” and the “deceitful charlatans,” seeing himself as a hero). Any determined kid with a few semi-automatic weapons could kill dozens over the course of a few hours, and not only would we not be able to defend ourselves, but we likely wouldn’t even know it was happening due to poor notification measures.  The fear has subsided because we are human beings and get distracted easily, but at the time there was real anxiety in college campuses across the country.  Will my school alert me in a timely fashion?  Is there anything I can do to get myself out of a situation like this?  Should I start bringing my firearm to class?

These aren’t questions we should have to think about, but Cho designed his plot to get us thinking about precisely these.  Geographical location had very little to do with it because as college students we all knew that the line had been crossed, Cho had definitely established a new norm and given someone else the idea who wouldn’t have otherwise considered or gone through with it.  Creating these new risks, raising not a general fear of murder on campus but at the hands of an imbalanced student on an unstoppable rampage, is what made his crime different from an ordinary street killing over drugs or an argument.

The innumerable copy cat threats that followed and the Northern Illinois shooting support this claim.  When an actual shooting happens south of 61st street in Hyde Park (it’s not that often but it happens), the University of Chicago doesn’t shut down.  If an anonymous internet poster makes a threat about a school shooting, the administration would at least consider it.  They’d probably do it to avoid future liability in civil proceedings.  That’s a pretty powerful legacy and one that, if Cho didn’t take his own life, should have been responded to with the ultimate penalty.

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