They’s Gots to Be Some Killin’

Tucker Carlson’s misguided comments on national television reverberated a bit across the tubes as of late. In case you didn’t see it, here’s the video (H/T to Chuck Newton):

Execution for dogfighting? I suppose that may be popular in Suffolk County, NY, but I hesitate to think most decent folks would agree.

Why are harsh punishments so popular? Has there yet been a DA candidate who doesn’t run on a platform of “getting tougher on crime.” When candidates for any political office receive questions about crime and criminal justice, they all respond with some flavor of tightening the corset of justice just a bit more. It doesn’t matter the candidate. I guarantee that, if you asked a prospective candidate for Register of Deeds about criminal justice, he’d tell you that his goal is to use his position to make the county get tough on crime.

Have you ever heard of a candidate saying “I think we should take a close look at our criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines to ensure that people are punished appropriately, and not too harshly?” Never. A statement like that gets you the support of the CDL bar, a few civil libertarians and criminologists, and nobody else.

In my lifetime, statutory guidance on sentences (especially minimums) have skyrocketed. We hear about 3 strikes, 2 strikes, criminal recidivism, and the ever-specific-term “evil.”

What is to blame for the creep in harsh sentences? Why do some feel the need to institute the death penalty for intentionally killing a few pit bulls? I’ve got an answer. Movies did it.

Now, before you dismiss my argument, label me akin to the whack-jobs who blame teenage violence on video games, and commit me to the file of inconsequential, off-the-deep-end bloggers, hear me out.

(Upon further reflection, I realize that I am already committed to the file of inconsequential, off-the-deep-end bloggers, but that is entirely beside the point.)

The other night, I watched “Death Wish” starring Charles Bronson. The original spawned several sequels, but all rest upon the same premise. Here’s the gist (spoiler alert):

  1. Paul Kersey (Bronson’s character) has a happy life.
  2. Evil guys enter the picture. These are truly evil guys who love causing suffering in others. They have no remorse, no love, no decency. They are demons. They travel in packs.
  3. Evil guys do bad things to a person (or people) who Kersey loves dearly. The crimes are always violent and repugnant.
  4. Kersey tries to work with the system, but the evil guys always escape punishment.
  5. Kersey goes vigilante, and he eventually kills all the bad guys.

There you go. Sorry for the spoilers.

Who do you root-for? Kersey, of course. After seeing the horrible things that happen to his loved-ones, you have no choice but to root for vengeance. Many other films follow the same (or similar) premise.

Look at the picture it paints.

  • Guys who commit crimes are really, really evil. They deserve to die. They must die.
  • The Criminal Justice system is flaccid. They system is skewed in favor of the criminal, and decent people are forced to suffer and live in fear.
  • Anyone who contributes to the death of the criminals (or, in turn, allows the death to occur with no consequences on the person causing the death) is a hero and deserves a happy, consequence-free life.

There you have it. We’ve seen it repeated again and again and again. How long until such premises subconsciously change our overall outlook on criminal justice and those who commit crimes. Even Disney movies, with their wholesome-and-made-for-children spin display the bad guys as really, really bad (see The Lion King, Cinderella, Snow White, A Bug’s Life, and a multitude of others). The antagonists are displayed as truly evil, beyond help, and fatally flawed.

True, not all stories use the same mold for their antagonists, but an overwhelming number do. What impact does the repeated exposure to these movies cause in those who watch them?

I don’t believe that video games or movies make teenagers/young adults violent. I don’t believe in the impact of perceived subliminal lyrics in heavy metal music, I don’t think that violent rap causes criminal pathology, and I don’t believe that media causes crime. However, I do think that media can cause a perception in those without any other point of reference.

What I mean is that, for those who have never encountered a person who commits a felony, media can suggest the qualities possessed by someone accused of the same. Similarly, media can opine concerning the rehabilitative potential of accused felons. Without other evidence, the reaction of most is to take the information at face-value.

Similarly, for someone with no exposure to the criminal justice system, media can influence their perception of the effectiveness and fairness of the system.

Do I think it causes people to kick ass like Charles Bronson? Nope. Do I think it influences the way folks vote and choose their governmental leadership. Sure, why not?

Those of us who truly know the life of a felon are in the minority. We see the pain they endured as children and the mental anguish suffered in their most formative years. We understand addictions. We know they weren’t born bad. We know they are not “evil.” We see that they are worthy of help (as we see any human), and we want to give them the chance to receive that help. We know they want to be better. We know that the road to mental recovery is a long, hazardous path.

When we communicate this perception to others, we are booed off the stage. Our solution costs money. Our solution requires compassion. Our solution needs time. Our solution requires effort. Our solution is not without risk. Our position contradicts almost every movie they’ve seen. They adjust their priorities based on the perceptions developed from years of life experience and external stimuli.

The priorities of our society are different. Heaven forbid we take money away from truly important endeavors, like building a huge replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky. That’s worthwhile. Spending time and money to provide thorough mental treatment for an unlikable person? Not worth time, effort, or money. They are just a criminal. Never mind the whole human being thing.

Many who condemn our position are of the conservative persuasion that also subscribes to the idea that violent movies, video games, and media causes kids to become bad. They cite authority by using a variety of examples of kids committing crimes after watching “Natural Born Killers” or listening to “Megadeth.” However, did they ever consider pointing their finely-tuned analysis and research at their own viewing habits? What was the effect of vigilante movies upon their perception? How is their subconscious affected? If you ask, they’ll rebuke you, probably by changing the subject or condemning you for something completely inconsequential. They are looking at the problems of others, not themselves. As with fervent religious types, any contradictory argument falls upon deaf ears. They are beyond reproach–Fox News tells them so.

My argument is likely not a one-size-fits-all solution. At best, mine is a secondary argument. I know this. The real problem with our criminal justice system is much more elementary.

We’re too damn lazy and cheap.