Friday, March 27, 2015

The Fifth Bullet

When Utah resumes executing condemned prisoners by firing squad, four of the five rifles will each be loaded with a single live bullet. But not the fifth rifle. One rifle will hold a special bullet— an “ineffective” round which, unlike a blank, has the same recoil as a live round. Its purpose is to allow each shooter to be able to believe he might not have fired the fatal shot.


Unlike jury duty, no one is forced to serve on a firing squad. One must volunteer. The shooters must want to kill someone. So why the psychological escape hatch?

The reason for the fifth bullet is to instill doubt. It leaves open the door of conscience, by a crack. But why should a volunteer marksman carrying out a lawful execution of a convicted criminal have a guilty conscience? Is he not merely administering justice in a lawful manner? The citizens of the jury returned a death verdict under the auspices of a judge; the legislature enacted the prescribed method of execution;  the court held it constitutional; and the governor refused to stay the execution. Thus, the people and all three branches of government – judicial, legislative, and executive – have spoken. So why should any rifleman feel guilt over executing the law… or a fellow human?

Perhaps, the fifth bullet is a tacit recognition – or admission – that there is something to feel guilty about. Guilt is the emotion we punish ourselves with when we have done something wrong. Something morally wrong, even if not legally wrong. Because deep down, we all know being Swiss-cheesed with bullet holes is not how any of us wants to die. It sounds horrible. Some might even call it cruel and unusual punishment.

Throughout history, many nations have executed their criminals... and also their political dissenters, oppressed minorities, and innocent men wrongfully declared guilty. But I won’t digress to discuss totalitarian justice, or lynchings in the Wild West or the backwoods of Mississippi, or those poor souls unfortunate enough to be saddled with a bad lawyer or an even worse jury. No, lets stick to the scum who deserve to die. How can we, as a civilized society, end their lives in a manner that conforms with our constitutional values – in other words, in a way that is not cruel and unusual punishment?

I think we can all agree that crucifixion, disembowelment, drawing and quartering, keelhauling, impalement, flaying, boiling, and death by torture all qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. What’s left? America has used the electric chair, the firing squad, the gas chamber, hanging, and lethal injection. None of them sound particularly pleasant. Admittedly, punishment is not supposed to be pleasant, but neither should it be gruesome. Saudi Arabia carries out executions by beheading. France was infamous for the guillotine. Stoning is currently a preferred method of execution under Sharia law in Brunei, Pakistan, Sudan, Somalia, and the United Arab Emirates. While all of the above forms of execution are cruel, they are obviously not unusual, so I suppose they would pass constitutional muster under the Eighth Amendment.

Still, they all seem wrong on some level, whether immoral or gruesome. Ever wonder why executioners either wear hoods or place them over the people they kill? Is it because they don’t want anyone to know who they are, or because they can’t look those they kill in the eye? The truth is, there is no good way to kill someone. It will always be messy and painful. But then, that’s the whole idea of execution: it’s supposed to act as a deterrent to others who contemplate the same act as the condemned. There will always be individuals who commit acts so heinous that they must be permanently removed from society. The death penalty is a cruel punishment; and it is also a necessary one in certain cases. Every society faces a choice: either accept that the death penalty is a cruel but necessary means of eliminating those who pose a threat to its members, or recognize that the guilt associated with carrying it out is proof of its immorality. One cannot have it both ways; there can be no fifth bullet.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ready. Aim. Fire.

Utah wants to bring back its firing squad as a means of executing condemned prisoners, so I felt it appropriate that I also resurrect something from that era. Below is an editorial I wrote in January 1977, in response to Utah’s execution of murderer Gary Gilmore. The execution was newsworthy because it was the first in nearly 10 years following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “Cruel and unusual punishment”. Utah lawmakers voted to re-institute the firing squad because of the difficulty in procuring lethal injection drugs. So as Utah sharpshooters ready their rifles, journey back with me to this contemporaneous reflection of the last time they cried, “Ready, Aim, Fire”:

By Keith Darrell  (originally published in The Phoenix, January 28, 1977)

Well, we've finally done it. American society has sunk to its lowest depths. In our continuing effort to make a mockery out of politics, political office, liberty, and justice, we have claimed another victim — the myth of a dignified death.

On January 17, 1977, Gary Mark Gilmore was executed by a firing squad — the first U.S. execution in 10 years. We do not want to glorify Gilmore. Gilmore cold-bloodedly murdered two men and freely admitted he would have continued his killing spree had he not been caught.

But even more cold-blooded acts were committed by the public, the press, and individuals, in response to Gilmore's impending execution. When Gilmore was selected to become the first man to be executed since the U.S. Supreme Court decision that the death penalty does not violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against "cruel and unusual punishment," a bloodthirsty public cried out for his death. But Gilmore surprised them — he agreed with their assessment of his guilt and their prescribed punishment.

Excited reporters immediately jumped on this. It was the legendary case of 'Man bites dog.' A man who wants to be executed! Gilmore made the network news every night and his two suicide attempts managed to bump every other story out of the headlines. Then the press began to glorify Gilmore — not Bennie Bushnell — not Max David Jensen — Gilmore's victims. Victims make poor heroes.

But martyrs don't. And Gilmore was martyrized. Every concerned citizen and organization rallied to his cause. But his cause was a death wish! "Oh, shut-up, Gary. We know what's good for you," they responded. His court-appointed lawyers tried to get him an appeal; he fired them. The American Civil Liberties Union was determined to save him; he denounced them. But Gary found a friend in neo-journalist Lawrence Schiller, who paid $1,000 for the rights to Gilmore. You see, Gilmore is a very marketable commodity. The rights to Gilmore include 16 taped conversations with the condemned man— later to be transformed into a Playboy magazine interview, books, movies, and Gilmore T-shirts. "The Gary Gilmore Story," or whatever they call the movie, will tell how Gilmore spent more of his life in prison with hardened criminals than outside in "decent" society. What can we infer from a criminal justice system that forces first-time offenders in with hardened criminals, and then when it fails to rehabilitate them due in part to its own structure, sentences them to be executed?

The thought of impending death is horrible enough, but in Gilmore's case, after he had resigned himself to his fate, he was tortured by constant appeals — that is the true "cruel and unusual punishment." Gilmore had accepted his sentence, which he undoubtedly deserved — he asked only for a dignified death. But society was not ready to give it to him.

The cameras whirred as four bullets sliced through Gilmore's heart. The film of the execution was cut up, as was Gilmore's body (he had willed his organs to a local hospital). It was over. Now the nation must begin its long wait for the movie.

*   *   *   *

The nation did not have long to wait. "The Executioner's Song", a made-for-TV movie adaptation of Norman Mailer's 1979 eponymous book was broadcast in 1982. The film was directed by Lawrence Schiller who, as my 1977 editorial noted, had purchased the rights to Gilmore for $1,000. I guess he got a good return on his investment.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Where Angels Tread

The brightest light shines forth through the greatest darkness when angels enter the abyss, braving the gates of Hell, and risking the inhuman barbarity of its minions, to aid strangers in dire need.

Mankind’s inhumanity to man is a staple theme of literature, but one need look no further than history to find countless examples of obscene barbarity perpetrated by perverted, power-drunk thugs against innocent men, women, and children. From before the Spanish Inquisition to long after the Nazis, mankind has been all too willing to demonstrate its capacity for inhumanity. Some might call it social Darwinism – that it is somehow natural for the strong to purge the weak from society, but in truth, it is little more than abject bullying turned into an art form of the highest order by an aberrant minority with delusions of grandeur.

Today, it is ISIS – the flavor of the month Islamic terrorist group, redefining terror by harkening back to the barbarity of the Nazis and Inquisitors – shooting children, beheading men, setting men afire and filming them as they burn to death, and wiping out entire villages of people. Against the backdrop of such barbarity, the light of Kayla Jean Mueller shines brightly. The 26-year- old American aid worker, held hostage by ISIS since August 2013 until her death last month, was working at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria when she was kidnapped. She had been working with the humanitarian group Support to Life, helping victims in the war-torn nation. After graduating from college, Kayla worked at an orphanage in India, and at an HIV/AIDS clinic in the US.

“In how she lived her life, she epitomized all that is good in our world,” President Barack Obama said of Kayla. She had written: “I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.” There is good even amidst the depths of evil and its light will shine through the darkest abyss.

Andrée de Jongh was only 24 years old in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and conquered Belgium as part of their Blitzkrieg. For more than four years, the Germans shot down Allied bombers flying over Belgium. The pilots who survived landed in occupied enemy territory, often wounded and in need of food, civilian clothing, and shelter from the Germans. Andrée set up the Comet escape line – an underground railroad stretching more than 1,000 miles through occupied Belgium and France, and free Spain to transport those downed pilots back to England under the eyes of the Nazi regime. Andrée personally escorted 118 of the 418 Allied airmen across occupied territory to safety. The work was so dangerous that she warned new recruits they should expect to be captured or killed by the Nazis within six months. Andrée was captured while escorting a soldier over the Pyrenees mountains that separated occupied France from free Spain, and sent to a concentration camp. She was liberated from the camp at the war’s end and went on to work in leper hospitals in the Belgian Congo and Ethiopia. She had been a nurse before the war and spent her life helping strangers. She died in Brussels, at age 90, in 2007.

Like a blazing comet, Andrée de Jongh’s light illuminated the darkness, in this case, that of the souls of some of her fellow men. Her inspiration had come from another luminary – Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by a German firing squad in 1915, a year before Andrée was born, for helping nearly 200 Allied soldiers escape from Belgium during WWI. Edith Cavell will be featured on a UK commemorative £5 coin to be issued by the Royal Mint later this year, proving that although the darkness claimed her life, it did not extinguish her light, which shines brightly a century later.

Friday, March 6, 2015

None of Your Damn Business

Some businesses are getting a bit too nosey lately. Take Toys “R” Us and Intuit (maker of TurboTax and Quicken software), for example. The way these two businesses have invaded my privacy this week is downright creepy.

I returned a purchase of a $4 item to Toys “R” Us and the woman at the Return Desk insisted on seeing my identification. She wasn't asking for the credit card I had used to charge the purchase; no, she wanted to see my driver’s license. “Why do you need to see my driver’s license to return a $4 item? Isn't the receipt enough?” I asked. “Store policy,” she replied, as if that catchall phrase justified the invasion of my privacy. I flipped open my wallet and showed it to her. That didn't satisfy her. With the attitude of the power drunk TSA agent, she insisted I take it out of the plastic and hand it to her.

“I don’t want to be placed on any mailing lists,” I told her, as she set my driver’s license atop her terminal. “You won’t be,” she assured me, as I watched her fingers type my name, address, and ZIP Code into her computer. I glanced at the screen and saw my name and address, as they appeared on my driver’s license, now on the computer screen. “I need your phone number, also,” she insisted. “No, you don’t,” I replied. “As I said, I don’t want to be on your mailing list.”  “Oh, we don’t do that sir, but I still need your phone number.” “Why do you need my phone number?” I asked. “Store policy,” she replied.

Now, it takes a lot of chutzpah to stand in front of me and lie to my face. When I was a kid, we had a saying: Don’t piss in my face and tell me it’s raining. That’s adding insult to injury. So I won’t be shopping at Toys “R” Us again, and I advise you not to, either.

At least Intuit doesn't tell you it’s raining. In fact, Intuit doesn't tell you anything at all. After you install its personal or business TurboTax software, the program spies on you and reports back to Intuit. Specifically, Intuit wants to know:
1. The date you installed TurboTax.
2. Your computer information, for example: computer model, amount of memory, hard disk space and screen resolution, versions of the operating system and its components. Also, as required by the IRS for fraud protection purposes, we will collect and send to the IRS the serial no and UUID from your machine. We do not collect or share your user ID, password, files, documents or list of other programs that you might have.
3. When and how you checked for TurboTax updates.
4. When you started on your tax return.
5. When and in which order you completed Personal Info, Federal Taxes, State Taxes and Review sections of your tax return. Note that we will not collect what you actually typed in.
6. Whether you printed or electronically filed (efile) your return.

Something else Intuit doesn't tell you is that you can choose not to allow it to collect this information by checking the default check mark, under the Privacy tab, in the Help section of the software program (in the basement of City Hall along with plans to demolish Arthur Dent’s house). Now you know.

Intuit was already in hot water for downgrading features of its TurboTax software without informing its users. Customers who purchased TurboTax Deluxe paid the same price they had the previous year but discovered certain forms (for example, those for stock transactions) were no longer included in the Deluxe version and that they would have to upgrade to the Premier version at an additional cost. Meanwhile, customers who paid $159 for Intuit’s top-of-the-line business tax software may have been surprised to find they would have to pay extra for their state tax preparation, or that it generated Form 1099-Div for recipients but not for the IRS. Intuit did manage to beat out Comcast for Worst Customer Service Experience, a remarkable feat: I spent two hours and 35 minutes on hold with Intuit before my cell phone battery died. But I digress. So I won’t be buying TurboTax again, and I advise you not to, either.

Speaking of Comcast, why do they ask for my Social Security number every time I call to report a cable outage? In this age of massive identity theft, does the cable company phone operator really need to know my Social Security number to get my TV working? The point is, the biggest Fortune 500 corporations in America have instructed their peons working at their lowest level – i.e., the ones who have interaction with us, the customers – to collect and store on their databases our personal information that is not relevant to our interaction with them. They’re just being nosey, and quite frankly, it’s none of their damn business.