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Monday, November 16, 2009

Of federalism, the death penalty, and a sensational Connecticut murder story…


A recent edition of The New Yorker contained a sobering piece on America’s history of violence. The piece, by Jill Lepore, which is in the form of an extensive book review, was written before the murderous rampage at Ford Hood in which thirteen died, but it makes for compelling reading especially in light of those events. If convicted, Hasan will almost certainly face capital punishment. (see our story froma few days ago below). Should he? Is there a societal benefit to killing him? Hasan’s story contains some unique qualities – his radical Muslim identifications, his status in a profession of trust within the military -- which may defy generalization, but any time that the state asserts its power to kill, some of the same questions arise.

Lepore begins her piece with a detailed description of a particularly grizzly 2007 murder in the town of Cheshire, Connecticut. I happen to live in Connecticut, so this is a shocking tale with which I am very familiar. It is an unusual murder story in that the victims are white, upper middle class and their killing was particularly brutal. The perpetrators broke into the home of a prominent doctor, tied him up in the basement and beat him unconscious with a baseball bat. They then tortured the rest of his family through the night, raping the doctor’s wife and one of his young daughters. In the morning, after one of them took the wife off to withdraw $15,000 from an ATM, he returned her to the home where he strangled her, doused the house with gasoline and set it afire, killing both girls. Only the doctor, whom they had left for dead, survived. Surely if anyone deserves to die at hands of the state it is those who committed these most heinous crimes. (The trial of the two men accused of the acts begins in January).

But the death penalty is not first on Lepore’s agenda. Working from the inspiration of the books she is reviewing, she first addresses the most plaintive of questions raised by this lurid tale, “why?”

Between the convulsive emotional response to a single murder and an elusive general theory of murder lies another kind of contemplation: the study of the murderousness of nations. The United States has the highest homicide rate of any affluent democracy, nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom, and six times that of Germany. Why? Historians haven’t often asked this question. Even historians who like to try to solve cold cases usually cede to sociologists and other social scientists the study of what makes murder rates rise and fall, or what might account for why one country is more murderous than another. Only in the nineteen-seventies did historians begin studying homicide in any systematic way. In the United States, that effort was led by Eric Monkkonen, who died in 2005, his promising work unfinished. Monkkonen’s research has been taken up by Randolph Roth, whose book “American Homicide” (Harvard; $45) offers a vast investigation of murder, in the aggregate, and over time. Roth’s argument is profoundly unsettling. There is and always has been, he claims, an American way of murder. It is the price of our politics.

Monkkonen’s last work, which remained unfinished at his death, was called “Homicide: Explaining America’s Exceptionalism.” In it, the author pointed to four distinctively American themes as encouraging our penchant for violence: mobility, federalism, slavery, and tolerance. Lepore describes Monkkonen’s theory: “Mobility breaks social ties; federalism is a weak form of government; slavery not only rationalized a culture of violence among white Southerners (where the murder rate has been disproportionately high, as it has, and remains, in many of the so-called law-and-order states) but also infected American culture; and American judges and juries have historically proved less willing than their European counterparts to convict murderers, tolerating, among other crimes, racial murders and killings by jealous spouses.” By a “weak” form of government, the author means a limited government, reluctant to intrude, a quality which most Americans see as one of the strengths of our system, but it is a system that thrives on limiting, not extending, government’s hand and that goes for criminal prosecution as well as for taxation.

Working forward from Monkkonen, Lepore then cites Gary LaFree, (“Losing Legitimacy: Street Crime and the Decline of Social Institutions in America”) whose work asserts that the crime rate correlates, roughly, with trust in government. For instance, LaFree says that during the Vietnam era, which was characterized by a loss of respect for elected officials, the crime rate rose. Randolph Roth, the author who has tried to pick up where Monkkonen left off, promote this theory. He has determined that four factors relate directly with the murder rate: faith in government and enforcing just laws; trust in the sincerity of legitimately elected officials; bonding among social groups based on race, religion, or political affiliation; and confidence that the social hierarchy allows for respect to be earned without recourse to violence. When these attitudes are widely held, there is little murderous violence. When they are not, the society resorts to violence.

Now, just because two phenomena correlate in time does not mean that one causes the other. (The Yankees seem to always win worlds championships when Democrats are in power, as PJP participant Ari Fleischer wrote in an Op-ed for the New York Times recently, but that is hardly enough evidence for a Republican Yankee fan to switch parties). Still, if you play out this theory, as Roth does, the implications are startling. Democracy requires a kind of healthy skepticism. But if a high American murder rate is a by-product of such distrust must the more vigorous democracies always suffer so? Roth even connects his theory to the presidency. The statistics make it clear that in the twentieth century, murder rates have declined when the presidency is occupied by a liberal or centrist leader, he writes, “and they have risen during the terms of presidents who presided over political and economic crises, abused their power, or engaged in unpopular wars.” The murder rate also appears to follow Presidential approval ratings.

As Lepore points out, sensational crimes often prompt legislative activity. California’s “three-strikes and you’re out law” was the idea of Mike Reynolds, a Fresno photographer whose 18 year old daughter was murdered. Last year, after the Cheshire murders, the Connecticut assembly doubled and tripled mandatory penalties for second- and third-time offenders. (Those accused of the crimes had multiple burglary convictions, but no history of violent crime.)

In 1784, the Yale senior class debated whether the death penalty was “too severe & rigorous in the United States for the present Stage of Society.” Apparently the conclusion was that it was not because here we are 225 years later and capital punishment remains a part of Connecticut law, as it has consistently been since 1642.

During the nineteenth century, the governor of Connecticut twice asked the legislature to eliminate the death penalty, but the legislature refused.When serial murderer Michael Ross was killed by lethal injection in 2005 he became the first to be executed in Connecticut since 1960. Paradoxically, earlier this year, the Connecticut legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, but Governor Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed it.

In September of this year, St. Martin’s Paperbacks issued a sensational book called “In the Middle of the Night” in which author Brian McDonald used extensive interviews with one of the alleged perpetrators to tell the story of the Cheshire murders. Apparently he also used handwritten notes in which the accused incongruously closed each entry with a “happy face.” Probably because of the horrific nature of these crimes, St. Martin’s has been careful to limit publicity for the book and while Amazon is selling it, it also includes a “customer discussion” page in which dozens of people implore viewers not to buy it since it violates the judge’s pre-trial gag order and otherwise seeks to profit from the crime. The author uses his own website to admit that the book is poorly written (reviewers have slammed his previous titles for their shoddy prose), then also proudly defends his first amendment rights by publishing a link to an editorial that criticizes those who argued that the Cheshire Library should not include McDonald’s book on its shelves. McDonald and the editorial-writer are wrong to think that the first amendment comes into play here since neither Congress nor any other government body has passed a law “abridging” McDonald’s “freedom of speech.” Certainly community libraries should have the power to determine what they choose to put on their shelves and no one wanting to read this book will find it difficult to get a copy. Of course the very fact that such “true crime” investigations are so popular – there are dozens of examples of best-selling books from this genre -- may be yet another sign of Americans’ lust for violence.


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