Sunday, June 3, 2012

We Must Punish Them

So yesterday at the Eaton Centre, a large mall pretty much 3 blocks from my home, a gunman opened fire and killed one man and injured several other people. To my knowledge, they are still hunting the shooter, two people (maybe three?) are in hospital but will probably pull through.

This is obviously a tragedy, horrific, and must have been terrifying to the thousands of people who were in the mall at the time, forced to stampede to safety. Horrible, too, for the family and friends of those who were injured and the young man who was killed. So far as I know, I don't have a personal connection with any of the victims (it's possible, though: a group of my friends were on that corner to see a movie at the exact time. They're all okay, but who knows who else was in the neighbourhood?), so maybe it's that that gives me a feeling of emotional distance.

I've lived in neighbourhoods where a violent crime has happened (3 or 4 years ago a person was shot near a bus stop that I frequently used to get to work, and when I lived in Halifax I was only a few streets away from the infamous "Crack Corner" and came home from work one night to see the security guard mopping up buckets of blood after an older man was beaten savagely by teenagers with baseball bats in my own lobby), so I've come to just acknowledge that violent crime happens, individual instances can't be predicted, and that even when national trends are down, individual events can make make it appear that I am less safe than I actually am.

The popular opinion, at least according to what I've seen in comment threads and after a very brief survey of my social sphere, is that the shooter is a Bad Man and should be brought to Justice. More, people "like him" should be taken into an alley and shot, or, you know, whatever happens to be the most painful and vicious punishment we as a civil society can divise.

I don't know anything about the shooter, who he was or why he did what he did. What I do know is that I am deeply skeptical of the idea of a "Bad Man".

The Bad Man to me is a kind of boogey monster. It's a way for us to simplify the world into easily-digestible concepts. The idea that anyone, even good, basically decent people, could commit atrocious crimes and cause harm to innocents, is a deeply troubling one. This shooter was someone's baby once. It's difficult to think of an innocent child growing up to be a mass killer, and undermines a lot of the ideas we use to help us feel safe and in control of our lives.

So instead we create a category of people who are just "bad". Why are they bad? It doesn't matter, they just are. They aren't like normal people, they aren't like us. They should be segregated and killed. They aren't natural.

I don't believe in monsters. I can think of a few reasons why someone might commit an atrocious crime. Primarily, mental illness and addiction are two right off the top of my head. I have a really hard time thinking of reasons why a healthy, rational person would take a gun to a crowded mall and harm complete strangers who are presumably innocent of any wrong-doing. Faced with the two options, the idea that this shooter is mentally ill in some way seems far, far more likely.

And to my mind, people with mental illness or who are struggling with addiction need help, not punishment.

Recently in the news there was a bit of an uproar because a diagnosed schizophrenic who had killed and eaten people on a bus near Winnipeg was allowed to leave his hospital - under supervision by professionals, note - because of the nature of his crimes. Again, comment threads called for his head. He should be locked up forever, or killed. Because of his actions, he has lost any right to be considered as a human being. He should be put down like a dog.

From a practicality stand-point, people who have harmed others or who are at great risk of harming others should be seperated from society. There's an obligation of the state and society as a whole to protect its members. When I get on a bus, I should feel relatively confident that my seat-mate isn't going to pull a knife on me. But I feel that this is just the begining of responsibility, it's the tip of the iceberg.

At what point do we assign personal responsibility to people for their actions? I'm an alcoholic, though I am not drinking now and have been sober for 8 months. On my sobriety date, did I suddenly stop being a Bad Man? I've done awful things, some things that I will probably never talk about, because of or to fuel my addiction. I understand the need to take responsibility for my actions, because at certain points there were choices that I made. But they weren't rational choices. I was not playing with a full deck. Because of circumstance, it was impossible for me to make the right choice. In fact, I think that when people do make the right choice, it's less about the quality of their character and more because most times the right choice is easier. "Good" people don't do good things because of some innate quality, they do good things because the bad thing has too high a personal cost. As a social species, we've evolved to be very tightly tied to our societies. It's in our biochemistry to obey social norms.

But because of variability, and because the universe is an infinitely complicated place, we get individuals who go against the social norms. Are they themselves at fault? Or is the blame more spread out?

My prefered action in a case like this Eaton Centre shooting is to catch the man, have him evaluated, and then provide whatever support we can to rehabilitate him. Further, we should be putting more money into poverty reduction, improving access to education, and looking into harm-reduction and other ways of helping addicts recover. My solution is very expensive. It's much cheaper to just kill the guy.

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