Archive for August 7th, 2012

Life and Death In America

August 7, 2012

Life and Death In America

As a psychologist, I have worked with many people traumatized  by sudden death due to natural causes or accidents. These circumstances are very difficult for all of us to cope with.

The negative emotional contagion involved even extends to similar circumstances that are reported in our newspapers and other media venues. Reported children who killed,  car accidents, industrial accidents, and natural disasters all bring some level of sadness to caring onlookers,  sometimes even shock and horror.

Normally the most horrific of all events are the circumstances where a deranged individual has purposefully knifed, bombed, or gunned down innocent unsuspecting men, women and children in a premeditated effort to kill or maim as many people as is possible. 

Recent recent examples of this kind of human slaughter are so many, and so seared into our consciousness, that they do not need to be recounted here. In fact, I refuse to do so believing that these crazed murderers are too often on a quest for infamous celebrity. They will not get it from me.

What they will get is my vote for a swift death penalty for them and a culture-wide voluntary censorship of their names from the news.

Of course censorship is a bad word in America, but I am calling for voluntary self-sensorship…much as I have done here in my blog. I will not mention the names of mass killers. I want a voluntary censorship similar to that which is culturally imposed upon racial, sexist, ageist, or various sexual slurs that the media and population of America so commonly conform to.

I call for a censorship of mass killers names because I have strong reason to believe that infamous fame, and completion among the infamous is part of what motivates this dastardly bunch. I have found enough evidence in the psychological and sociological scientific research literature to conclude that there is a mechanism in social circumstances that I called behavioral contagion. I define this phenomenon as the spread of particular behavior patterns within a population, via scientifically validated biopsychosocial mechanisms. If you will check your memory of the news within that past several weeks you will see real-world manifestations of this behavioral process pertaining to “copy-cat” mass murders or attempted mass murders.

The consequences that maintain such behaviors are many and some are a product of psychotic thinking. Logical consequences often fail to influence psychotic behavior, but they do influence some psychotic actions as well as thoughts and behaviors that are more reality based.

For these reasons, I must argue that the consequences for mass murderers should be swift death and  social non-personhood. To to be an effective deterrent, death must be delivered  to perpetrators as immediately as possible following the mass murder act. 

Days after a recent mass killing the media trumpeted that “today we will find out what the charges are against the shooter”. What an absurd mockery of our legal system this announcement was.  We are living in a crazy culture.  The man killed or maimed a large number of people (over 70), everyone saw him do it, and he was caught red-handed by the police leaving the scene in full combat garb. There was absolutely no doubt about who did the killing and maiming.

Our laws must provide for a swiftly delivered death penalty in such cases And don’t tell me that it takes years and years and millions of dollars to execute someone…so therefore it is not practical to do . Abortion used to be against the law and that was changed (sadly). Racism used to be legal and that was changed ( good). Marriage among homosexuals was illegal and that is changing (another bad evolution, in my view). All of these dramatic changes, and more, were once viewed as unthinkable. With dozens of observers, video evidence, and DNA testing the death penalty can be swiftly delivered, without application errors. Without question, changes to get this done can be made, if the electorate is sane enough to insist upon it.

Many say the death penalty does not work, that it does not prevent murders, etc. I am far from convinced this is true. I would like to see the incontrovertible evidence in support of this assertion.

In psychology we know that consequences control behavior and that the more immediate the consequence the greater the effect. In America you can clearly murder someone and it will take 10-15 years, a millions of taxpayer dollars, and failed good chances to appeal for a reduced sentence before the murderer is put to death.

My question is: Why would anyone expect to see a deterrent effect under those conditions?! Killers are aware that they will not likely be put to death and their behavior shows it. Criminal behavior demonstrates that there is a deterrent effect when that chances are immediate death for them. Social research shows that prison inmates report having avoided potential victims (people and homes) when they thought they might be armed. In validation of these reports, other rresearch also reliably demonstrates that in every state which has legalized concealed carry for its law-abiding  citizens, violent crime has been rapidly reduced.

You should not be surprised..Psychology’s Law of Effect states that consequences control behavior.  Other important psychological principles related to the certainty, immediacy and magnitude indicate that the more unavoidable,  the quicker and  the bigger the consequence– the more control is exerted. Among humans expected unavoidable, immediate and big consequences control behavior the best!

However, preventing murder in the short run is not the only possible benefit that the swiftly and certainly delivered death penalty is about. It also provides a strong value statement for our impressionable children and our youth. It communicates to our children that America loves, values and protects its good and law-abiding people more than it loves, values and protects the criminals who kill them. Is that a fair and accurate statement?

America has become “so humane” that we blanch at taking the life of a criminals who rape and kill our children repeatedly, or purposefully slaughter  large numbers of innocent people. We worry about fair and humane treatment of the killers.

Now, we simply say how sad and upset we are when our police are shot and killed by criminals, our firefighters perish in flames, or our fighting forces are killed and terribly maimed in combat. Then many of us forget about it and enjoy our lives with not much angst. We fail to consider how unfair and inhumane the loss of these countless innocent victims were.

We commonly do not experience much great pain unless it is our own loved one who is  killed or maimed in the line of duty and dedication to protecting us–or by a criminal. Perhaps this is human nature. It is said that “all politics are local”.  Among other things, this could mean that if something does not affect us directly and personally, we are less hurt by it and therefore not so motivated to work to improve the problem.

Historically America has not gone so easy on horrific crimes and the criminals who perpetrate them. Our present leniency appears to be an artifact of modern and  post-modern  times. It is odd that when our nation was unabashedly religious and even songs with religious words and themes often appeared in our entertainment media (in the 1950’s and earlier) that America had no problem executing killers.

Now that religious influences are being stamped-out of our culture, America has become all bound-up in a legal (protect the criminal from harsh or unfair treatment) Gordian’s Knot.

It is a stunning revelation that as America has grown more humane (“less barbarian”) to its criminals, increasing proportions of our population are trending evermore toward barbarism.

Everywhere I hear gun about control and “how to predict criminal behavior concerns”. But, the ability to protect one’s self clearly prevents crime and research is telling us mass murder is very difficult to predict.

Nowhere do I see a call for old-fashioned justice…”you kill us…we’ll kill you!” 

It is time to cut through the legal crap and to swiftly kill those criminals who kill us. I will bet that if America does this, it will find a gratifying preventive effect with innocent lives saved in the long-run.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.


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