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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, April 15, 2023

When there is nothing to lose...

The feature editor of the newspaper I worked for started a series in which he interviewed some very young people who had been convicted of crimes, and detailed their objectives and techniques.  It attracted a vast readership.  It also inspired outrage in some readers who thought it glorified criminals and gave lessons in how to commit crimes.  The editor of the paper saw an opportunity and decided to provide balance to the series with stories on the criminal justice system from the viewpoints of various participants in it--the criminals, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, and clergy.  I was assigned to interview a prison chaplain who had himself served time.  As a young man, he had been involved in gang activity for which he was sent to prison.  While there, he became a trusty and assistant to a prison chaplain, during which time he joined a religious order.  After release from prison, he entered a monastery and eventually was ordained a priest.  

The interview was lengthy, and he provided me with more perspectives on the working of the justice system than I had opportunity to use.  He did focus on the dangers posed by convicts.  One of my questions was, who did he think was the most dangerous kind of convict?  He said, a person who is wrongfully convicted.

He explained that good law enforcement officers operate on the principle that when apprehending violators they should never, if possible, put them in a position where they have nothing to lose.  When perpetrators  think they have nothing to lose, they have no restraining considerations, nothing to really live for.  They have no reason to submit to any kind of authority or accept any compromises.  They are explosively dangerous to the people around them, because they think they have nothing to lose.  In their minds, they have already lost everything.

People who are wrongly convicted experience a failure of the justice system.  They have substantial reasons to think it is just another destructive force in their lives.  Even those who find eventual exoneration retain skepticism about it because of their experience with it.  Some who find eventual release from prison express gratitude for gaining their freedom, and they work at continuing their lives in a positive manner.  However, others, the chaplain said, can never overcome the discouragement and bitterness at having their lives demolished.  Some acted like model prisoners so they could get out of prison to avenge the wrong that had been done them.  

The chaplain recalled the case of a man who was exonerated by another's  confession.  The man had never engaged in any kind of criminal conduct, but had been convicted of a particularly brutal crime.  He was so obsessed  with obtaining some retribution for his ruined life that the prison authorities were reluctant to release him from prison in fear of what he might do.  There was no legal means to retain any kind of supervisory control over the man, so the state made extensive and generous attempts to help him resume a productive life.  But the man devoted much of his efforts to keeping watch over people involved in his conviction to find any  wrong doing that might be used against them.  The man told people trying to help him that there was no justice; only revenge.  He made clear that his remaining purpose in life was to never let society forget what had been done to him and who did it.  The chaplain said the man succeeded in putting misery into many lives.

He said the unforgiving persistence of the man was a reminder of the burden that all the wrongfully convicted people live with. This interview happened in the mid-1960s, long before there were any organizations devoted to justice for the innocent.  In order to generate interest in helping the wrongfully convicted, the priest worked actively with organizations such as the America Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, law schools, and social organizers.   He said that people who are wrongly convicted undermine all of a free society because they provide hard evidence of its failure.  He worked to find and eliminate wrongful convictions.

When DNA analysis became usable in determining guilt or innocence, a multitude of projects were formalized and made active in finding and correcting wrongful convictions and in refining the criminal justice system to prevent them.

When the chaplain talked about people developing a nothing-to-lose mentality, he said that was a problem he found in people in ordinary life who had no associations whatever with the justice system.  He mentioned that they were the most troubling people that priests and social workers had to deal with.  They were often suicidal and they had no hope or purpose to grasp. 

Shortly after that interview one of the early mass shootings occurred.   Marine veteran Charles Whitman carried a rifle up to a building tower at the University of Texas and shot to death 15 people and wounded 31 others.  Just before that he had stabbed his wife and mother to death.  He was killed by police.  

An autopsy showed that he had a small growth on his brain, but the examiners could not see how it would have affected his behavior.  Follow-up stories revealed that Whitman had a very abusive father and had consulted a campus psychiatrist about pressures he was feeling.  In our newsroom, those of us who worked on the criminal justice series talked over what the prison chaplain had said about people who had developed a nihilistic attitude.  Whitman certainly went on his violent rampage knowing he wasn't going to come out of it alive.

That is a constant in mass shootings.  The two killers at Columbine took their own lives after killing 13 and injuring 21.  Mass shooters have no intention of surviving their attacks.  They commit suicide by themselves or by cop. Very rarely are they captured alive so that there is any chance to probe their motives.

Mass shootings are a pandemic.  105 days into 2023, and the U.S. has had 146 mass shootings.  Our gun control laws have been shaped to insure that any would-be mass shooters have easy access to highly effective means to carry out their tasks.  And, of course, beyond offering thoughts and prayers, people will mutter about mental health.  And that will suggest it's all a matter of recognizing individual cases of mental pathology.

But mass shootings are too common at this point to be isolated incidents unconnected to the way our society is conducting itself.  We experienced those people during the Covid-19 epidemic who acted out against masks and quarantine while scientists worked frantically to develop and produce effective vaccines.  Today, we've had almost 103 million cases of covid-19 in the U.S. with 1,118,800 deaths.  Those who whimpered and whined and flouted the control measures have a lot of responsibility for those high numbers.  But they give us insight as to why mass shootings have become part of everyday life in America.

A mental pathology is being cultivated and passed around.  What makes some people so nihilistic and angry that they devise plans to kill masses of people?  Why would some choose to gun down school children?  What is there in American society that makes mass murder a common event in our daily lives?  This is unique to America, so it is possible to isolate and identify the causes.  We can put science to work on it like we put it to work on covid.

Mass murder can be controlled. There are people who should not have guns.  People who think that carrying guns will protect them from the miscreants with guns have seen too many westerns.  The fact is that the more guns, the more shootings.  The habitual carrying of firearms will create killing fields, not sanctuaries of peace.  But guns are the means of killing, not the motive.

Some shooters have indicated that they intended to make a name for themselves for killing the most people.  The question is, how did they get the notion that making people dead, especially children, is an accomplishment?  How did they arrive at that as some kind of a cultural mindset?  We have avoided pursuing that question because we know the answer will not reflect favorably on the culture we have created.

It's a question we will have to ask, quickly and persistently, before we as a nation have nothing to lose.

1 comment:

Jerry K. Sweeney said...

I shall warrant the investigation you propose needs must be undertaken. But, in the meantime, as envisaged by the Second Amendment, leave us remove all the guns and ammunition from all those not enrolled in the National Guard — the 2lst Century embodiment of the Militia.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States