Friday, November 13, 2009

The Execution of the Beltway Sniper

I suppose this should be a separate post, commenting on part of the last one.

As a committed, faithful Catholic who takes Catholic social thought seriously, and as a professional theologian well-read in the Catholic tradition, I fully approve of the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is true, states, "If . . . bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good . . . ."

But this is intentionally vague language: what is meant by "the concrete conditions"? Does that phrase not specifically distinguish the problems of a particular time and place as against the more general demands of justice? Thus the conclusion begins, not "always," but "Re vera nostris diebus": Today, in fact . . . .

But the Catechism begins its treatment of capital punishment by stating:

"Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. [Thus] the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertaiment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty . . . ."

We thus have an odd -- perhaps deliberately odd -- disjunction. On the one hand, the death penalty is unnecessary now because it is not necessary to protect other people. On the other hand, the death penalty is sanctioned by tradition not just, not even primarily, to protect other people, but for the sake of the offender.

And the tradition is full of stories of people converting precisely in the shadow of the gallows. Punishment is medicinal because it manifests the gravity of the crime and allows the criminal to make expiation, to redress the disorder caused by his offense. It is no coincidence, in light of this traditional teaching, endorsed by the Catechism, that the man to whom Jesus says, "Today you will be with me in paradise" is a criminal who "voluntarily accepts" his cross as just "expiation" for his crimes.

In this light, we might say it is the height of self-centeredness and injustice for liberals in our society -- who, along with their culture of death, have lost all conception of justice and virtue -- to try to deny a mass murderer the opportunity to suffer the just penalty of his offense. The true "correction of the offender" is not served by letting someone sit in jail for the rest of his life while society tells him we're afraid to think about the gravity of his crime. Ironically, Dead Man Walking, a film intended to be anti-death penalty, is a beautiful (if awful) depiction of precisely how the death penalty is society's way of expressing love for the criminal. Sean Penn's character, a reasonable depiction of many characters who have fallen to the depths of murderous depravity, is able to convert only in the shadow of the gallows.

I submit that it is a profoundly important aspect of social justice and serious Christian political philosophy that we value the conversion of the sinner over our own fears of getting our hands dirty. The political order exists to make people better, and to help them get to heaven.

I also submit that the key phrase in the John Paul II/Catechism concern about the death penalty might be "legitimate authority." John Paul II lived under the totalitarianism of the Soviets, with its absolute unconcern for the person -- including, certainly, for the "correction"and conversion of criminal offenders -- and then under the regime of liberal Old Europe, with its utter "loss of the sense of sin" (see John Paul's beautiful discussion of this at the end of Chapter Two in Dominum et Vivificantem). In these cases, capital punishment could never be approached as a kind of "redress," "expiation," and "medicine." But I simply assert: Virginia is a profoundly different culture from Soviet Russia.

Finally, I submit that Benedict XVI has intentionally made no mention whatsoever of John Paul's concerns about the death penalty, perhaps in light of a different cultural experience and a recognition that Soviet Russia does not define the modern world. In the 1950's, when these two great men were coming of age, the Soviet jackboots were crushing John Paul's Poland while the genuinely saintly Konrad Adenauer was prime minister of Benedict's West Germany; John Paul only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain when he was already an old man, in 1978, by which time all of Catholic Europe had fallen to secular liberalism. It does make for a different estimation of legitimate authority.

The Beltway Sniper and the Safety of Cities

On Tuesday of this week, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway sniper, was executed.* I lived through the horror of those three weeks, when thirteen people were shot, ten of them killed, at random, in parking lots, gas stations, and other harmless places around the DC metro area.

Here's an interesting fact: it all happened in the suburbs. (Here's a list.) Okay, one shooting was on Georgia Ave., yards from the Maryland border. But it's interesting: urban folks were not the victims.

Why not? Because the sniper had to hide where no one could see him. There was one shooting very close to where we lived. The sniper sat in a vacant parking lot across a freeway from the Home Depot parking lot where his victim was getting into the car.

Here's where he sat:

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And here's where he shot:

View Larger Map

I really don't think is rocket science: the sniper needed vacant places. He found them in the suburbs; they are much harder to find in the city, and do not exist in truly urban neighborhoods.

We hear much of violent crime in the city, and are made to believe that every city dweller is likely to be the victim of stray bullets. My boss has warned me to lock my car doors and drive through red lights in Newark, since it's so likely that one of those scary black people will tear me from my car. But, I'm sorry folks, those incidents of random violence, though they happen, are extremely rare.

Think about this: South Orange Ave. in Newark (where my boss fears to tread) is about seventy feet across (from store front to store front). My body is (rounding up) maybe two feet across. Thus if I am standing directly perpendicular to a random gun shot flying down the street, my chances are less than one in thirty-five that it will hit any part of my person. That's if I happen to be standing where there is random gun fire. And of course if the gun is not pointed perfectly level, the shot will go over my head or his the ground before it gets me.

On the other hand, I-280 (an alternative route to work) has two lanes of traffic going each way; my car takes up one of those lanes. Thus my chances are 50/50 that an out-of-control car (such as a drunk driver) will hit me. And cars never go over your head, and are at least as deadly as bullets.

And honestly, what happens more often, random gun fire, or drunk drivers? I'm sorry to tell you that random gun fire is exceedingly uncommon, even in Newark.

At our very worst (and we are much improved) Newark had 161 murders among 280,000 residents; in an average year, New Jersey sees 771 traffic fatalities among its 8,700,000. Thus the average Newarker has a 1/1,700 chance of getting murder; the average Jerseyite has a 1/11,000 chance of dying on the freeway. If murders were as random as freeway accidents, you'd be 6.7 times safer living out of the city. But don't you think the randomness makes up for that small proportion? If nothing else, a freeway life is only marginally safer than a city life without freeways.

By the way, our working-class neighborhood of Newark (my family is well below the median income for the state of New Jersey) has a murder rate of about 1/12,000. Which makes you less likely to get killed in a decent neighborhood of Newark then on the freeway. And again, which is more random? Somebody has to point a gun at you to murder you; they only have to be playing with their cell phone or GPS to kill you on the freeway. I'll take my walkable neighborhood and my commute down South Orange Ave.

Perhaps the reason cities seem so much scarier than freeways is just the irony that what is less common sticks out in your mind more. When you hear that somebody's been killed on the freeway, you shrug: happens all the time. When someone gets murdered, it goes on the front page. That doesn't mean it's more common; quite the contrary.

*See the next post for a commentary on the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Safe Place to Raise Our Children

One of the most compelling arguments against city living, I think, is the argument about protecting our children. A couple neighborhoods ago, we literally watched drug deals out our front window, right next to where our children play. The language was foul. Our immediate neighborhood was relatively safe, but shootings were frequent a few blocks away (anyone unfamiliar with the intense localism of city living would have said the shootings were in our neighborhood).

We live in a much better neighborhood now, but still there is pornographic graffiti all over the park. A very nice, but not very solid, neighbor gave our kids a bunch of comic books that were, ahem, not up to our standards of purity for our children's eyes. They weren't especially bad -- but it wasn't what I want my children to read. And if they get that stuff when they're four, it certainly makes me wonder what they will encounter when they're teenagers.

City life subjects us to all sorts of bad influences. It's no surprise that many people flee to the suburbs and the country, to protect their children.

But a recent discussion highlights the fallacy of that solution. My wife participates in an on-line community of homeschooling Catholic mothers -- diverse in many ways, but all solid Catholic moms, serious about doing what's best for their children. Recently a conversation came up that has come up many times before.

A mom writes in to say, hey, our closest parish is forty-five minutes away, but the priest is terrible; I'm getting to where I really can't subject my children to his bad preaching (or worse). And then they discuss their two or three options. In the many iterations of this conversation, there is typically an okay parish, but it's two hours away, and they're not sure they can make it to Mass every week (let alone every day). And lots of moms write in to say how they deal with similar situations.

We sit in our dense urban community, where we presently have (I do not exaggerate) eight parishes within a one-mile walk of us, and think, what an odd situation. Sometimes we try to think through the options, but end up shrugging our shoulders: it's hard to imagine having so few. At more lucid (or aggressive) moments, we think, if you really care about your children, maybe you shouldn't be putting your family in that situation. A thought, I suppose, parallel to what our peers in the country would say about us, if we complained about drug dealers and inappropriate magazines and graffiti: why don't you just move.

It is very uncommon for a family in the country to be bound there by a job -- jobs usually aren't any closer than parishes. Typically, they have moved to the middle of nowhere because they think it's a healthier environment for their children. But is it?

Perhaps they should live somewhere else. But where? Of course the immediate standard aspiration is, if only we could live in a tiny community where everyone is perfect. We know people who have tried to form such communities, in various situations: a suburban sub-development of only solid Catholics; a small town with one great parish; even, on occasion, attempts at building a farming community.

My first, and most natural, objection to those plans is on grounds of fideism. It is good to have Catholic friends and neighbors, to be sure -- but it's also good to have a soccer team, music teachers, theater, bookstores. It's good to have a decent hospital nearby (and I know people in these situations who have had major hospital problems, because their little utopia can't provide its own health care).

Dare I say it? It's even good just to have pagan neighbors, both to witness to and to learn from. In my experience, faith means more especially for children when they can see the depravity of their neighbors, the weakness of secular arguments, and even the frustration of the world around them -- when they care about people who don't have faith. A completely sheltered faith is not always the strongest faith. Some sheltering is necessary, of course -- but total sheltering from the outside world?

To put the same objection differently, lay people are not monks. There is an important place for those who flee the world and live only for prayer. But the Church is very explicit that such is not the vocation of the laity. We live to sanctify the world, to engage in politics, and culture, and labor, to witness to those who do not already have the faith. Abandoning that secular vocation of the laity is not good for grown-ups, and I do not see how it is a good way to teach children. The monastic vocation is itself corrupted (at least according to the teaching of the Catholic Church) if the world is treated as entirely evil. The laity are not monks, and monks need the witness of the laity.

But a second objection to the head-for-the-hills school of Christianity rests on the actual experience of monks. One cannot read far in monastic literature before one finds that even monasteries are not full of perfect people. St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, was asked to lead more than one community that subsequently tried to kill him. That seems odd -- but it is the universal experience of monasticism. That has something to do with why monks are called monks -- from monos, alone: the monk submits to a rule, not because he thinks it will surround him with perfect people, but in order to seek God, as it were, on a single path. There are no communities of perfect people.

The experience of various Catholic communes makes this very concrete for the laity. I know quite well a small-town super-parish built almost entirely on the charisma of one man, a Ph.D. in theology. But that man is now senile, and dying. Now what? Is it good for a family to be in such need to one charismatic leader? And is that Catholic? To make things worse, the man's theology is not especially sound. He propounds many things as Church teaching which are not Church teaching, and which are sometimes directly contrary to Church teaching. My friends who are in this situation are not theologians; what can they do but submit to their hero's opinion? They are in good will: but they have put themselves in a situation where one man's error becomes their Gospel, because he is the only show in town.

Similarly, if we move to a perfect parish: what if the priest falls ill? What if he's weak on some points? Do these people realize that everyone has weaknesses, that the Church has never recommended that you submit yourself wholly to any mere mortal? (Even a monastic abbot is elected by the community, and hedged by many external authorities; and the classic understanding of monastic obedience is external not internal -- one always has the right to question the abbot's judgment, and so ultimately to leave, in extreme cases.)

A perfect suburban Catholic sub-development always runs the risk that one of the six families you've built your entire world around might turn out bad. There are no communities of perfect people.

That's not to say we shouldn't have friends. We should. We must. But friendship should lead us outward, into society. We should seek a place where we can make friends, not a place where we are left alone, whether to our own devices (in perfect rural isolation), or to fallible human pastors, charismatic leaders, and friends.

Living in the city subjects my family to certain risks, against which I must protect them. I might stay away from some graffiti, and from certain neighbors. I certainly need to train my children to discern right from wrong (though I submit that the drug dealers and playground graffiti really aren't all that tantalizing, especially to someone who has any life at all).

But in the city, I have resources. In the city, I don't have to be friends with everyone I see. In the city we can turn away from certain bad influences and towards others. In any form of commune, one can only flee from one bad influence by fleeing one's entire life. I just don't see how that makes for a safe place to raise our children.