Totalitarianism

I’ve noticed that many online discussions of sex offender registries go something like this. 

Person 1: All sex offenders should be killed! There should be no registry, because anybody who rapes a child deserves to die!

Person 2: Most people on the registry aren’t child rapists. Many are on for statutory crimes, and some just peed in public.

Person 1: Well, if they didn’t want to be on the registry, they shouldn’t have broken the law!

 

Person 1 represents, as far as I can tell, the view of most Americans about most issues relating to crime and punishment: there is no punishment too harsh for any crime, because if a person didn’t want the punishment, they shouldn’t have committed the crime.

We’re going to leave aside what I said yesterday, about how many men committing sex offenses, especially internet-based ones, honestly don’t have any idea of the penalties their crime will carry. We will also leave aside, until tomorrow, the irony of the fact that everybody seems to think the registry is punitive, including those who support it, despite the fact that it’s supposedly not being punitive is the only reason it’s allowed to exist.

Let’s say somebody did know that peeing in public (or, in Michigan, peeing in public on more than one occasion) could land them on the registry. Let’s say they did know that having sex with their 15 year old girlfriend when they are 20 could. Let’s say they were fully aware that downloading one free torrent containing images of naked underage girls could land them in prison for life.

Would that somehow make those penalties just? Of course not. This idea that nobody can ever argue that a penalty is overly harsh or unjust because they could have avoided being penalized at all by not committing the crime is just wrong, and I’d say it represents a morally-stunted view of justice, as well as being a sign of totalitarian thinking.

We could argue, I suppose, that a woman in Saudi Arabia who doesn’t want to get stoned to death just shouldn’t commit adultery. That a person in China who doesn’t want to get thrown in prison just shouldn’t own a Bible. That a young man in Somalia who doesn’t want his hand cut off just shouldn’t steal. That, in the 1950s in America, a gay man who didn’t want to be arrested just shouldn’t have engaged in sodomy.

We could argue those things, but we’d be wrong. We’d be demonstrating a limited, immature form of ethical thinking. We’d be acquiescing our sense of right and wrong to the state.

By this line of thinking, anything can be justified as right and just. Driving is very, very dangerous for children. In the U.S., about 6 children die in car accidents every day, and hundreds are injured. Less than 50 children are abducted and murdered by strangers each year. So, in the name of protecting children, we could decide that traffic crimes should be taken extremely seriously. Speeding becomes a felony resulting in 10 years in prison and three decades on a registry of dangerous drives; running a red light will get you 20 years and a lifetime on the registry. Drunk drivers can be sentenced to life in prison, or consecutive life sentences, or held indefinitely until they are deemed to no longer pose a threat. And, these traffic offenders are, even after their formal sentence is completed, barred from driving within a half mile of a school or playground, must take a driving test twice a year, and have to adhere to any other regulations the state might come up with in the future or else face arrest and prison time for violating the registry.

It’s to protect the children.

Clearly, that would be insane and unjust. But, by the thinking of those who say, “If you don’t want the penalty, don’t do the crime,” it would all be fine. After all, a person could avoid any of those penalties by simply driving at the speed limit, when sober, obeying all traffic signs. 

What, in this view, is there to stop us from punishing every crime with death? I mean, if people don’t want to die, they can just obey the law! 

This should not be the way we understand justice. As long as we keep the mindset that there is no such thing as a too-severe consequence because the consequence can be avoided simply by obeying the law, we are handing our own powers of moral reasoning over to the government. We have succumbed to totalitarianism. And, as soon as we do that, we have set the stage for even greater injustices in the future.

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3 thoughts on “Totalitarianism

  1. rewdiazepam

    The lack of common sense and any sense of reasoning with some of the statements by the haters of sex offenders is astounding.

    The prime example is when they say, “Well, if they didn’t want to be on the registry, they shouldn’t have broken the law!”

    The registry was not even in existence when some of the registrants broke the law, so there is no way they could have known or even predicted that a registry would exist some day.

    One could argue that a person knows about the laws when he commits a crime and if he did not want to be punished, he should not break the law.

    But that reasoning goes out the window when you speak of the registry. The registry was not even a thought back when some registrants committed or were convicted.

    Your example of traffic crimes, most notably DUI’s, is interesting. The reason that there will never be a DUI registry is that too many legislators or their families would potentially be affected. Many lawmakers have been caught driving with an unacceptable blood alcohol limit. They would never pass a law that could easily negatively impact them.

    Why pick on DUIers when we have the old “whipping boy” call sex offenders to beat into a frenzy?

    rewdiazepam

    Reply
    1. mostboringradical Post author

      Yes, the registry seems a clear violation of ex post facto.

      But, I also think that it’s not enough to say, if you don’t want the punishment, don’t do the crime. Because, some punishments are unjust. Stoning a woman for adultery is an unjust punishment. I’m sure, in countries where that happens, people would say, “Too bad. If she didn’t want to be stoned to death, she shouldn’t have been unfaithful.” But just because the state decides that a specific punishment should be tied to a certain crime doesn’t mean that punishment is just or warranted.

      My concern with the “If you don’t want the punishment, don’t do the crime” argument is that it is what leads to our American mindset of excessive punishment. You can justify any punishment, because the burden is on the citizen to not commit the crime, not on the state to impose a just, reasonable punishment. So we have sentences in the U.S., for many crimes, that are 2-3 times longer (or more) than they are in the rest of the world, and we don’t blank an eye about it. Sure, getting 10 years in prison for an attempted robbery isn’t in line with how the rest of the world would punish the same crime, but if that person just hadn’t robbed anybody, they wouldn’t be punished at all, so who cares?

      That’s the mindset that scares me. Why not say that people get 10 years in prison for their first DUI? Or that underage drinking should result in 5 years in prison? Or that drug possession should be punished with life in prison? There is nothing stopping us, if we agree that, if somebody doesn’t want to be punished, they should just not commit a crime.

      We should expect a just, reasonable legal system where the punishment actually fits the crime and where rehabilitation and restoration to community life is the goal whenever possible. We are currently in a frightening spiral where, to score political points, we are just cracking down harder and harder on nearly all crimes, and then accepting it because, “If they didn’t want to be punished, they shouldn’t have broken the law.”

      But somebody’s failure to obey the law doesn’t somehow negate the state’s responsibility to impose just, reasonable penalties. I have rules, as a parent. If my children don’t want consequences, they need to obey the rules. But that doesn’t mean that any consequence I impose is right or just simply because they can avoid it by obeying. I have a duty, as a parent, to impose consequences that are appropriate, just, and in my children’s best interest. I don’t have the right to say, “Well, since they broke my rules, I can do anything I want to them now,” and yet that’s how we think the government should function in relationship to adult citizens.

      Reply
  2. rewdiazepam

    When I was in prison, we had access to a TV but, of course, there were very few channels to watch since inmates had very few amenities. As a result, we were a captive audience and were forced to watch what we could.

    A program that I became fond of was one named “History of the Bible,” which I think was on the Discovery Channel. It was on for one hour each week. One program dealt with the concept of “an eye for an eye” punishment.

    A Jewish Rabbi, a small dark-haired gentleman, explained that this concept was written by Hammurabi many years before the birth of Christ. At that time, the punishments were entirely disproportionate to the offense. For example, if a person stole a calf from another person, the wronged person might be awarded 20 calves.

    So Hammurabi wrote a code of laws with the concept of “an eye for an eye.”
    The purpose was to insure that “an eye for an eye” meant ONLY “an eye for an eye” and made the punishment fit the crime.

    It was a very interesting program, and I learned so much by watching it every chance I could.

    rewdiazepam

    Reply

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