Philosophy, Spotlight

No One, Even Sylvia Longmire, “Deserves It”

Sylvia Longmire supports torture.

That’s Sylvia Longmire, a drug war analyst whose work I no longer follow because of her questionable views on crime and punishment.

She’s referring to the death of Clayton Darrell Lockett, a convicted murderer/rapist who was executed in Oklahoma last week. Unfortunately, Oklahoma attempted the execution using an untested blend of drugs, in an unusually low dosage; additionally, the Governor of Oklahoma refused to release details of where or how the drugs were procured. There are allegations they were purchased illegally, and the quality of the drugs themselves is thus in question.

The result was that Lockett’s execution became the chemical equivalent of a drunk axeman. A needle was inserted into a vein near his groin, which failed, and he writhed and moaned in agony for 43 minutes, regaining consciousness and even speaking. Eventually he had a heart attack and died.

Ms. Longmire not only cheerleads this horrific (and preventable) accident as a good thing, she says it wasn’t “enough,” implying we should have intentionally made his pain even worse.

But Didn’t He Deserve It?

I want to be clear: in the Nuremberg Trials, when the people who were essentially Hitler’s seconds-in-command were convicted of a genocide that killed 6 million people, and a war that killed 40 million, those Nazis were sentenced to death by hanging. Hanging has been used for many centuries because it was considered (questionably) to be fast and humane.

In other words, we wanted a humane death even for the people who committed the Holocaust.

That’s because our justice system and our sense of morals prohibit us from using torture on any prisoner for any reason. We do not ever inflict 43 minutes of pain and flailing, followed by a fatal heart attack, on any prisoner—because that would be a crime.

So when someone suggests that a prisoner “deserves” 43 minutes of pain and flailing followed by a fatal heart attack, you know automatically that that person is not in their right mind. They are suggesting something evil. They are not a good person, and they are not making good decisions.

In this particular case, Longmire came right out and admitted she was irrational (in a somewhat bizarre exchange with my friend Ari Kohen, which you can see here). But that didn’t cause her to second guess herself, or apologize for a moment of flared emotions spurred by a terrible criminal. Instead she doubled down on supporting torture. For reasons that she can’t explain and doesn’t seem inclined to examine, she just feels good that this man suffered, and wishes he had suffered more. And if it makes her feel good to see criminals suffer, then how dare anybody question that?

For Longmire, this isn’t just a poorly chosen personal opinion, it also presents a professional conflict. Her job is to objectively research and present information on international crime and violence, which sometimes influences US policy. But she has made it clear that:

  1. She openly supports illegal activity, and
  2. She supports acts of revenge and retribution, even though acts of revenge and retribution are a large part of what has made the drug war so terrible for Mexican (and US) civilians.

That’s why I no longer feel comfortable taking her reporting at face value, and am looking elsewhere for English-language analysis of the drug war. Her judgement and objectivity are both compromised by her public support of unconstitutional torture.

But I’m really spotlighting this for a bigger reason: because people who support torturing human beings will often tell us they have a very good reason. They want us to believe that we need not be frightened or disturbed by their bloodthirst, because torture is only for those who “deserved” it.

The reality is that it’s impossible to make a criminal feel exactly what they made their victims feel. And even if we could, there’s not any clear benefit to doing so. All we definitively accomplish by trying to inflict harm and suffering on criminals is degrading our own humanity. We make ourselves more willing, like the criminal himself, to ignore the pain that we cause others.

Worse, there is no objective measure of who “deserves” torture and who doesn’t. Once torture is on the menu of legal punishments, historically it gets extended to more and more types of unpopular people—including political prisoners and minorities. You might support torturing rapists, but what about torturing tax evaders? Or people who can’t pay their debts?

When a person suggests torture, they inevitably want us to believe it’s safe. That we aren’t at risk of being tortured, only the bad guys are. But to me it looks a lot like a child who abuses gerbils: they may not be dangerous yet, but they aren’t headed in a good direction.

If we need to remove a criminal from society, we can do it as cleanly and humanely as possible—indeed, our founding document requires us to. When that’s not enough for someone, I don’t just view it as a difference of opinion. I consider their moral instincts untrustworthy and I prefer not to associate with them at all.

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4 thoughts on “No One, Even Sylvia Longmire, “Deserves It”

  1. In response, I just wanted to share a couple of thoughts with you.

    First, I think it’s interesting that you use the example of the Holocaust and the Nazis when referring to a humane gesture of hanging; that’s fine. But why didn’t you give equal sympathy to Lockett’s victim, Stephanie Neiman, who along with a friend “interrupted a home burglary. After the pair were abducted and beaten, he shot her with a sawed-off shotgun and then watched two accomplices bury her while she was still alive.” Obviously no matter how much Stephanie suffered, I know your position is fixed. I just find it as abhorrent as you find me that some people seem to be more sympathetic to the perpetrator rather than the victim.

    Second, I find it interesting that all of a sudden my work is unacceptable to you because of my purported views on torture. Can you tell me the nuances of my views, by the way? I’m interested because I never explained them to you. Also, it’s funny that during the time you’ve been following my work, my supposed views on this issue haven’t made themselves readily apparent to you. Either you’re not very sharp about detecting this “bias,” or my views on criminal punishment have nothing to do with my work–because I don’t write about torture or executions or offer any opinion whatsoever on how I think criminals should be punished. I have a feeling you and I have very different opinions on a lot of things. Would you say my work is tainted by my pro-life Catholic views since I occasionally write about narco saints? Or how about the fact I vote Republican and support gay rights and immigration reform? I challenge you to cite any single instance in my work that clearly points to any support of torture or capital punishment.

    If I have one less follower of my work, so be it; that’s absolutely your right. But please don’t presume to know the innermost workings of my opinions about anything or that they influence my work in a negative way. I bid you good day.

    • Thanks for responding. I’ll do my best to answer in turn.

      As for why I haven’t focused on the horror of how Stephanie Neiman was killed, you’ve pretty much answered it already: as you say, people who are anti-torture are anti-torture regardless of the crime. I have little personal sympathy for Lockett, even with all the pain he went through, because I find his acts disgusting. He was a broken human being with a long track record of crime. I’m not glad about how he was killed, but I’m relieved he’s no longer part of society.

      So if I have no sympathy for him, why do I make such a big stir about his torture and not his victim’s? Because no one is going on Twitter and applauding the horrible death of Stephanie Neiman, and no one’s suggesting it’s okay to do it again to more people. If they were, I’d find their views disturbing too—and if they were public figures who contributed to criminal justice research I’d do my best to excoriate them.

      But I find the second part of your reply more interesting. I’m sure we disagree on many issues, and I’m sure I have differing opinions from lots of my favorite authors. But there are two reasons this particular issue weighs so much: because I find your view fundamentally dangerous, and because I believe it creates a conflict of interest in your work.

      It’s dangerous in a way that many ideological issues aren’t. A pro-life activist and a pro-choice activist might both find the other person’s view unethical, but they can also appreciate that their opponent is motivated by a sense of justice and morality. But there is no moral basis for torturing human beings. To me, it’s like if a friend confessed they have sociopathic tendencies: my reaction is somewhere between “find help for them immediately” and “cut them completely out of my life.” It certainly isn’t “accept them as the unique snowflake they are.”

      But it’s the conflict of interest that made me feel I have to pull away from relying on your work. If you worked in, say, a canned peach factory, I wouldn’t trust your work any less at all (unless I were stocking peaches at a prison kitchen, I guess). You asked for examples of how this conflict has biased your work, but that’s the thing about conflicts of interest: you never know. You avoid them in the first place, and you avoid working with those who have them, because you can’t ever be sure it’s not affecting their work.

      Hypothetically, if I found out my divorce lawyer was dating my ex-wife, I wouldn’t sit down and carefully review all his work with him to see if he made any bad choices for me. I would simply fire him and find a lawyer with no conflict of interest. And that’s how I feel about a drug war analyst who has extremely questionable views about criminal justice. The two things don’t sit well together.

      What surprises me most about your action isn’t so much that you seem to be pro-torture, it’s that you would publicize that controversial view on a professional account and then be surprised when people connect it to your professional work.

  2. Let’s call capital punishment for what it is, Human sacrifice. We learned it from Rome though it isn’t sport to us anymore unless hide and seek is a sport. We sacrifice humans on the altar of Justice. She might be blind and sometimes deaf, but she still demands blood. Those that support it, say , “it is for the common good”, I wonder how many Aztec Priest said the same thing?

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