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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