Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What we don't know about crime is a crime

By A. E. P. (Ed) Wall

The declaration that “all men [and women] are created equal” suggests more about the graceful character of early American patriots than about the intentions of a Creator.

Drawing upon English traditions and common law, the men who conceived the Declaration of Independence affirmed that everyone should have equal protection under the law. That was a revolutionary idea. It still is.

Angry revolutionaries seen on 21st century television sometimes risk their lives to challenge unjust rulers, but with more thought for the triumph of their cause than of equality for everyone, no matter what their religion or gender may be.

Men of property, planters and printers, teachers and preachers, were among the leaders of the American revolution and all they had to do was look around and see that all men were created equal to each other under English common law. Their eyes were upon each other, but they scarcely noticed their wives and daughters and sisters. Even those who were descended from indentured servants, shipped to the colonies, didn’t see slaves as equals under the law of the creator or the law of men.

Men voted for women’s rights

Many are the refinements of law, inspired by the revolution’s enthusiasm for persons more than property. Slavery was eventually abolished by white citizens who fought for emancipation. The right of women to vote was established by the only citizens who had the votes to do it--men. These were actions of a maturing society with an evolving grasp of what it means to be equal.

Whipping posts, dunking as punishment or interrogation, tormenting a prisoner in stocks, were rejected one by one. A prison cell for debt, self-defeating as it was, lost its place in the justice system.

Sending children to work in mines and factories came to an end, and children were given a status close to equality.

More recently the nation’s conscience began to unravel historic misconceptions about homosexuality. Maybe it wasn’t an ugly choice made by a disarranged mind, but instead a consequence of the way the genes lined up. Some babies were born with one sexual orientation, some with another, some were girls and some were boys, some had dark hair and some had light. Some, tragically, were born with alarming physical problems.

As people understood that being different is not the same as being unnatural, the punishment of consenting adults as criminals for engaging in homosexual activities came to a halt.

Laws to prevent two persons of different races from marrying? It seems incredible, but such laws were enforced not so long ago.

Knowing how little we know

Not even the sages of science were immune to the cramped beliefs of recent generations about criminality, sexuality and race. The smartest observers today know that most of what can be learned about these matters is still to be learned.

The United States is in the third world of justice and law, with the largest prison population on earth and disclosure that its highest officials sanctioned a return to torture as though 1776 had never been lived. Neither police nor courts, neither legislatures nor news media, know why people commit crimes. Burglary, rape, embezzlement, stabbing, cheating are predictable—but the people who do those things are not. Punishment hasn’t stopped those crimes in the last thousand years.

Shady impulses stir criminal behavior, and nobody knows much about it. Congress and state legislatures cannot even pass foolproof laws to wipe out their own institutional corruption once and for all.

People still look to secular government and to religious institutions to set rules of peace, justice and morality, and to be models of faithfulness to the rules. Instead, religion and state provide ongoing models of hope being dimmed by stress, indifference and corruption. Sexual abuse of children and adults is widely associated with churchmen, including cardinals and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant evangelicals and leaders in other faiths.

How equal is dementia?

Religion’s adherents and converts may overcome failures, and encourage others to enrich the lives of themselves and others, but religious devotion is not expected to change qualities given to a person at birth. Religious teachings are generally presented in a “one size fits all” format, applicable to everybody in the same way. Nobody has figured out how someone who starts life with the burden of dementia, maybe an anti-social or psychosexual disorder, will absorb the golden rule as taught in Sunday school or celebrated in sermons.

Criminals cause crime, and it would be more efficient and cheaper to find out what’s nudging them and how to intervene, but it hasn’t happened. Apparently some people enjoy taking chances, pressing their luck without going to a casino, cheating on taxes and stealing from wimps. The glib claim that poverty causes crime has never been true, and its absurdity never more evident than in the arrest of billionaires for cheating themselves, their friends, the poor and the government. Prison terms are no more successful in wiping out crime than in preventing hurricanes.

Given the world’s experience with political organizations both secular and religious, campaigns, committees, letters to the editor, lawsuits and countersuits, climate change may put beaches on Pike’s Peak before justice issues are resolved. We ought to find out what really causes people to murder, steal and destroy, and how they might be drawn to healthier occupations.

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