Saturday, July 30, 2011

Death on a Dangerous Planet

1. Death by stupidity:

The Darwin Awards:

Man dies trying to catch a foul ball:


2. Genocide:

Encounter with a Killer
By James Ottavio Castagnera

Washington, D.C., May 29, 2008--- He seems to be a nice young man: age 27, a winning smile and an easy going sense of humor that quickly charms his audience. I’m attending, along with 9200 others from around the globe, the 60th annual convention of NAFSA, the top international-education organization. This particular event is a speech by Ishmael Beah, who last year published “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” The grand ballroom of the Washington Convention Center is full to overflowing for Beah’s talk.
Wisely, young Ishmael focuses his address on his experiences since leaving Sierra Leone to live in the U.S., where he attended a United Nations high school in New York, then Oberlin College. He alludes only obliquely to the dark days of his country’s civil war, when, as a child of 13, he was recruited into the army and transformed into a teenaged killing machine.
Beah’s book tells that earlier story. After losing his family to rebel atrocities, Beah and his boyhood buddies roamed from village to village, until finally being conscripted into a unit of the national armed forces. Issued an AK-47, he was fed a seemingly endless supply of cocaine, marijuana, something he calls “brown brown” (a concoction which he claims contained gun powder), and unidentified white capsules that probably were “uppers” (since he says he seldom slept).
Following a few weeks of “basic training” Beah and his buds were deployed into action. Action, one gathers from his book, typically involved raiding villages, shooting everyone in sight and looting whatever was found of value, be it food, drugs, or munitions. He describes in gory detail cutting the throats of prisoners and burying wounded rebels alive. Summing up, he says he killed “too many people to count.”
Eventually, Beah and many another boy soldier were rescued and rehabilitated by UNICEF in cooperation with various NGOs operating in the war-torn, West African nation, situated between Liberia (an equally blood-soaked and diamond rich state), and Guinea. So thoroughly was Beah reformed that he was picked from among his comrades to address the United Nations in New York on the plight of Africa’s children. There he met the woman who would adopt him, once he managed to make good his final escape from Sierra Leone. All this occurred before he was even out of his teens.
Pondering the war crimes Beah describes in “A Long Way Gone” and trying to connect them up with the pleasant young fellow at the podium, I am reminded of the late philosopher, Hannah Arendt. In the words of Wikipedia, “The Banality of Evil is a phrase coined in 1963 by Hannah Arendt in her work ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem.’ It describes the thesis that the great evils in history generally, and the Holocaust in particular, were not executed by fanatics or sociopaths but rather by ordinary people who accepted the premises of their state and therefore participated with the view that their actions were normal.”
Arendt’s premise fits the West African experience of the 1990s and early years of the new century as snuggly as it fits the Holocaust. If “A Long Way Gone” isn’t a good fit on your summer reading list, try the film “Blood Diamond” on for size. You’ll get the idea. Today, the sub-Saharan traveling horror show described in Beah’s book and depicted in the Leo DiCaprio movie has moved to the Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, here I am in line outside the convention center’s massive ballroom, standing in a long line to get my copy of “A Long Way Gone” autographed by its author. When it’s finally my turn, I watch as Ishmael Beah inscribes his large and rather elegant signature on the title page. As he hands the book back to me, I say, “Hell of a book, man. Thanks a lot.” Ours eyes meet momentarily and he beams back at me… the boyish smile of a lad who never could have pulled the wings from a fly.

3. Capital Punishment:

James Ottavio Castagnera: The Lottery of Life and Death in the Criminal Justice System

[Jim Castagnera is a Philadelphia lawyer and journalist, who writes a weekly newspaper column, “Attorney at Large.”]
Last week Kenneth Lee Boyd won the lottery of his life and secured himself a footnote in U.S. criminal justice history. At around 2:00 AM on Friday, December 2nd, Boyd became the 1000th prisoner executed since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed states to reinstate the death penalty in 1977. The high court had declared most state death-penalty laws unconstitutional. Many of those states moved quickly to amend, and in ’77 the Supremes gave a green light to Utah to stand a murderer named Gary Gilmore in front of a firing squad… yeh, no kidding, a firing squad.

Naturally, this landmark number --- 1000 --- set off a flurry of debate about the death penalty. At one end of the public-opinion spectrum are people who think capital punishment should be eliminated… period. They point out that the top capital-punishment countries are the US, China, South Vietnam and Iran. Do we really want to keep that kind of company, they inquire?

On the opposite end are pro-death penalty people, who probably agree with John McAdams, a professor of political science at Marquette University, who opines, "If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former. This, to me, is not a tough call."

Somewhere in between are those who fret that we may wind up executing innocent people. In fact legal history is loaded with legendary cases that leave us pondering this possibility. Among the most famous is the Lindbergh kidnapping, which occurred in Hopewell, New Jersey, way back in 1932. The two-year-old son of national hero Charles Lindbergh was lifted from his second-floor nursery. The Lindberghs shelled out a $50,000 ransom, only to learn later that the infant had been killed and buried in a shallow grave.

Another two years passed before a German immigrant named Bruno Richard Hauptmann spent some of the ransom money and was arrested. The trial in Flemington (NJ) was a media circus. Hauptmann, convicted and sentenced to die, went to the electric chair in Trenton proclaiming his innocence. His widow, who lived into her nineties, continued to campaign for his exoneration. Today, many historians believe the Hauptmanns were telling the truth. Some even say that Lindbergh accidentally killed his own child in a misconceived practical joke that ran amok. As recently as June 22, 2003, the New York Times reported, under the headline “This Case Never Closes,” the new discovery of a kidnapping note by Archivist Mark Falzini of the New Jersey State Police Museum. The note, scrawled on a wooden table leg with screw holes matching the pattern of punches in the original ransom letters, reads in German, “I was one of the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby and not Bruno Richard Hauptmann.”

Equally intriguing is the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, a successful young doctor living in suburban Cleveland, who was accused in the summer of 1954 of brutally murdering his wife. Despite his claim of having fought with a “bushy haired man” who had invaded the Sheppard home, Dr. Sam was convicted and served 10 years in prison before F. Lee Bailey won a Supreme Court ruling that yet another media circus had poisoned the jury. Bailey, destined to become one of the great defense lawyers of the 20th century, won an acquittal in a subsequent re-trial. Sheppard’s tragedy was far from over, however, as a malpractice suit drove him from his medical practice. He became a professional wrestler and an alcoholic, dying in 1970 of liver failure. By then he was up to two fifths of liquor a day. In the 35 years since then, the mystery of who really killed Marilyn Sheppard has spawned wild tales of homosexuality, bisexuality, and conspiracy, all spinning around the enigmatic osteopath-turned-wrestler. The most famous form of the legend is pure fiction: “The Fugitive” --- first a TV series, more recently a Harrison Ford film --- has the good doctor trying to chase down a one-armed man.

We’ll never know for sure whether Bruno Hauptmann, killed by the state, and Sam Sheppard, killed by the bottle, were innocent or guilty men. That one was executed and the other acquitted hasn’t helped those who yearn for absolute truth. The odds are 50-50 that an innocent man (Hauptmann) was fried and a guilty man (Sheppard) walked away.

That’s all a part of the capital punishment lottery.



4. Serial Killers:

Jim Castagnera: America's First Bona Fide Mass Murderer

SOURCE: Lehighton (PA) Times-News (9-14-05)

Holy Cross Cemetery is a mere half dozen miles from my Havertown home… a quick drive down Lansdowne Avenue. An early burial ground of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Holy Cross plays host to hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish and Italian immigrants; a common inscription on many a weathered tombstone reads something like, “Born County Cork 1846.”

Had I not taken a book called “The Devil in the White City” with me to the Shore this summer, I might never have known that Holy Cross is also the final resting place of America’s first bona fide mass murderer. According to author Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Herman Webster Mudgett, alias Dr. H.H. Holmes accomplished most of his killing in a suburban-Chicago building he called his “Castle.” The Castle combined businesses, such as a pharmacy, a restaurant and a small hotel with a Boris Karloff-like basement containing a crematorium and a sound-proof gas chamber. Holmes eventually confessed to killing 27; some say the real figure may be as high as 200.

Holmes penned his horrid confession in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison, where in 1896 he waited to be hanged for the murder of a partner-in-crime, one Ben Pitezel, with whom he had launched a fake patent dealership along Philly’s Callowhill Street. Holmes had insured his partner’s life for $10,000. When he found Pitezel passed out from hard liquor at the Callowhill shop, he decided it was time to collect on the policy. Tying the helpless drunk’s hands and feet, “I proceeded to burn him alive by saturating his clothing and his face with benzene and lighting it with a match.” Homles coyly adds to the confession, “So horrible was this torture that in writing of it I have been tempted to attribute his death to some humane means --- not with a wish to spare myself, but because I fear that it will not be believed that one could be so heartless and depraved.”

The Chicago police who investigated the Castle following Holmes’s Philadelphia conviction had no trouble believing every word of his grizzly confession. They found claw marks on the walls of the “Vault,” the airtight chamber equipped with gas jets that Holmes controlled from upstairs. They also found skulls, ribs, a shoulder blade and a hip socket that the crematorium had failed to reduce to ash. The stovepipe from this gas oven was lined with human hair. Holmes even had a medieval torture rack.

The mad medico was as bold as he was crazy. After murdering Pitezel on September 2, 1894, he hastily left town. While he was away, Pitezel’s burned body was found by a customer, who stopped by the Callowhill shop to sell a patent. Pitezal was buried as a pauper in a Potter’s Field. But just a few days after the funeral, Holmes reappeared, advising the life insurance company that the supposed-pauper was their policy-holder, Pitezal. The body was exhumed and identified by Holmes and the deceased’s daughter Alice, whom Holmes subsequently killed along with a younger brother and sister. The insurance carrier paid up to an attorney for his widow, Carrie. Paying $2500 to the lawyer, Holmes then talked Carrie out of the lion’s share of the proceeds, told her that her husband was still alive, and took her on a whirlwind tour of Detroit, Toronto, and Ogdensburg, New York… always promising that her husband and children would be joining them at their next destination.

A Philadelphia detective named Frank Geyer finally caught up with Holmes in Boston. The insurance company had come to the conclusion that the body exhumed from the Potter’s Field was not Pitezel. Indicted in Philly for conspiracy to defraud the carrier, Holmes wisely pleaded guilty. However, the Philadelphia D.A. wasn’t satisfied with this conviction. The investigation was continued and on September 12, 1895, a grand jury indicted Holmes for murder. He and his attorney then changed their story, agreeing that Pitezal was dead, but contending that he had killed himself. Holmes claimed he had found his dead partner, and fearing that the insurance policy wouldn’t pay off on a suicide, had burned the body to disguise the self-inflicted wounds. The jury didn’t buy this yarn. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to hang.

When his motion for a new trial was denied on November 30, 1895, by a tribunal with the charming name of “the Court of Oyer and Terminer and General Jail Delivery of Pennsylvania,” his luck had finally run out. Awaiting the inevitable, he penned the confession published first by the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then, on May 7, 1896, behind the high walls of the prison at 10 th and Reed Streets (where an Acme now stands), Holmes was hanged. The Inquirer reported the presence of a huge throng of would-be spectators. “There was a good deal of fin de siecle brutality about the crowds,” commented the paper. “There was nothing that they could possibly see, but the high forbidding walls. There was nothing they could hear. Yet they all seemed drawn to the spot by some morbid fascination. Coarse jests were bandied from lip to lip as the crowd surged to and fro.”

Having sold the cleaned and polished skeletons of many a victim to Chicago medical schools, hospitals and private physicians, Holmes feared he himself might become a victim of grave robbers. ( Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute had made an offer to buy his pathological brain.) Consequently, on his instructions, his coffin was half filled with concrete. Then his body was placed inside and covered with more concrete. His grave, too, was filled half way with wet concrete, before the coffin was lowered and buried in more of the same.

Holmes’ Holy Cross grave has no marker. Author Erik Larson places it at “section 15, range 10, lot 41.” He adds, “At the gravesite there is only an open lawn in the midst of other old graves. There are children….” To be precise, there are four children, all of whom died in 1896. Ten or twelve feet in front of their tiny tombstones, adorned with marble lambs, is a rectangular depression in the grass.

Beneath the grass, half burned away by this summer’s sun, and the topsoil, and a few feet of ancient concrete, lies America’s first self-proclaimed mass murderer. He outdid Jack the Ripper by at least 20, and perhaps 200, slayings. Yet, prior to Larson’s “Devil in the White City,” he was practically forgotten… the nearly-anonymous monster in my own back yard.

5. Torture:

James Castagnera
The Question of Torture:
A Tortured Inquiry in the Offing

“Torture” is in the headlines as I write this Blog. Asked about his attitude toward declassified memos, which suggest Bush Administration officials condoned illegal interrogation techniques, President Obama initially indicated intent to look forward, not back. He then back-pedaled, suggesting that he might support some sort of inquiry. His waffling opened the door through which Move On.Org rushed, waiving a petition. Congressional liberals also are shouting for Bush White House blood. A witch-hunt, if permitted, will be both unfair and dangerously distracting.

Bush and his minions are victims of what the administrative partner in my old law firm labeled “the smart-stupid syndrome.” When this law partner failed to produce promised new clients, he was told that he would be phased out of the firm. Ruefully, he ruminated, “Last week, I was considered smart. People around here asked my advice about anything and everything, whether I knew something about the issue or not. Now that the word’s out about my leaving, I’m seen as stupid. Nobody asks my views on anything, as if I were suddenly stripped of all my expertise along with my partnership.”

On September 12, 2001, and for the next three years --- at least through the 2004 national election --- Bush was considered “smart.” He had come off as “presidential” in the days immediately after the Nine-Eleven attacks. He looked the part of national war leader, when he landed on an aircraft carrier and declared victory in Iraq in the spring of 2003. In the autumn of ’04 the real war hero, John Kerry, came off looking wimpy and inept by comparison.

But inexorably the image tarnished, as the two-front War on Terror dragged on, expensively and with apparent futility. Now, in April 2009, W’s legacy appears destined to be reduced to a single irony: he blundered so badly that he facilitated the election of America’s first African-American president. Obscured by the economic meltdown of autumn and winter, the dramatic rise to power of a charismatic man of color, and now the brouhaha over the torture memos, is the simple but irrefutable truth that for nearly eight years no further terrorist attacks have happened on American soil.

Did Bush Administration Interrogation Techniques Work?

Historians and social scientists appreciate the difficulties inherent in establishing cause-effect relationships. Did effective intelligence work contribute significantly to the utter absence of further terrorist attacks in the United States? To even venture an authoritative answer to this question, we need the data. NPR reported this morning the existence of some 6,000 interrogation records, about half of which allegedly involved ranking Al Qaeda operatives. If an inquiry into the “torture” policies of the Bush Administration proceeds, this material is crucial evidence… unless, of course, you believe that the interrogation techniques must be punished no matter what they yielded. (More on that issue below.)

For those readers who may agree with me that inflicting serious pain on an Al Qaeda terrorist is preferable to a dirty bomb blasting Mahattan, or my own hometown of Philadelphia, the issue of efficacy is a crucial one to resolve.

Among my current reading material is the 2007 biography of a British double agent during WWII. Ben MacIntyre’s Agent Zigzag (Random House) includes a detailed description of how the Brit’s leading counter-espionage officers turned German spies into double agents. According to MacIntyre, physical torture was abhorred and eschewed, and yet the results were dramatically successful. The theory, which apparently comported with experience, was that --- given enough time --- anyone could be made to break, to talk, and finally to turn.

The fly in this ointment is time. About half of all Americans, according to recent public opinion polls, condone the interrogation techniques adopted by Bush but now forbidden by Obama. I suggest that the percentage would soar if the scenario involved a known threat of substantial magnitude, a tight timeline (say days or even hours) and a strong suspect. All the same, only the data contained in the 6,000 extant interrogation records can verify the reliability, or lack thereof, of the “product” obtained by means of water boarding and its kindred “harsh” interrogation techniques.

Utilitarianism in an Age of International Terrorism

In our honors course, “Theories of Justice and the American Common Law,” Political Scientist Jonathan Mendilow and I cover Jeremy Bentham and his fellow Utilitarian philosophers. We note that to the extent the American common law can be generalized, Utilitarianism --- the greatest good for the greatest number --- comes as close to a dominant, if largely implicit, organizing philosophy as any theory of justice can claim to come. We then pose the following hypothetical: If a Utopia could be assured, but only at the price of one innocent child spending eternity in a filthy cell, sore-covered and wallowing in her own excrement, would that innocent’s endless misery be justified?

The “hypo” stimulates a brisk discussion, from which we move the conversation to such real-world circumstances as the persistence of poverty and violence in our inner cities, and ask whether this is the price we are prepared to pay for the middle-class prosperity of the American majority? Again, the discussion is lively, often heated.

The simple fact --- the point of our little exercise --- is that our society makes Utilitarian trade-offs all the time. How many Americans would not trade the human rights of one Al Qaeda operative for the lives of, let us say, a million Americans in the “dirty-bomb” scenario?

If we assume for sake of argument that the 6,000 interrogation records were released and demonstrated the efficacy of the now-forbidden “torture” techniques, this Utilitarian balancing act must be addressed in any inquiry that is launched
Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

An honest inquiry, I believe, requires that we do one more thing, and that is to make every reasonable effort to put ourselves into the minds of Bush officials and intelligence-service officers during the days, weeks and months following the incendiary deaths of several thousand Americans in an attack more lethal than Pearl Harbor. What might each of us have done, confronted by (1) a mandate to make America safe once again, and (2) a set of interrogation alternatives about which both the effectiveness and the legality were ambiguous? I will say here that I believe I would have erred in favor of harsher interrogation techniques and against any serious risk of a reprise of Nine-Eleven. Perhaps you, reader, are comfortable mounting a more-lofty moral height, regardless of the potential carnage on the slopes below.

All this being said, I probably will not surprise you by adding that in my view Obama’s first instinct --- to move ahead and meet the massive political and economic challenges in front of us --- was the right instinct. An inquiry into the interrogation techniques of the Bush years is (1) unfair to the U.S. intelligence officers and civilian policy makers caught up in the crisis of their moment, (2) portends a political/media circus in which we can ill afford to indulge, and (3) endangers America’s security by demoralizing our intelligence services and encouraging our enemies.

[Jim Castagnera, a Philadelphia attorney and university counsel, is author of Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education (Praeger, 2009).]

This entry was posted on April 24th, 2009 at 09:55:02 am and is filed under Uncategorized.

Comment from: Barry Seldes [Visitor]
Two points:

First: "If a Utopia could be assured, but only at the price of [your] innocent child [or grandchild] spending eternity in a filthy cell, sore-covered and wallowing in her own excrement, would that innocent’s endless misery be justified?" In fact,would you volunteer your your child or grandchild for the promise of everyone else's Utopia?

Second: An old ethics class question: a number of copycat cutthroats, unknown to each other, can, each of them, be stopped in their tracks if one is captured, publicly tortured via the most horrific means, and then executed.

To date, none have been captured.

Would it be acceptable for the authorities simply to grab an innocent person, claim him to be a captured cutthroat, publicly submit him to excruciating torture and later, execute him? Let us suppose that this procedure would have the expected salutary effect on would-be cutthroats. The procedure would be very utilitarian. But would it be just?
04/24/09 @ 13:17
Comment from: Hugh Ormsby-Lennon [Visitor]
Slippery slopes and thin ends of the wedge here.

Read Philip Stephens's "America's abuse of the law handed victory to terrorists," Financial Times 4/24/09, for a moderate and subtle rejoinder to this stuff. For googling, article begins "Here is a chilling thought. Barack Obama has gifted a dangerous advantage to America's enemies . . ."
04/25/09 @ 01:57
Comment from: Jim Castagnera [Visitor]
Stephensen's piece is a fine and thoughtful essay. I am particularly impressed by the following:

---When the US army published its latest manual for intelligence staff in 2006, General John Kimmons, the deputy chief of staff for intelligence, flatly denied torture worked: “No good intelligence is going to come from abusive practices. I think history tells us that ... the empirical evidence of the last five years tells us that.”

General Kimmons made two obvious but important points. The credibility of intelligence obtained under duress is always doubtful: tortured terrorists will say anything. And: “It would do more harm than good when it inevitably became known that abusive practices were used.”---

Kimmons grounded his position upon practical, real-world considerations, and therefore is persuasive.

This to me is where the rubber meets the road. I do not believe that a reasonable person can say without equivocation either (1) torture is always justified, or (2) torture is never justified. On one hand is the rule of law. On the other, is the magnitude of the threat posed by terrorism, e.g., the likelihood that terrorists will one day (soon) possess a dirty bomb. To hold fast to an unbending rule in the abstract is a fool's game.

Rather, one must make pragmatic decisions on the basis of the best available data. This is Mr. Obama's greatest strength.
05/02/09 @ 06:44

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