Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jared Loughner

Midday on Saturday, gun shots interrupted a public meeting between a Congresswoman and her constituents in Arizona. The suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, shot 18 and killed at least 6 outside a supermarket in Tucson. Among the dead are a 9 year old child and a federal judge, John Roll.
Ms. Giffords was speaking to constituents in a supermarket alcove under a large white banner bearing her name when a man ran up and began firing. He then tried to escape on foot but was tackled by a bystander and taken into custody by the police. The Saturday event was outside a Safeway supermarket and was the first opportunity for constituents to meet with Ms. Giffords since she was sworn in for a third term on Wednesday.
FBI chief Robert Mueller is en route to Tucson to lead the official investigation. There may be accomplices to the assassination. Pima County Sheriff Dupnik has confirmed that investigators are searching for a second suspect, roughly 50 years in age who transported Loughner to the "Congress on your Corner" event. A check of Jared Loughner's online presence suggest a deeply disturbed man (what a cliche) caught up in anti-government propaganda and anti-immigrant sentiment. His main focus seems to be the Ron Paul-like fascination with gold-backed currency. His final video ends with the statement, "In conclusion, my ambition - is for informing literate dramers about new currency; in a few days, you know I'm conscience dreaming! Thank you!" The video was posted three weeks ago.

The media is treating the shooting as an assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (AZ-08), who is currently in critical condition. As a congresswoman, Ms. Giffords is a much more public figure than Judge Roll, though stories note that both have received death threats recently. It is unclear whether these threats are connected to Saturday's attack. Giffords was famously included on Sarah Palin's infamous "Don't Retreat-RELOAD" map which used gunsights to designate Democrats targeted during the election. Perhaps this is why I feel so uneasy reading the NYTimes sentence, "Ms. Giffords was part of the Democratic class of 2006 that swept Democrats into the majority and that just turned over this past Tuesday to the Republicans. She narrowly survived a re-election bid in November."

This is an instance where I believe the death penalty is appropriate. I believe that in most murders the death penalty (a) is not an effective deterrent and (b) serves no other purpose. However, the assassination of a federal judge and the attempted assassination of a congresswoman are attacks upon the American public. America is a successful nation because of democratic government. This is what President Obama is getting at when he says:
"It's not surprising that today Gabby was doing what she always does - listening to the hopes and concerns of her neighbors," Obama said, referring to Giffords by her nickname. "That is the essence of what our democracy is all about. That is why this is more than a tragedy for those involved. It is a tragedy for Arizona and a tragedy for our entire country."
Attacks on gatherings of congresspeople and their constituents poses a clear danger to Democratic forms. This is why I'm surprised that police across the country did not aggressively pursue cases against people who had earlier brandished weapons outside (and inside) of public meetings. The threat of force against political opponents is not compatible with a functioning democracy. The attack certainly will chill political discourse and abridge the ability of lawmakers to meet with their constituents. More directly, it killed a judge, responsible for ensuring that democratically made law controls the realities of life in American society. An attack upon the implementation tools of American democracy is an attack upon the political rights of all Americans. Political rights of Americans ensure that we can operate in a society that we agree is worth participating in: paying taxes, conducting economic transactions, and receiving security and services from the government. When a citizen violates the rights of other citizens by attacking the institutions of the body politic, that individual must be cast out of society. Do prisons accomplish this goal? Possibly, but there is a symbolic value in executing an individual that takes actions which endanger our political system and the rights of all Americans. The power, cohesiveness, and resolve of the American political system is vindicated when it unites to punish such a perpetrator.

This rationale underlies the political justification for targeted killings of foreign terrorists. Definitionally, anti-American terrorists have declared that the safety of American citizens is to be exterminated, making them enemies of the American public. The power of the state cannot be constrained against inventive, intentionally unconventional, and solipsistic enemies. Arguably, the same justification should allow for the death penalty for killers of police.

This logical extension makes me a little bit squeamish about the declaring that the death penalty is worth administering even in this case. If Jared Loughner is killed by the state, there is no principled separation between this case and the highly emotionally charged case of a cop-killer. After all, even "cop killers" can be wrongfully convicted. For ethical systems that place a premium on avoiding innocent deaths (e.g. Abrahamic religion-inspired ethics), the death penalty will remain an untenable aspect of the Constitutional regime. Of course, as instances of the death penalty become more rare, the "cruel and unusual" calculus could shift to proscribe all applications of state-induced death.

My gut feeling here is that the death penalty has value for uses in punishing violent crimes against the public. This enters into some thorny territory: how do we define public? Does motive enter into it? Jared Loughman might present mental health issues or other mitigating factors. The political and constitutional value of executing enemies of the American democratic forms probably do not outweigh the ethical problems with the state maintaining the machinery of capital punishment, especially when there doesn't appear to be a solid basis for such a value.

UPDATE: This statement from the Sheriff Clarence Dupnik sums up the broader context of the shooting nicely:
Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik offered an emotional, angry assessment of the state of America in the wake of the shootings in Arizona, saying that two of his close friends -- Ms. Giffords and Judge John Roll - were among the victims.

Mr. Dupnik called the shooting a "very sad day for Tucson" and a "horrendous, horrendous, senseless, unbelievable crime." And then he blamed the crime on the rhetoric -- presumably political rhetoric -- in the country.

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government," he said. "The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on this country is getting to be outrageous and unfortunately Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Mr. Dupnik said it is time for the country to "do a little soul searching."

He added: "The vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business ... This has not become the nice United States that most of us grew up in."

Later, he said: "It's not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included. That's the sad thing about what's going on in America: pretty soon we're not going to be able to find reasonable decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office."

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