Saturday, May 24, 2014


Another day, another gun rampage in the USA, this time in Santa Barbara, CA leaving 7 dead including Elliot Rodger, the alleged perp ( I refuse to post or to link to Rodger's creepy video).

Aside from the usual issues of firearms access and violence addiction, it strikes me that all of these mass gun killers are men.  Women take just as much of a beating from the world as men (and maybe more), and yet it never seems to occur to the double X chromosome part of the population to lash out or to act out in such a violent and extreme fashion (women attempt suicide more often than men, though men more often go through with it).  A strikingly large number of these killers are affluent white boys like Elliot Rodger who randomly murdered people from his expensive black BMW yesterday.   Among the many rich young white dudes shooting their way into (usually posthumous) fame are the the 2 kids who shot up Columbine high school; the Aurora movie theater murderer James Eagan Holmes who was the son of academic and medical professionals;  Kip Kinkel who killed his affluent professional parents as well as 2 other people at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon; Adam Lanza left his large and comfortable home in Connecticut to kill over a score of little kids in an elementary school after killing his mother; Jared Lee Loughner who killed 6 people and wounded a Congressional representative in Tuscon came from a relatively comfortable suburban background.  Despite the press reports which later turn out not to be true, none of these boys, while definitely loners, appeared to be victims of bullying.  A lot of them like the Columbine boys, like Kinkel, like Holmes, appear to have had loving parents and stable families.  Even the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho who was not white and whose parents were small business owners, seemed to have come from a very loving family deeply concerned about him.  All of these guys appear to be straight.  Girls and virginity frequently appear as a central preoccupation of the perps (as in the case with Rodgers and with Seung-Hui Cho).

  I'm not sure what these little demographic details mean, but they are striking and seem counter to the usual narratives about crime and violence in the USA.


The death toll from yesterday's rampage in Santa Barbara is now 10.  Rodgers stabbed his 3 room mates to death before his Beemer driven shooting spree.

I sometimes think what the Marquis de Sade said about nature is also true for Americans; we yearn in all our pores for bloodshed.


According to the WaPo, the 7 dead number from yesterday includes the killer and the 3 dead room mates.

The Glasgow School of Art Burns

Fire destroyed the famous library in the building designed and built in 1907 - 1909 by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for the Glasgow School of Art this morning.  The fire started when a slide projector exploded in a basement classroom and spread quickly.  The building was packed with students at the time.  Remarkably, the building was safely evacuated and no one was hurt.

Due to heroic work by the local fire department, most of the building survived and can be repaired.  The library which was the centerpiece of Mackintosh's design, and a major masterpiece of early modern architecture and design, is a total loss.

Buildings are ultimately as mortal as the people who build them; and yet, we would like our monuments to be at least a little less mortal than we are.  We would like them to survive us and that our great grandchildren could see them.  That's why we build in the first place, why buildings will always mean more to us than a place to get out of the rain.  Time and chance will have their way with our buildings, just as they do with us.

Here are some pictures of the library of the Glasgow School of Art, of what was lost today.

My deepest sympathies for so great a loss to the students, faculty, and staff of the GSA.  I wish them well.

Lightning Strikes the World Trade Center

We had some weather yesterday.

"What can be more averse to poetry than the thunderbolt of Jove made harmless when caught by a lightning rod." -- Schiller

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Supreme Measure

Last week, the State of Oklahoma horribly botched an execution leaving a condemned man to die of a heart attack.  A convicted murderer, Clayton Lockett, fought authorities in his cell.  He earlier attempted suicide by cutting his arm.  Authorities had to taser him to bring him to the death chamber.  Once strapped in, technicians could not find a suitable vein for the IV.  They found a vein in his groin area.  Far from sedated, Lockett writhed in apparent pain.  The vein collapsed and officials called off the execution.  Lockett died 10 minutes later of a heart attack.

Lockett was convicted of a horrendous crime; shooting a girl in the head and then burying her alive. He was hardly good or innocent.  It was necessary to permanently remove him from society.  But other than gratifying raw passions for revenge, did killing him really serve any purpose?  Would spending the rest of his life in prison really be any more merciful?  Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the deaths of 160 people in the Oklahoma City bombing dropped all appeals to his death sentence saying he preferred to die rather than to live for the rest of his life in prison.  In the end, he got the public martyrdom he wished for.

As far as I'm concerned, lethal injection is a grotesque parody of a medical procedure.  The Hippocratic Oath and the AMA forbid doctors and medical staff from participating in executions.  These executions are handled by prison "technicians" with only the most minimal medical training at best.  What is more, the drugs normally used by the states for executions are becoming unavailable.  The European Union forbids the sale of these drugs for executions (most of them are made by European companies).  Some pharmaceutical companies don't want their product or their brand associated with executions, and so have stopped selling them to state prison authorities.  Now states like Oklahoma are experimenting with alternatives which are tightly kept secrets, possibly because some of these drugs were obtained illegally.

I sometimes wonder just whose feelings this "humane" method of execution were meant to spare.  It certainly isn't those of the condemned.  The USA has a history of experiments with "humane" execution methods that always turn out to be even more horrible than traditional methods of hanging or shooting.  Electrocution was once promoted as a "humane" alternative to hanging.  It was abandoned in most states after many instances of condemned prisoners being tortured to death with repeated shocks, or catching fire and being incinerated before horrified witnesses.

I think the old Stalinist method of shooting condemned prisoners in the back of the head at point blank range is a much more truly humane method of execution.  It is instant and certain, if very messy with blood and brains going everywhere.  The Chinese still use this method quite successfully with the added flourish of making the families of the condemned buy the bullets used to kill them.

A public execution in China

If people are not willing to live with the horror, blood, and mess of executions, then they shouldn't have a death penalty at all.  The guillotine was more humane with about as instant a death as you can get (Dr. Guillotine who invented the device also promoted it as a "humane" alternative to traditional beheading techniques; usually with an axe that would frequently involve as many as five chops to get a head off).  The French last used the guillotine in 1977.  When France finally got rid of the guillotine in 1981, they got rid of capital punishment.

The other thing people have to live with is the finality of the death penalty.  What's done cannot be undone.  It is only a matter of time before cases of innocent people put to death eventually surface and are proven.  With new DNA technology over the past 20 years, there has been a host of exonerations of people wrongly convicted, some of them on death row.  The other aspect of a wrongful conviction is that the truly guilty remain free to commit other and sometimes worse crimes.  Among many, there is the case of Michael Morton in Texas who served 25 years for killing his wife while the real killer murdered another woman.
How could things be put to right if Morton had been executed?

Opponents and proponents of the death penalty have one thing in common; a conviction that the legal system is a failure.  And who can blame them?  As Matt Taibibi demonstrates in his new book The Divide, justice is effectively for sale.  We have one law for the rich, and other laws that criminalize the poor.  It's hard to believe in justice or even the rule of law when a teenager in Texas from a wealthy family can get off with only rehab from the judge after killing 4 people in a drunk driving accident.  If I had done the same thing when I was a teenager in Texas, I would still be in jail for negligent homicide today.  Where is justice when law is just a game of priest-craft with winners and losers?  And it's a game that's rigged to favor those with the most advantages, just like so much else these days.  The very idea of "Equal Justice Under Law" becomes a cynical and cruel joke.

And then we have the recent case of Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, who laid a trap for some neighboring teenagers in his garage and killed them both in an act of vigilante justice gone way too far.  He blamed the police and the justice system for ignoring his complaints that neighbor kids were frequently breaking into his garage.  So, he took the law into his own hands and became a murderer.
Some people prefer vendetta to justice and end up as criminals themselves.  The whole point of the rule of law is to spare people having to resort to (or suffer) vendetta.  Law is supposed to protect us not only from the monsters outside our doors, but our neighbors from our own worst instincts.

Our Lord had some first hand experience with the death penalty.
We forget that He once decided a capital case.  He decided that mortal human beings have neither the authority nor the competence to judge in matters of life and death.  The woman brought before Him accused of adultery and facing death by stoning walked away pardoned and very much alive.  His views on the death penalty, and on violence in general, are very clear and unequivocal.  His followers tried to evade those teachings through all kinds of theological sophistry ever since.

Jesus died in a very routine and unremarkable execution by the standards of the ancient world. Religious authorities convicted Him of sacrilege and blasphemy for claiming to be God's Son.  But that's not what got Him executed.  The Romans crucified Him for sedition after He claimed to be a king.  There were probably hundreds of such messianic "kings" executed by the Romans in Judea before Jesus.  There certainly were thousands of others executed after Jesus.

None of this stopped or even slowed down the blood soaked parade of history over the last 2000 years.  Not only were Christians in that parade, they frequently took the lead with executions for heresy, sodomy, witchcraft, etc.  Christians blessed plenty of bombs and imperial massacres despite the very clear teachings of their Savior on these matters.

The Crucified Christ painted by Rembrandt