I want to be frank about neurotypical beliefs that I find shocking. I attribute my reactions to having a “real world” factual and concrete Asperger brain, although I can’t say that every person diagnosed Asperger would share my reactions. We are individuals, with our own ways of seeing and interpreting the environment.
These strange beliefs have to do with death, revenge and punishment.
An jetliner vanishes over an ocean. Exhaustive searches take place long past the time interval that any passenger could survive under the best of conditions; the possibility is zero. Speculation goes on and on for months. Miracles are deemed possible: soon the airplane with everyone alive will materialize “out of the blue” due to supernatural intervention caused by prayer. The families cannot accept that their loved ones have died. They become angry if they don’t receive a body; they must have a body to prove that the person is dead, otherwise they can’t achieve “closure.”
I’m not indifferent to suffering; I’ve lost family members and it has taken years to reexamine my relationships – this process toward understanding will continue until I die. “Closure” is a strange idea.
The quantum state of undetermined reality seems to be a factor in human thinking.
What baffles me is the state of limbo in which dead people remain for an extended time, that is, in the mind of the survivors; as if the person is in limbo in a quantum state: is he or she dead or alive? Only Schrodinger’s cat knows. It’s as if the person doesn’t die until the wreckage is found and bodies are identified, despite the overwhelming evidence that all on board died weeks or months ago. These traditions and beliefs run deep. The “quantum dead” effect is simply strange.
A closely related belief is that “the remains” of a person contain an “essence” that can be recovered if the bones can be located and returned to descendants, or to a specific location. The act of placing the remains in a designated cemetery where “the person” can be visited, is believed to “honor” the dead and to confirm an event that happened decades before. This is an old tradition based in magic: bones are believed to possess contagious magical power. The Middle Ages were awash in the relics of saints, Kings, Queens and other powerful folk, and existing shrines are mobbed by pilgrims to this day. This tradition as deeply human, but I think it is healthy to accept that when the body dies, the person dies. What remains are memories.
What shocks me the most is that nations make a great display of “honoring” dead soldiers, but fail to honor living soldiers who have paid an enormous price in physical and mental trauma.
Any person who dies unexpectedly, due to an accident or a crime, immediately becomes the “best person who ever lived.” This story-making is repeated over and over again, and I think much of the blame goes to the media’s intent on ambushing the victim’s family just as they receive the tragic news.
Regardless of circumstance, according to family and friends, the dead person was a great humanitarian who loved the world, was kind, helpful, generous, and if religious, a dedicated member of the faith. Pretty remarkable life history for anyone, and in some cases attributable to expected social exaggeration, but by repetition these fictions become true in the minds of many. What if a long history of drug abuse, criminal activity, domestic abuse or a willingness to “con” family members emerges? The person remains a saint: is this denial, face-saving, shame? Does a social “law” exist that says only “good people” can be mourned (only good people count.) Why must people lie about loved ones?
As an Asperger, I believe that everyone counts; each human life ought to be acknowledged and absorbed into the pageant that is humanity.
Revenge and punishment = justice. This is a tough one; revenge is an impulse that can destroy a fair legal system, and needs to be recognized for what it is: magical thinking. The American system is highly variable, with laws, criminal prosecution and periods of incarceration in a “correctional institution” determined state by state. Other crime and punishment is controlled by the Federal courts. It is not these idiosyncratic systems that I can address.
Revenge as a driver of human behavior is familiar, and is a major cause of wars large and small, and drives conflict between ethnic, cultural and religious groups; between families, businesses etc. The resolution of conflict in many cultures was/is a matter of payment in kind: your uncle looses control and kills a man he suspects of cheating him. That man’s family vows revenge – kill the uncle! But an arrangement is made to “pay for” the death. This may seem cold or unfair to the victim, but the victim is already dead. Nothing will bring him back. Why should the living be dragged into an endless cycle of violence?
In the U.S., the victim’s family, friends, communities, law enforcement and the legal system demand “justice” for the victim, but what does this mean? In the U.S. Justice translates to conviction of an offender(s) and a long prison sentence. Life without parole has become a standard “request” for many crimes, the exact nature of which varies wildly from state to state and between jurisdictions. Often this results in solitary confinement; some prisoners endure this inhumane punishment for years, based on the demands of the victim’s family, the judge’s personal opinion of the offender, and judgments made by employees of the prison where the offender is kept. Many prisoners are denied parole well beyond the expected time period, due to the ongoing demands of the victim’s family. We might also note that in the American system, the mentally ill and developmentally disabled are included in the criminal class.
The magical (and subjective) aspect of this arbitrary system is that punishment meted out to the convicted criminal (assuming he or she is actually guilty) is believed to provide “something” for the victim and family. This can only be a retroactive supernatural satisfaction, injury or death cannot be magically erased. And yet, the prevailing belief is that suffering on the victim’s part can be “canceled” by imposing suffering on the “guilty.”
If this imposition of punishment, which is believed to be a deterrent to citizens committing crimes, were effective in the real world, then why has the incarceration rate in the U.S. skyrocketed? The creation of laws that criminalize selective nonviolent behavior has had a huge impact on minorities. Lack of sufficient education leads to unemployment and a new economic slavery. The resurgence of religious influence on government policy has contributed to a legal system bent on revenge and imprisonment that conveniently removes millions of citizens from normal lives. And in true American fashion, this magical revenge-punishment cycle is highly profitable.
_______________Some historical background
We can readily see that Puritan beliefs and attitudes condition our social policies today.
Just as in Europe, physical punishment was common in colonial America. Americans used stocks, pillories, branding, flogging, and maiming—such as cutting off an ear or slitting nostrils—to punish offenders. The death penalty was used frequently. In 1636 the Massachusetts Bay Colony listed thirteen crimes that warranted execution, including murder, practicing witchcraft, and worshipping idols. In early New York State, 20% of offenses, including pickpocketing, horse stealing, and robbery, were capital crimes.
Jails were used to hold prisoners awaiting trial or sentencing or as debtors’ prisons, but were not the punishment itself. The Puritans of Massachusetts believed that humans were naturally depraved, which made it easier for some of the colonies and the first states to enforce harsh punishments. In addition, since Puritans believed that humans had no control over their fate (predestination), so there was no possibility of rehabilitation.
The Quakers, led by William Penn, made colonial Pennsylvania an exception to the harsh practices often found in the other colonies. The early criminal code of colonial Pennsylvania abolished executions for all crimes except homicide, replaced physical punishments with imprisonment and hard labor, and did not charge the prisoners for their food and housing.
Ideas of the Enlightenment
The philosophy of the Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) emphasized the importance of the individual. After the French Revolution of 1789, which was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, western European countries abolished torture as a form of punishment and emphasized that the punishment should fit the individual’s crime(s). Rather than inflicting pain as the main element of correction, the idea of changing the individual became the goal. The French Revolution, however, also introduced the guillotine, a sophisticated beheading machine.
In England, John Howard (1726–90) wrote The State of the Prisons in England and Wales (1777), in which he described the horrible treatment of prisoners. Howard thought that prisoners should not be harassed by keepers who extorted from them, nor should they have to suffer malnutrition and disease. He advocated segregating prisoners by age, sex, and type of crime; paying the staff; hiring medical officials and chaplains; and supplying prisoners with adequate food and clothing.
Howard called the facilities “penitentiaries” (from the word “penitent,” meaning to be ashamed or sorry for committing a sin or offense) because he based his ideas on the Quakers’ philosophy of people repenting, reflecting on their sins, and changing their ways. Public concern led the British Parliament to pass the Penitentiary Act of 1779; it called for the first secure and sanitary penitentiary. The law eliminated the charging of fees. Prisoners would live in solitary confinement at night and work together silently during the day. Nonetheless, although Parliament passed the law, it did not actually go into effect until the opening of Pentonville Penitentiary in North London
____________________One In Nine U.S. Prisoners Are Serving Life Sentences, Report Finds
by Nicole Flatow Posted on September 19, 2013 at 2:38 pm
A new report by The Sentencing Project finds that one in every nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, and the number of such prisoners has more than quadrupled since 1984. Nearly a third of those serving life sentences will never have a chance at a parole hearing. This accounting doesn’t even include the countless others who have effective life sentences, either because they are sentenced to very long terms such as 120 years, or because they sentenced to very long terms such as 120 years, or because they are sentenced later in life to terms that effectively mean death in prison.
The report includes a series of remarkable facts about the demographics of those serving life sentences:
- The population of prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) has risen more sharply than those with the possibility of parole: there has been a 22.2% increase in LWOP since just 2008, an increase from 40,1745 individuals to 49,081.
- Approximately 10,000 lifers have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, including more than 2,500 for a drug offense and 5,400 for a property crime.
- Nearly half of lifers are African American and 1 in 6 are Latino.
- More than 10,000 life-sentenced inmates have been convicted of crimes that occurred before they turned 18 and nearly 1 in 4 of them were sentenced to LWOP.