Saturday, October 27, 2012

Our Psychopathic Nation

     I just finished reading The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's 1,100-page Pulitzer prize-winning book about the convicted murderer and psychopath, Gary Gilmore, who fought for his right to be executed promptly once his jury had returned a verdict of guilty and the judge ordered the death penalty.
     No one had been executed in this country for ten years prior to Gary Gilmore.  Perhaps our nation was trying to move in the direction of humanism--ushering in an era of thoughtfulness, compassion, and the possibility of incorporating our shared psychopathy into the fabric of American culture without allowing it to do terrible damage to the vulnerable, aesthetic and rational components.
     True, it's very hard to feel compassion for a person who forces his victims to lie stomach-down on the floor with their hands clasped beneath them before being shot in the back of the head at close range.
     But there had been many more gruesome murders prior to Gilmore's--murders that involved terrible suffering and cruelty (e.g., the man who forced his victims to swallow Drano, or those who branded victims, or took their eyes out, or starved or stabbed them fifty times).  The murderers in those cases were not being put to death by a government adhering to the ancient eye-for-an-eye penal code.
     Gary Gilmore said his reason for killing by gunshot in the back of the head was that it was quick and caused the least suffering.  This suggests a straw of fellow-feeling stranded among neurons firing like wild pick-up sticks in his brain.  It's possible that this straw might have offered the possibility of rehabilitation for Gilmore--but not in our deplorable prison system.
     The death penalty had been reinstated in 1976 after a ten-year de facto moratorium following a Supreme Court case, Furman v. Georgia, in which the court forbade inconsistency in the application of capital punishment.  Justice Potter Steward declared the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment, unconstitutional, and wholly arbitrary and capricious, especially since race and the type of crime seemed to serve as deciding factors when it was imposed.
     It was the robbery/murder case, Gregg v. Georgia, which reinstated the death penalty, when the high court decided it was not, in fact, unconstitutional.  But the problem of its being "capriciously applied" remains.   Since the Gilmore case in 1976, 1,280 people have been executed, with three and a half times as many blacks as whites,  and only twelve women.  Until it was banned for individuals with IQ's less than seventy, 44 mentally retarded individuals were executed.  Since 1976, Texas has executed 488 people, more than four times as many as the next highest state, Virginia, at 109.  Florida is the fourth most vindictive state, having executed 68 inmates, with 402 on death row--far more than any other state.
      Despite statistics showing that 61% of Americans favor the death penalty, it is banned in seventeen states--all in the north, where citizens' average IQ's are reportedly higher.  (Is the death penalty endorsed, then, by dumb people?)
     The fact that, as the Supreme Court stated, imposition of the death penalty is marked by "prosecutorial arbitrariness" and "local idiosyncrasies"--i.e., it is unfairly applied--is enough for me to oppose its use.  The possibility, despite the advent of  DNA evidence, that those accused might be wrongly convicted and executed, is grounds for eliminating the death penalty altogether.
     Gary Gilmore waived all his rights to appeal, after being sentenced, because, he said, life in the prison system would be a far worse punishment than execution.  Prisons are grim, gory, abodes of sameness punctuated by rape, drug abuse and psycho-physical persecution inflicted by inmates and guards whose internal hierarchy and rules of operation are invented by them alone, and are outside the law as we understand it.  If execution is preferable to a lifetime in prison, one has to question a country's commitment to humanitarian ideals.
     While there are many pockets of humanitarianism in America, as a nation we tend instead toward barbarism, irrational thinking, Old Testament ethics, and violence.  Our salient values center around acquiring money and spending it--and those who acquire money by any means are treated as stars, even if they happen to be pilloried within the penal system.  Wealth is the great goal, even though it's well-established that great wealth does not give way to great happiness.  Envy and greed on the part of those who are not wealthy, and accusations of wrongdoing and attempts to take back money on the part of those who can't accept that someone else might achieve more than they do, in a vocation, are the occupational hazards of those who succeed.
     Reading Norman Mailer's stupendous chronicle from the time Gilmore was released on parole for armed robbery to his execution for murder eight months later, was probably my attempt to look closely at the inner workings of a psychopathic system--whether it's in the mind of an individual, or in the politics and judiciary of an entire nation.  After all, I feel as though I have become a victim of a psychopathic system.
    Gary Gilmore could not think and feel in synchrony.  It was as though his Neanderthal hippocampus had not been wired to his new-age prefrontal cortex.
     He could feel:  he loved and longed for his girlfriend, Nicole, with enormous vigor and eloquence;  he lusted after a white pick-up truck and staved off his impatience to have it immediately;  he tapped right into the emotions and needs of those around him--when they might be useful to him.
     He could think, too:  he calculated how much cash he needed for that white truck, and how he could obtain it by stealing from cash registers after murdering the attendants;  he managed a complicated matrix of lawyers, media agents, and financiers once the publicity his case received made him rich;  he wrote letters that were like dissertations, with philosophical reflections, literary quotes, and arguments in favor of his execution.
     What Gilmore couldn't do was operate within the two worlds of feeling and thinking at the same time.  Such maneuvering requires a series of internal compromises, which can be experienced as the pain of loss in one dimension or another.  He thought of a viable solution to his financial problems--kill the guardians of the till, and plunder the contents.  But his feeling-apparatus didn't make an appearance to say:  No, wait!--that might hurt someone else, and it's against the law, so you'll suffer guilt.  When he had big feelings, like the desire to be with Nicole all the time--in effect, to own her--his thinking-apparatus didn't make an appearance, to say:  If you try to have her 100% of the time, you'll lose her altogether--so make a deal with yourself and agree to 50%.  He committed murder because he couldn't figure out what else to do--he killed two men, he said, because he didn't want to kill Nicole.
     Had this man's well-developed feeling and thinking capacities been able to talk to one another, Gilmore might have had an ordinary life full of the tensions of wanting and not-having, wild problem-solving ("I could kill that guy!") and feeling restraints ("Oh my god, I could never recover from the remorse!") that many of us experience as our ongoing internal dialogue.
     Here's what's wrong with America's large-scale psychology:  as with psychopaths, our thinking and feeling functions don't talk to one another.  Legislators approve statutes because they make logical sense, but don't feel through the long-term consequences for people who have to suffer the implementation of those statutes.  Americans vote for people like the President of the United States on the basis of feelings:  "Romney reminds me of my grandfather!  He has such a kind voice..." or "I can't acknowledge my racist-driven anger, but I can vote against Obama as though it's based on real issues," or "Those Arabs are all the same, and we need to bust their butts with a two-trillion-dollar bigger military, or we might look weak"--but can't think through the consequences of acting on these feelings any better than Gilmore, in his small-scale way, drew on his intellect to correct the errors in judgment made by his feelings.  Corporations, we know, operate purely out of the profit-motive--using thinking tools to maximize earnings at any expense to their feeling-based clientele.  Even the charitable donations made by corporations are calculated to improve the corporate image.
     Are we going to remain a nation of outlaws and renegades, criminals and outcasts--as we were, in large part, when our feral ancestors sailed to these uncultivated shores centuries ago?  Or can we begin to reflect on our attitudes and judgments, and act as though our brains are wired together--amygdala, hippocampus, frontal cortex, pre-frontal cortex, and corpus-callosum--before we make a bigger mess of things than Gilmore ever did?
     If the prosecutors in my case had advanced brain-wiring, they would not be waiting (as they did in my blogpost commentator Rinker's case) until the very last minute, after tremendous damage has been done (about which, Rinker says, they have no feelings--except, perhaps, antipathy) to close out their empty case, admit their mistakes, and allow me to get on with my vocations and life.
     But federal prosecutors, the FBI, and much of our country's judicial system, operate out of the primitive brain, which feels anger and envy, and exercises violence and retribution.  This is plainly evident in our prison system and among the vast numbers of people (1% of our population) housed there, who are constantly being returned to its sadistic quarters.
     I wonder what can be done about this awful situation, the psychopathy of our judicial system, the psychopathy of those who elect crazy leaders, the psychopathy of mega-corporations--our GDP's dominant enterprise--and all of us who support their inhumanity by buying their mega-products.
    One person at a time, we need to work quietly and diligently on our personal psychology, ferreting out hypocrisy and automatic thinking, questioning our moralism and religiosity, and owning--and rehabilitating--our personal, inner psychopath.
     We all have one, a psychopath within.  Instead of putting it in front of a firing squad, in the visage of criminals like Gary Gilmore (as though we could wipe out all psychopathy by wiping out all criminals!) we would do better to insist on a real connection between thought and feeling in our own psyches.
     One person at a time, we might be able to rehabilitate our poor country, which is suffering in the disconnect between the great poles of thinking and feeling.  

1 comment:

  1. I recommend "Shot in the Heart", written by his brother and Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore.