Robert Alton Harris

We are supposed to argue from the general to the particular, and yet our overall view and understanding of things comes from particular experiences and examples. This has given me the urge to argue from the particular to the general, but something I read yesterday has given me the desire to do both.

Alistair of Alistair’s Adversaria occasionally has an “open mike” thread for general discussion. The other day this got into the subject of violence in literature, a specific example being “Child of God” by Cormac McCarthy, in which the titular child of God is a serial killer and necrophiliac. I haven’t read the book, but from the summary it was written in 1973, set in the 1960’s and portrays its protagonist as a victim of society.

Commenter WhiteFrozen relates this then volunteers that this protagonist “A necrophilac/murderer/rapist is pretty high up on the list of ‘the least of these’, IMO.” My response was- “A necrophiliac/murderer/rapist is the exact opposite of the least of these, IMO.” Alistair agreed- “Yes, I really don’t think that they were the people that Jesus had in mind when speaking of the ‘least of these’.”

WhiteFrozen persisted- “Jesus seems to be referring to the lower parts of society – people in prison, strangers, the sick, the poor – and as far as lower parts of society go, Lester Ballard [the murderous hillbilly in question] is fairly low.”

I became a little curious about who this WhiteFrozen is, and clicking on his username leads to his blog, where he discusses theology. He has read and studied all the big names and a lot of minor ones, stuff I wouldn’t read in a million years. He is a well-read and sophisticated progressive, and takes the progressive line on criminals- that they are poor, helpless oppressed people for whom Jesus has special love and care. I take the non-progressive position that they are not. So, who’s right?

On some prima facie level, the progressive position seems plausible. Criminals, especially violent criminals, are usually poor, come from a lower-class background, and have little education, all typical markers of low social status and influence.

The specific I’m thinking of here is the case of Robert Alton Harris, a death row inmate in California who was much in the news from the time of his crime, the murder of two teenage boys in a kidnapping and carjacking in 1978 until the time of his execution in the gas chamber in 1992. The media attention was increased by the fact that Harris was (I think) the first person to get the death penalty in California after it was reinstated and the first person to be executed in California after the reinstatement, and by some other lurid factors- the investigating detective was the father of one of the victims, and began investigating before he knew his son was dead; Harris’s cruelty to the victims, including saying “Shut up and die like a man” and “Jesus can’t save you now, kid” while one was praying; and his frequent laughing and joking during the trial.

Being the first, or one of the first, of the post-ban death penalty cases, Harris got the full attention of progressive worthies. Much was made of Harris’s brutal childhood. Several nuns became advocates, including one who said “Pete Wilson [the California governor who denied clemency] dances with death.” Harris himself never took the whole thing too seriously, until the very end. A short time before the execution, when it looked like it was going to finally happen, prison officials got wind of a rumor he was going to kill himself with a heroin overdose and did a cell search. The final night of the execution, the local court kept sending appeals to the Supreme Court, until told to knock it off. One filing was something like 1500 pages, put in 15 minutes before the scheduled execution time. Harris was actually strapped in once, then taken out.

I actually sat up most of the night listening to all this on the radio. Around 6 in the morning, it finally happened. After being strapped in for the second time, Harris apparently realized this was it. At that point- he had never expressed any before- he seemed to have some remorse, and he mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to the investigating detective and father of one of the victims, who was there as a witness.

To understand Harris you have to ask why he did what he did. Had his abusive childhood caused him to lose all personal agency, or enough to make him a victim? I don’t think so. The explanation of his behavior, or that of almost any violent criminal, has simpler explanations.

In “The Seductions of Crime- The Moral and Sensual Attractions of Doing Evil” sociologist Jack Katz studies the phenomenon of the “hard man”, the kind of aggressive criminal who does armed robberies, murders, and organized crime. Katz explains the motivation of such men is simply the experience of power. In the commission of the crime, the criminal experiences an extreme level of power over the victim. This only lasts for a short period of time, by the clock, but for the victim the experience lasts a lifetime, if he survives, or eternity, if he dies. Katz points out that the hard man also wants to display power and dominance over other participants in the crime, to show his leadership or for the simple reason of getting a bigger share of the proceeds. Thus often the abuse meted out to the victim is also a message to other participants, or other criminals who may hear about it.

Criminals then, like everybody else, have different power relationships with different people. With the Hobbesian state, the criminal has a relationship of little power and low status. When the police arrive, and he goes to jail, the state has substantial, but not total power over him, and he is not abject. He is not free, but he is fed, housed and clothed and can expect to regain his freedom in some time, depending on the circumstances. A large part of the apparatus of the state will act as his advocate.

With most others- his family, neighbors, and especially his victims- the criminal has a relationship of very high power and status. He is treated deferentially, and punishes those who do not defer. People are afraid of him, and he likes that, he revels in it. To him, the life a law-abiding citizen is a joke. A man who follows the law, unless he is extremely rich or powerful will not get anything like the fear and respect he does. Henry Hill, at the end of his autobiography, “Wiseguy” relates that one of the worst things about losing his Mafia status was having to stand in line– “like a schmuck”.

The murders were not the first time Harris had killed. In another incident years earlier, he beat and tortured a man to death, and was convicted of manslaughter. Harris loved the power that killing gave him, he was intoxicated by it. He loved the attention that being a notorious murderer gave him, and all the fawning people it brought to the visiting room. Harris had power and loved power, the power of life and death, the power of God himself. Harris was not the least of these, he was a man after Satan’s own heart, a man who partook in the greatest evil there is.

The life of a violent criminal can be divided into three stages- early childhood, when he is helpless, the period of his criminal manhood- which could start at 10 or earlier- and the time when he is permanently incarcerated. During the first and last periods, he is under the control of others and his agency is limited. Progressives look at these periods, and ignore the middle. During this period he is no victim. He gains power over others, uses it and enjoys it. He denies the value and humanity of others and makes himself his own god. Such men are not lacking in moral sense. They have a finely developed moral sense, only of the evil kind.

To deny the reality of criminal behavior and culpability is in some way more evil than the thing itself. We create the Hobbesian state- “he who wields the sword” as Paul puts it- to deal with such people. To undermine this process in the name of God is deny a basic right of humanity.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Robert Alton Harris

  1. I appreciate the kind words regarding my little blog. However…

    ‘Commenter WhiteFrozen relates this then volunteers that this protagonist “A necrophilac/murderer/rapist is pretty high up on the list of ‘the least of these’, IMO.” My response was- “A necrophiliac/murderer/rapist is the exact opposite of the least of these, IMO.” Alistair agreed- “Yes, I really don’t think that they were the people that Jesus had in mind when speaking of the ‘least of these’.”

    WhiteFrozen persisted- “Jesus seems to be referring to the lower parts of society – people in prison, strangers, the sick, the poor – and as far as lower parts of society go, Lester Ballard [the murderous hillbilly in question] is fairly low.”

    I became a little curious about who this WhiteFrozen is, and clicking on his username leads to his blog, where he discusses theology. He has read and studied all the big names and a lot of minor ones, stuff I wouldn’t read in a million years. He is a well-read and sophisticated progressive, and takes the progressive line on criminals- that they are poor, helpless oppressed people for whom Jesus has special love and care. I take the non-progressive position that they are not. So, who’s right?’

    To infer from my brief and tentative comments regarding the social status of criminals that I take ‘the progressive line’ is a bit strained. The point of the book – and the point I was attempting to make – is that it forces a sustained reflection on just exactly who ‘the least of these’ exactly are. Do we run criminals out of town (like the folks in the book) or do we recognize that, in some way, they are a ‘child of God’ much like you and I? As far as someone like Lester Ballard belonging to the bottom of society, I’ll stand by that claim. Is he a poor little oppressed orphan, a victim of society? Hardly, but that was never the point of what I was saying, nor did I identify criminals with the poor/oppressed and so absolve them of responsibility. It may not even be a theologically accurate statement – but that’s not the point, either.

    Incidentally, I don’t hold to any progressive position (as far as I know).

  2. Barnabas

    The least would be the poor who have to live in ghettos amongst preditors. The best thing you could do for them is restore brutally effective justice (massively expanded capitol punishment, flogging, etc) so that they don’t have to live in fear.

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