A new solution for the rising crime rate: merciless embarrassment
Our judicial system is dead. As everyone who can read knows, the courts are constipated with a crushing burden of cases. Neither prosecutors nor public defenders can handle their workloads. Defendants don't receive speedy justice, and virtually everyone knows a muggee or burglarizee whose muggers or burglars were set lose because a cogwheel in the system slipped.
Chief Justice Burger [in 1981] has been pleading for reform that will correct these discrepancies. The public is crying cut for some kind of solution -- any solution -- that will protect them and put criminals where they belong. Defenders of the system argue that at least we know what we have: there is, they say, no proven alternative. They're wrong. I have it.
Let me set the scene. It's the frosted-glass-paneled-door leading into some sleazy boiler-room telephone-bank operation. A burly thug in shirtsleeves and galluses peers cut, sees Morley Safer and his camera crew. He claps his greasy hand over the lens. "You can't come in here with that! Get that camera outta here!" Picture sways to shot of ceiling as cameraman is wrestled by the criminal, over Morley's ineffectual protestations. Verdict? GUILTY.
Dan Rather, running after executive of mail-order snake-oil firm: "Mr. Garbage-face, if you won't talk to me now, may I please make an appointment to see you in your office next Tuesday?" The pace picks up. Garbageface is obviously in top condition, and Rather has wasted his breath on questions he knew wouldn't be answered. He's winded by the time they get to the cream-colored Cadillac. He can barely pant, "look, Mr. Carbageface --" when the power window slides up like a guillotine in reverse, nearly snagging his necktie. He narrowly escapes being dragged to death as the Caddy screeches cut of the parking lot, burning rubber. Verdict? GUILTY.
What about cases of reasonable doubt? Can there be any? If there's to be an appeal, let it be to Mike Wallace. It's an utterly incontrovertible fact known to a hundred million viewers that anybody who can't look Mike Wallace straight in the eye is a liar. Did you notice that during his interview with Khomeini, the Thirteenth Prophet of Shiya kept fidgeting with the cotton-base fringe of the rug on which he was squatting? He never looked Mike straight in the eye once. Verdict? GUILTY.
What about cases of reasonable doubt? Can there be any? If there's to be an appeal, let it be to Mike Wallace. It's an utterly incontrovertible fact known to a hundred million viewers that anybody who can't look Mike Wallace straight in the eye is a liar. Did you notice that during his interview with Khomeini the Thirteenth Prophet of Shiya kept fidgeting with the cotton-base fringe of the rug on which he was squatting? He never looked Mike straight in the eye once. Verdict? GUILTY.
There may be a few hardened types who can beat the system, the supercriminals. One that comes immediately to mind is the late Shah. He could look Mike straight in the eye and lie without a flinch.
But surely there cannot be more than a handful of such sociopaths in the world. Count up the number of current heads of state -- that's about how many.
All the foregoing sounds funny to you, or it should have if I wrote skillfully enough. I hope you had a good laugh. But it's serious, too. The fact is, the malefactors exposed by good journalism are all obviously guilty. You know it, I know it, they know it. And to the extent that potential swindlers lie awake nights worrying about what if a camera crew shows up in front of my boiler-room door, it may even deter some from a career of crime. Nobody likes bad behavior to be exposed to public view.
That's what's wrong with cur judicial system. Criminological studies have shown that most people adjust quite well to life in prison. The most painful moment for all but the most-hardened is the moment of exposure. Everything else is coasting downhill.
Like it or not, we live in a primitive society. Our intellectually-advanced legal system cannot cope with the sheer mindlessness of the brutes in our midst. Primitive means are called for. Traditional Eskimo legal practice calls for ridicule and shame as a means of resolving interpersonal conflict before it gets to the ambush stage. Even such advanced countries as West Germany still pillory customs-law offenders (you bring in untaxed cigarettes, and they put your photograph up on every public bulletin-board).
Our trials are theoretically open to public view, because anybody can walk into a courtroom. But nobody does. Except for the occasional sensational murder, where the dead person is a movie star or diet-book author, nobody cares what goes on inside the hermetically-sealed courthouse.
The law leans to grandeur. There's nothing wrong with that. But there's nothing grander than an indignant mob. I suggest that all criminal cases in New York, for instance, be held during rush hour in Grand Central Station. In Chicago, lunchtime at the Board of Trade. In L. A., on the freeway median at almost any hour of the day. You get the idea. Any time you can get a large clot of tense, angry, worked-up people all together in the same place.
I'm not advocating lynch law, mind you. I am merely suggesting that having a great lot of people booing and hissing at you is probably a greater deterrent to crime than any amount of reformistic urgings from the likes of Warren E. Burger.
Shame was the Original Punishment, remember? It worked well in Pilgrim society, too. Twenty-four hours in the stocks with passersby jeering and throwing dead cats at you was a proven preventive to further transgressions.
What's my personal angle in this, you ask? I am currently running a telephone-solicitation campaign to sell by chain letter an imitation gold fig-leaf to all those exposed to public censure, to be worn as a badge of honor on the lapel along with bloodbank and United Way pins, as a sign that one has given one's full measure of enbarrassrnent. I have two dozen people working a phone bank in the basement of cry home right now.
Did you hear a knock at the door?
Back in 1981 Gareth Penn was a free-lance writer who lived in Napa, where he built his own geodesic dome. He alerts us to watch out for some "hot stuff" coming out in New West (also known as California) magazine under his byline, George Oakes. Clicking on the link will take you to a review of Oakes' work, Zodiac Unmasked.
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