Sunday, September 30, 2012

Christopher Nolan's Kangaroo Court

The latest Batman movie carries the burden of being the occasion for the murderous assault in Aurora, Colorado, in July. A deranged graduate student named James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 59 in a shooting spree in a suburban theater during an opening-weekend screening of the film.

As the legal process for Holmes takes its course, the film itself is winding down its theatrical run. With video and other distribution channels in the pipeline, films don’t stay very long in theaters these days. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the theater in Burnsville, Minnesota, where I saw The Dark Knight Rises was one of the smallest I’d ever been in.

It was so small that the disparity between the large screen and the tiny room was quite incongruous.

Rather incongruous, too, is director Christopher Nolan’s plotting of the film. Strangely enough, in a movie featuring such over-the-top violence, Nolan at times seems on the verge of raising the question of whether violence is ever justified — even when responding to violence.


Unfortunately, that theme never really crystallizes. But the film contains some memorable individual scenes. Naturally, for purposes of this blog, I was struck by the sessions of the kangaroo court that is capable of issuing only death sentences.

Ostensibly, prisoners are given a choice: exile or death. Exile, however, turns out to be over the not-quite-frozen river, and therefore a de facto death sentence.

What was the context, I wonder, in which the term “kangaroo court” was coined? It dates, according to Webster’s, to 1853.

The larger question, however, is whether the entire film is a type of kangaroo court. One definition of such a court, after all, is of "a judgment or punishment given outside of legal procedure." In effect, the entire film comprises that kind of court.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

10,000 Lakes, 10,000 Rounds of Ammunition

Fatal shootings in or near workplaces by disaffected former employees seem to have become part of the accepted backdrop of American life.

Only a month ago, in New York City, a disturbed former clothing designer lay in wait outside the Empire State Building for the co-worker whom he blamed for the loss of his job. The 58-year-old former employee shot and killed his intended victim — then was killed by police himself after taking out his gun again when they confronted him.

Nine bystanders were injured, presumably by the barrage of bullets (16 rounds) fired by police. This all went down immediately outside of one of America’s signature tourist attractions.

Two days ago, another horrific workplace shooting unfolded in a different American city. This time the scene was a sign manufacturing business in Minneapolis. A 36-year-old engraver who was being let go fatally shot five people and injured three others. He then descended to the building’s basement and killed himself.

Today’s account in the Star Tribune contained numerous storylines that could be explored in greater depth.

One is the ubiquity of guns in the U.S. today. The Minneapolis gunman used a 9 mm Gluck revolver. Police also found a second gun in his house, as well as packaging for 10,000 rounds of ammunition.

Another theme in these shootings is the pressure our hard-driving work culture exerts on all concerned. When the drive for success is so palpable in the workplace, it stands to reason that the chances of someone snapping increase.

Most people don’t snap. But why is it that some do? In some cases, mental illness is surely a precipitating factor.

The parents of the shooter in the Minneapolis case had apparently tried to get their son into counseling. He had resisted their efforts, however, and distanced himself from them.

In their statement to the media, the parents noted that their son’s battle with mental illness was “not an excuse for his actions, but sadly, may be a partial explanation.”

Indeed it may.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Certainty vs. Severity

American legislatures have constantly added to sentence lengths for a host of crimes in the last 25 years. In many states, this has been combined with a decrease in the power of the parole board due to determinate sentencing. The resulting increase in length of stay has been a key driver of the prison population boom.

In theoretical terms, the excessive focus on the severity of punishment has led farther and farther away from the realization that the Enlightenment thinker Cesare Beccaria reached way back in 1764. Namely, that if the goal is deterring crime, the certainty of punishment is far more important than the severity.

A particular case in point is drunk driving laws. Numerous states have adopted felony sentences for three or more convictions for drunken driving. In terms of actually preventing drunk driving, however, it would probably be more effective to put more cops on the road on a regular basis.

Why would this help? As things stand now, most offenders drive drunk multiple times before they are finally pulled over and charged. But if there were a significantly higher chance of being caught, potential drunk driving offenders would be more inclined to avoid committing the offense altogether.

This, at least, is what Beccaria’s certainty principle would suggest. To be sure, it would cost considerable sums of money to put more DWI checkpoints in place and engage in other crime prevention efforts. But considering how expensive it is to incarcerate someone, Beccaria’s insight could reallocate resources toward a more efficient overall strategy for dealing with drunk driving.

It would also be more just. With more consistent enforcement of the law, arrests would seem more consistent, and therefore more fair.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Not Necessarily White: Kingsley Shacklebolt on Film

Twenty-four hundred years ago, Plato’s dialog The Cratylus explored the connection between names and the things they stand for.

In our time, even before she began writing her remarkable series of Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling started compiling a list of intriguing names.

In the books themselves, Rowling's names often give clues, veiled in classical or French allusions, to the nature of the people who bear them.

Tonight, watching The Order of the Phoenix on DVD with my boys, I was struck by my own implicit racial prejudice concerning one such name: Kingsley Shacklebolt.


It’s a dynamo of a name. The word "king" is right there in Kingsley, pointing to a commanding presence. And Shacklebolt connotes both power (bolt, as in lightning bolt) and service (shackles). So Kingsley Shacklebolt is completely spot-on as the name for the lead “auror” at the Ministry of Magic in the Potter books.

The aurors enforce the laws that govern witches and wizards. In essence, then, Shacklebolt begins the books as the attorney general for the magical community.

In reading the books or hearing them read, I assumed he was white. This occurred despite the fact that, in the early pages of The Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling describes Kinglsey Shacklebolt as black.

Somehow, amid the narrative sweep of the 870-book, this fact did not really register with me. The white image took shape, without me really thinking about it. After all, the books were written by a white British woman and are set in Britain. And I, of course, am white myself.

In the film version, there is no room for such misconceptions. Shacklebolt is clearly portrayed as a person of color. He is played by George Harris, a native of the West Indies, and exerts an undeniably authoritative presence.

My hat is off to the filmmakers for correcting my flawed misconception that Shacklebolt is white. He could be black, white or any other race, in a community where what ultimately matters is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the content of one’s character.

Why did I think he was white? Because being white insulates many of us from the struggles that others must overcome to achieve a level playing field in the face of structural racism.

In short, as I learned in dismantling racism training in 1998, being white means NOT having to think about this — even when we should.