Maintaining the Machinery of the State

I’ve just returned from my habitual 3-mile morning walk with doggies, and I see email from a business partner in my inbox:

Talk about someone needing to “see the forest!”

Chris is referring to this latest outrage. 20-yr-old Genarlow Wilson is three years into a 10-year prison sentence for engaging in consensual oral sex with a 15-yr-old when he was 17.

As Shaila Dewan reported in The Times this week, Mr. Wilson has been convicted of aggravated child molestation even though he and the girl were both minors at the time. Even if he could win an early release, Mr. Wilson could not go home to his family. He would have to register as a sex offender and would be prohibited from living with his 8-year-old sister. It is all the more disgraceful because the Georgia Supreme Court last week refused to hear his appeal.

When I read this story, the first thing I thought of — something that’s been coming up more and more — was my time as a Navy officer overseeing the maintenance of missile launching systems, then later the exterior deck equipment, and later still the ship’s electrical plant and machinery. Since then, I’ve been involved in various aspects of aviation, and through it all is the idea that one continually strives for improvements in maintenance so as to make equipment last longer and to reduce accidents that injure, main, and kill people. This is accomplished with maintenance schedules developed over time and lessons learned. Such maintenance is accomplished according to certain criteria, and is accomplished whether or not the machinery or part appears to require any maintenance at all. Particularly in aviation, some parts have a service life and when the number of flight hours has been reached, the part is switched out.

It’s a perfectly intelligent and logical means for maintaining machinery. But it has no application whatsoever to maintaining peace among moral agents in a society with laws, that, should they exist, ought to focus primarily on the extent of harm done to an innocent person and the moral culpability of the one who did the harm.

Which is kinda the way it used to be. Police exercised discretion as to whether to even intervene in a situation. Prosecutors exercised discretion as to whether to charge someone, even though on the technical merits, they could. A jury could nullify the law. And, finally, a judge, even in the face of a jury conviction, had great latitude as to what sort of sentence to impose, and they were supposed to exercise moral judgment. That was their role. The jury finds the facts, and the judge applies them to the law, taking into account various mitigating circumstances that go to moral culpability.

But now we have zero tolerance, minimum sentences, and a defense lawyer even suggesting that a jury may, or indeed should, disregard the law can get him sanctioned or tossed in the can himself on contempt. And judges are reduced to the equivalent of an expensive toaster. When the jury’s done, they pop off a sentence right out of the book. No more, no less, no other consideration, and no humanity involved anywhere in the whole deal.

It’s just a maintenance schedule, being duly followed like the placard says.

But it gets worse. At least maintenance schedules existed for the purpose and benefit of the machinery, and even though the law sometimes fails, and always has, the purpose used to be the maintenance of a peaceful society. But the law is now an end in itself, as if we used to maintain a missile system because we had a passion for practicing maintenance.

The gradual result is that the apparatus of the law now attracts people who want to police for the sake of policing; prosecutors for the sake of prosecuting, and judges for the sake of passing judgment.

There is a judicial philosophy that’s sound on its face. The people and their representatives create the laws, judges apply them. If the result is unpalatable, then the law is changed in order to obtain different results. It’s a feedback loop, just like in equipment maintenance where procedures are changed to achieve better results.

But again, we’re dealing with people, not machines, and there is never any justification to sacrifice a person –let alone a 17-yr-old boy — for the sake of better social maintenance going forward. This “send a message” bullshit that I keep hearing about has just got to stop, already. Yea, according to the story, they’ve changed the law. Good for them. They can thank Genarlow Wilson for sacrificing the best years of his life so “the justice system” is inched closer to “perfection.”

Setting aside the root, philosophical causes, the practical cause of all this is complicated. You’ve got your special interests like MADD, your rabid sex-is-rape feminist crowd, your if-I-can-save-just-one-parent crowd, and the list goes on. Then you’ve got the media who brings gasoline to the fire, and the politicians who’ll sacrifice anyone’s life to get elected and stay elected, and all you ever hear are calls for “tougher sentences.”

And we throw the book at em’. Aren’t we just the pinnacle of civilization? For me? It’s just another day of being ashamed to be a human being, in general, and and American in particular.

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  1. DW on December 22, 2006 at 13:21


    I really only want to address your closing comment about being ashamed to be a human being.

    Rich, the kind of people that throw 17 year olds in jail for 10 years for the "crime" of having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old aren't human beings. Possibly "homo sapiens sapiens", but not human.

    Anyone who has ever flipped a switch in their house and had a light come on, anyone who has ever turned a dial on the wall and had their home grow warm, anyone who has ever been helped by an anti-biotic and *who knows what those things mean*, and understands that those things a product of evolution, or a gift from the gods, or a creation of nature, or some happy accient… can be proud to call themselves human.

    Perhaps 10% of the homo sapiens sapiens on this planet are fully human… and you should be a little proud to be one.

    — DW

  2. Aaron Krowne on December 22, 2006 at 18:18

    Beautifully written, Rich.

    DW, I can't agree: redefining large swathes of the human race as "not really human" is a slippery slope to some of the worst atrocities this race has produced.

  3. Neal on December 23, 2006 at 08:42


    Isn't this is just another example of how human beings in our society have moved away from responsibility, rational thought and morality to a check-the-box compliance with arbitrary rules and laws. Depraved is almost too kind a word for it.

    As for who is human or not, I agree with Aaron – it's a slippery slope, indeed. I do think there's a distribution of morality among all human beings, and it just so happens that the more depraved a human being is, the more they tend to resemble not just things non-human (using "human" in an archetypical way), but things non-life (such as other mammals). Most living things act, though often out of nothing but instinct, in purposeful ways. Passing morality off as law strips purpose from action, replacing it with "because". Irresponsibility, mindlessness and depravity results.

    That's my two minute analysis.

    So what to do about all of these rocks masquerading as human beings? Take the arbitrary rules away. Force them to think again. They're all capable. They just have to be given a chance.

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