01 November 1997

To Kill a Mass Murderer

Timothy James McVeigh was tried, convicted and sentenced to death for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, which killed 168 men, women, and children. He stood accused with Terry Lynn Nichols, and a possible third man. I imagine that every prospective juror was asked the following two questions:

Given the press coverage of this case so far, do you think you can evaluate the evidence objectively?

Well, we have the press reporting a supposed confession by Mr. McVeigh. Did he really confess? And regardless of whether he did, did the defense leak something to the press so that later they could claim that they didn't get a fair trial, or did the prosecution leak something so as to gain credibility with the public? We live in an age of what the New Testament writers called pornoia, or whoredom, in which the legal profession and the press feed off each other in such a way as to undermine public confidence in our system of justice. I think I could evaluate the evidence objectively because I don't trust a word of what I've heard or read so far.

How do you feel about sentencing someone to death for this type of crime?

I could not support the death penalty for two reasons.

The first is a matter of principle:

I think the people of the United States, and their government should avoid killing people unless it's absolutely necessary to do so. An alternative to killing Mr. McVeigh, should he be found guilty, is life imprisonment. Which should mean exactly what it says. It should be impossible for a person sentenced to life in prison to come up for parole unless the sentence is modified to read, "life in prison, but with possibility of parole after twenty years, or age seventy, whichever comes last," or something similar. The only real reason to kill Mr. McVeigh, if he is found guilty, is because we fear that we do not have the will to keep him in prison, which means that we will be killing Mr. McVeigh because of our own character flaws, rather than his. It is also arrogant -- by killing Mr. McVeigh we would be denying that we have the same inner demons that he has, all the while enjoying the act of letting those demons have him as their victim.

The second is a matter of fairness:

The ways we kill convicted criminals — poison gas, electrocution, lethal injection — are far more gentle than the kinds of death nature has in store for most of the rest of us. I have even had lethal injections given to my sick and aged pets as acts of mercy. I would rather make a mass murderer wait in prison to take his or her chances with a death just as unpleasant as that which may await me, or say, my mother. I don't see that committing a heinous crime should guarantee a person a better death than the rest of us.

Editor's Note: I have since changed my mind about this after having studied and worked in the field of counter-terrorism. Kill the guy before he has a chance to publish anything or otherwise have his say.

Reefer Madness!

Toward a Saner Drug Policy
Revised 2003

As I was moving in, my neighbor was moving out. To Humboldt County, to take up farming, he said. I imagined him in midlife crisis, fleeing corporate clonehood in suburbia for hard work and independence. And maybe he was, but I later heard that Humboldt County is the cannabis capital of northern California. He may back up his independence with booby-traps, firearms, and a distributor connected to organized crime. Because it is a "controlled substance," a commercial marijuana grower must associate first for business, and then for protection, with criminals. It can get ugly. Nobody hikes unmarked trails in Humboldt County, they say.

On the other hand, drug addiction is ugly, too, and according to Joseph A. Califano, Jr., president of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, "teens who smoke pot are 85 times likelier to use drugs such as cocaine than those who have never done so." (Wasington Post, 17 Feb. 97).

I don't doubt that statistic. But what does it mean? Does anyone know who these kids are, and what motivates them? I suspect not. And I suspect that the pot-hard drug connection is more complex than the numbers suggest.

Consider that a growing body of evidence indicates that addictive, impulsive, and compulsive disorders — including alcoholism, substance abuse, smoking, compulsive overeating, attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome, and pathological gambling — may have a common genetic basis. According to an article in American Scientist (Blum, Cull, Braverman & Comings, March-April 1996) some people have a "Reward Deficiency Syndrome" (RDS) in which inherited chemical imbalances occur in brain mechanisms that enable us to derive feelings of pleasure and well-being ("reward") from everyday activities like being safe and warm with a full stomach. Such imbalances blunt reward feelings, or even convert them to discomfort, anger, or anxiety. Now, by doing things to obtain the "reward" feelings, a normal individual engages in behaviors that further his or her survival. A pathological, RDS person, on the other hand, may engage in compulsive thrill-seeking, or may tinker with illegal drugs in an amateur attempt to adjust his or her neurochemistry to something he or she can live with.

In other words, it isn't the pot. It's the people. Most kids who try pot don't go on to harder drugs. Most don't even stay with pot — it tastes bad, it smells bad, it burns your throat and lungs and makes you cough. The high one experiences — ranging from slight euphoria/relaxation to a complete inability to concentrate on anything, to really bizarre and unpleasant sensations if your pot has been laced with something (illegal substances lack government quality control mandates) — simply isn't worth the inconvenience.

It's hard to believe that anyone would like that sort of thing, but if your natural neurochemistry is uncomfortable for you, the pot high may be an improvement. And for a certain number of people, it may be not enough of an improvement. I think these are the people who go on to try harder drugs, to which some large fraction of them become addicted.

As individuals, they each would be much better off working with a psychiatrist to use prescription drugs in a controlled manner to achieve a consistent feeling of normal well-being. They would be much more likely to succeed than by tampering with their neurochemistry on their own, and they would be much less likely to fall afoul of the law and society.

But as a society, what are we to do? Currently we criminalize marijuana, even though the evidence indicates that it can't be much more dangerous that tobacco and alcohol combined, and even though there is a growing body of evidence that is useful in controlling nausea in chemotherapy patients, and wasting in AIDS patients (Science News, 22 Mar 1997). Moreover, since our current laws insure that only criminals grow pot, we are simply insuring that the profits from marijuana go tax-free to organized crime, just like liquor profits did during the Prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s.

It's time to stop the reefer madness, and legalize marijuana. It doesn't harm people that much compared to things we already accept like cars, cigarettes, or booze, it doesn't lead people to hard drugs who aren't going to try them anyway, and it doesn't make anybody feel good enough for the rest of us to get jealous. Maybe we can even use pot to wean cigarette companies off tobacco. We can even have standardized reefers with known dosages, so people can know what they are getting in order to avoid driving while under the influence. And maybe we use the tax revenue from the profits to fund the efforts to control the use of drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, etc., that do much greater harm. That's the short-term solution.

The long term solution is to fund research to develop drug and genetic therapies for Reward Deficit Syndrome, so RDS people can feel as good as the rest of us, while still contributing to our society, or at least while not disrupting it. Then, after we have taken their revenue stream, it will be easier to go after the illegal drug suppliers who haven't already found something better to do.

Now you may wonder about the absence of God-talk and moralizing, since this is after all, a church. Well, as I said once to one young addict, "I can't even begin to talk to you about God if you're high. Elijah passed up the earthquake and the whirlwind to listen to the still, small voice... and if you're high, you just tuned it out." That goes for you whether you abuse substances, or just get your kicks from controlling other people's behavior.