Tuesday, May 11, 2004

The Importance of Feeling Earnest 

Some time ago there was a story in the news about the trial of a former serviceman who had executed another man in cold blood. The “victim” had terrorized this man’s family, as well as all the rest of his neighbors, threatening to mow them down with his car. It did not matter to the judge that an entire neighborhood had been under siege, in fear for their lives for months, and that officers of the law could or would not do anything about it. The fact that there had been entirely credible threats indicating that the serviceman’s family was in immanent mortal danger had not moved the judge. When he rendered his decision, he made it clear that it was based on what this Navy seal felt in the aftermath of the murder. When the man’s wife testified that her husband actually felt bad about the death, the judge found a reason not to lock the defendant up and throw away the key.

What made feelings the sole arbiter of this man’s fate?

In our “I’m ok, you’re ok, it’s ok” culture, is feeling bad about what we do a necessary tool for social survival? Do what you will and if it does not turn out well, just make sure you feel bad enough about it.

I’ve been to a couple of trials with defendants that seemed to me to be sociopaths, which seems what the judge was trying to determine about this defendant. One of the men on trial was an arsonist, the other kidnapped and raped a woman. Neither man was stony-faced during the trial. The arsonist smirked, the rapist leered and grinned at his victim as she recounted what he had done. It appeared to me that both not only enjoyed doing what they did, they relished hearing about their deeds all over again as they were recounted in the courtroom.

The serviceman had tried everything he knew to protect his family first. The authorities had been contacted numerous times, the threats had escalated into death threats. It was clear that what he did, he did as a last resort. Should he have been sorry? Sorry that it had to come to this, certainly, sorry that this was the only way he could see to protect his family. Sorry that he couldn’t protect his family short of killing a very unpleasant human being.

The arsonist spread fuel at both entrances to his professor’s house and lit them because he was mad at his professor. It was, according to him, a college prank gone awry. So why the constant smile on his face as all the evidence of that horrible event unfolded in the courtroom? Possibly a mental deficiency? I’ve known quite a few chronically mentally ill people, and not a one of them would have been capable of such an act. The rapist raped because he loved to see a woman suffer. The Navy seal killed because he needed, more than his freedom itself, to protect his family. I see a clear distinction here that had to do with motivation before the fact rather than feelings after the fact, and it bothers me that the judge did not believe he was justified in taking that into account.

When a Catholic sister announced in a Charismatic meeting that she “felt” that the library books were not being returned, we found it amusing. When my engineer boss dictated that he “felt” we should have 150 chairs in the meeting room, I concluded he needed a smidgen of editing. He did not agree. He really did feel that there should be 150 chairs in that meeting room.

Have we lost our ability to distinguish between emotion and thought? Have feelings become tyrants more important to our society than reason?

When feelings get out of hand they can influence behavior but in former times, at least, it was thought that a person could act in accordance with his better judgement, whatever he felt.

Now, we seem to feel, that isn’t an option.


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