How awful to use the phrase, “cannibal cop” but if you’re in NYC, odds are you know what I’m talking about: Gilberto Valle, convicted this week for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. I can’t comment on any of the specifics of the case, although it is true that the phrase “ugly thoughts” doesn’t begin to describe how repulsive his actions were prior to his arrest, and he is not denying his actions as part of his legal defense.
My big complaint about most of the mature public dialog (setting aside all the lurid news coverage that is just for shock value) is that it’s still mired in a false dichotomy. The two presumed choices are:
1- He should be punished harshly (in this case, a single conviction can possibly lead to a life sentence in prison) because what he was doing is really messed up, or
2- Whether there should be no consequence at all for starting to possibly lay the groundwork for a horrific set of crimes because he hadn’t yet actually tortured and killed anyone.
Let’s be honest: #2 is simultaneously weak and horrifying when you factor in any of the real-life women on his list. Option #2 mostly makes sense to people who are not the target of someone’s hateful planning, and by the way, pretty much cedes the ground that we should never try to prevent a crime. And that’s where the problem comes up: option #2 is pretty repellant, so it suddenly makes option #1 seem like the only real option. Except then we’re punishing people for horrible things they haven’t actually done.
There’s a similar dichotomy presented in the 2002 movie “Minority Report” (inspired by the Philip K Dick short story of the same name, but I didn’t read the short story). I loved that movie (so did Roger Ebert). In the movie, cops in the future arrest people for murders they haven’t yet committed, and so that produces the central dilemma: is it ethical to punish people for things they haven’t actually done? But murder is bad, and if we can prevent a murder, we should, so it seems like the cops should do this… and there are many futuristic gadgets as well to make it a great movie adventure.
But the movie presents the same damaging falsehood: that even if we can prevent crimes, somebody has to pay. And in the case of a conspiracy crime or Minority Report’s pre-crime, a harsh punishment is justified because the crime would’ve been horrible. In the movie, people are intercepted as they are about to commit murders, then placed in a drugged stasis an underground prison where they relive the murders in their minds in perpetuity (in the movie it’s called being “haloed”). So the movie plot revolves around ending the program that prevents murder, because these harsh punishments make no sense if a person could possibly not commit the crime. Which is true — a harsh punishment doesn’t make sense if a person hasn’t actually committed a crime.
But the problem is what we’re ignoring here, a different choice:
3 – We have to intervene to prevent crime, to remove someone from the situation, and we have to do so in a way where no one, including the perpetrator, gets hurt.
There could be an effective intervention that prevents the crime but isn’t based on a harsh punishment or a long prison sentence. There’s an article on Slate that comes close to arguing that Valle may actually need mental health treatment, but most discussions about the Valle case don’t even mention that possibility.
Because yes, something should happen when someone — especially a police officer — spends their spare time talking about torturing and killing his wife and other women he knows. (For starters, she should be able to get a divorce if she wants one.) He should not have a job where he is armed and has the right to stop and detain people. He should get help — non-judgmental, effective help that is non-optional for him. He may need monitoring for an extended period of time, and help finding the right job. It’s possible that some of this will be unpleasant and uncomfortable for him. But it doesn’t have to be deliberately punitive.
But in real life, though, there is little talk of this third option. Because this case is handled by our criminal justice system, prosecutors respond as they generally do: with a prosecution focused on getting as long of a prison sentence as possible. And then we wind up talking about civil liberties and “was this really just a case of someone paying a high price for having bad thoughts?”
Really, we should be talking about how to prevent violence against women in general, these women in particular, what to do about online communities where people may be conspiring to murder women, and how to respond effectively to the threat of violence in a family with something other than a prison sentence.
As long as the choice is between something and nothing as a response to the threat of violence, many reasonable people will favor doing something. But it should be something that is still fair and just to all involved, not just the empty victory of someone spending life in prison.
The image is a still from the 2002 film, Minority Report.