The Real Reason They Punish Horse Thieves
This past month I read the following statement by George Savile, Marquis of Halifax: “Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”
It’s an interesting statement. What he means is that the punishment is not an attempt to mete out a precise eye-for-eye sense of just repayment for a crime. Rather, the aim of the hanging is to communicate a message to others who might themselves be pondering horse thievery.
Based on all the titles he once wore, from Baron to Viscount and a smattering of other high-sounding roles, George Savile, the 1st Marquis of Halifax, was evidently a 17th century “Somebody.” I’ve seen him quoted more than a few times over the years.
I cite this quote about horse thieves because it leaped from the page when I pondered it, bringing to mind a number of related anecdotes and corollary considerations.
It’s a common misconception that the aim of punishment is to get people to straighten out, to put their lives in order morally. That is, many idealists imagine that putting people behind bars has the intent of forcing people to think about their behavior, and change for the better.
If punishments were carried out for the benefit of the criminal, how do you explain the death penalty? Or this story, for example, about General Custer.
In 1876, General George Armstrong Custer was part of a three-pronged assault on the Sioux Nation, marching across Montana under the Big Sky. In his zeal to be first on the scene and gain more glory for himself, he pressed his men to march without ceasing, the 100-degree sun taking its toll on the men’s fortitude.
At a certain point, they marched past a lake. The General ordered the men to keep marching and not stop. Two soldiers, desperately thirsty, broke ranks and ran to the water’s edge. For their disobedience, Custer had them shot.
Was this a fair penalty? Did this action make them better soldiers? The aphorism by Savile indicates that the action of Custer was not intended to be a fair punishment for the dereliction of duty, but rather to keep the other soldiers in line.
This is what many Northerners failed to understand about the practice of lynchings in the Deep South. Many assumed the burning crosses, and especially lynchings, were aimed at the victims, the persons singled out and strung up. That isn’t what it was at all. It’s a very public act designed to send an ugly message. The shocking, disproportionate punishment (violent death) had one intent: to keep blacks cowed, submissive, and “in their place.”
It is only against this backdrop that we can understand the widespread reaction to the death of George Floyd.
THE ETHICS OF PROTEST
Just as the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of speech is written into the Bill of Rights, so too is the recognition that these and other rights are not carte blanche freedoms without limits. We’re well acquainted with the rule that it is illegal to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. That is, our speech can be categorized as good, neutral, evil, and bad taste. Not all speech has equal value.
Likewise, not all wars are created equal. Hence, the ethical concept of just war theory was created. When, if ever, is war justified? There are pacifists who will oppose all war, whereas there are others who would assent to the notion that if invaded by a foreign power war is legitimate and paying taxes to maintain a strong military as a deterrent is necessary.
In a similar vein, protesting has ethical constraints, which seldom get articulated. Whereas the looting and destruction of property have been abhorrent and even shocking to most Americans, few have a real sense of what is O.K. and not O.K. in the realm of public protest. When put to the test, it is helpful to have clearer guidance than mere gut feeling.
As one might expect, a lot of this thinking has already occurred in think tanks and academic circles. Ethicists wrestle with all manner of issues and this happens to be one of them. The aim of many such persons is to get people to think a little more deeply than they are used to about the implications of what they do.
Here, for example, is a list of questions from Jack Marshall, an ethicist who maintains a blog called Ethics Alarms. He begins his 12 Question Checklist with the question, “Is this protest just and necessary?”
By means of a series of follow up questions he seeks to have us consider our motives, the means we use, the objectives, the costs, who will pay the bill, and how many innocent people will be adversely affected.
This question especially stands out because I think we all know the answer. “Are the protesters prepared to take full responsibility for the consequences of the protest?”
It points to the matter of responsibility, an issue that Dylan addressed in his song “Who Killed Davey Moore?” Everyone has an excuse for why they were not responsible for the death of this boxer. On a grander scale, who was responsible for the destruction of 220 businesses in Minneapolis-St.Paul these past two weeks?
I do not condone violence. I offer these thoughts to provide perspective. I believe all constituencies need to have a voice, and seats at the table of power. Otherwise, there will be further injustices and continued violence.
It’s time to pause, listen, and learn.