Sunday, January 17, 2010

Public Hygiene and the Removal and Confinement of Dangerous Individuals

Close-up of Heath Ledger's face as deranged Joker from "The Dark Knight"
The notion of a dangerous individual, someone being a danger to themselves and / or society was a notion that started with the invention of criminology in the nineteenth century. It is an interesting fact that after the concept of the dangerous individual, a person could be arrested “a priori” of the crime as a suspected “future” criminal. Previous to that, criminals were punished “after the fact” and rather for their “act” not just for dangerous features or characteristics.

Yet the idea of dangerous individuals has become a commonplace and a given in our modern society and justice system. It has perhaps even gotten a boost with recent threats of terrorism. People deemed to be terrorists - meaning those who are mostly fitting a particular profile or stereotype or background - are often arrested before they are able to realize their plot as a way of ensuring public safety.

Another case for dangerous individuals is the occurrence of rampant shooting sprees, which are often blamed on a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, it has become the responsibility of psychiatry to spot those inherently dangerous individuals and to stop them before they actually commit the crime. (It reminds one of a precursor of Minority Report where the government would use psychic beings to predict crimes that were in the making and to arrest criminals in advance of their deed.)

This poses very interesting and complex dilemmas. First of all, as Michel Foucault states, nowhere in the code of laws does it say that being dangerous is actually an offense or a crime. Secondly, this notion also has repercussions on responsibility, the question whether individuals have free will and are aware of the consequences of their acts or whether they are not responsible for their acts and follow simple neurological impulses without being conscious of the damages they are inflicting onto others, i.e. a momentary lapse of reason or a permanent state of insanity.

There are many arguments in support of such procedures since “reading” symptoms or traits of violence in advance and in time would help impede other mass shootings or killings of people from occurring. As such, it would avoid many unnecessary deaths and immeasurable grief among the public.These individuals in question are predisposed to commit violent acts, and often it is shown through their comments, their attitudes and even certain actions, such as doodling violent sketches or uploading concrete threats on You Tube.

My problem with this line of thought is regarding the dangers inherent in such propositions. One of them is simply “misreading” or a misdiagnosis of the symptoms, for example, the injustice of arresting an innocent person who simply suffers from violent tensions but is not capable of seriously harming people. For example, should we arrest Charlie Sheen (or Chris Brown for that matter) for violent spousal abuse? The arguments in those cases could go either way. I personally think if you beat women (even worse, if it comes to children) there should be harsh and serious punishment.

Yet we should not underestimate the problem, subjectivity, or vagueness of such diagnosis. If we look back in history there has been a lot of misuse and misinterpretations, more often deliberate than not, when it comes to the "dangerous individual." In fact, under the pretentious banner of “public hygiene,” many healthy people have been arrested or confined and “treated” in psychiatric facilities.

One of the most startling and appalling ones is the supposed moral decay and abnormal behavior of homosexuals. They have been arrested under the pretext of "being a danger" to society, simply because of their different sexual orientation. And it is not something of the past, even as recently as in the late fifties tuberculosis, cancer, alcoholism, prostitution, and homosexuality have been seen as threats to public hygiene in some Western societies!

Not to mention political arrests under the guise of protection of society; whether Fascists or Stalinists, each had their own politically motivated definitions of what constituted "danger" to society. Or even the initial, highly dubious claim of one of the fathers of criminology, Cesare Lombroso, that one's cheekbones or hairline could determine one's prevalence towards criminal acts according to the pseudoscience phrenology!

We may laugh at the latter statement, but they did take it seriously back then. And who knows, years down the road people may laugh at our own science! There is still so much to be discovered in these areas. In sum, all of this should be taken with a grain of salt and one has to be clear on what one considers dangerous and what is simply “different” - and not confuse the two.

1 comment:

Cher Duncombe said...

The justice system has become embedded with the political system to a far too great extent. It is more than disheartening; it is frightening.