Friday, August 18, 2006


Deterrence. Does it work? What is it, really? Why do we refrain from “breaking the rules”. Is it because we are afraid of getting caught, or is there some higher moral code that dictates our behavior in a society in which our freedoms frequently overlap the freedoms of those around us? What makes it wrong to speed, to steal, or to kill. What makes it right for society to kill a killer? What makes a kindergartener think twice before confiscating his neighbor’s cookies?

Big questions…huge answers. I read in the porcelain library every morning and my latest diversion has been one of those yearbooks issued by publishers rounding up the major stories in world politics, sports and the arts. This book chronicled the events of 1952 and the international affairs of that year cast an interesting light across the years toward many of the issues facing our society at present. I am left with the impression that there was much to be changed, and frustrated that we have seemingly learned little from the experiences of our recent history.

Solving the problems of the world can be daunting so I decided to distill some of these questions into the small doses concerning my own experiences and the personal opinions formed by reconciling personal, versus public behavior

Two societal “deterrents” about which I have strong feelings are the death penalty and nuclear arms. The permanent nature of the execution of either of these events is undeniable. When a murderer is put to death by the state, that particular individual will never again cause harm to the society which carried out the final, irreversible punishment. But my question is, does the “threat” of punishment deter criminal acts? Or is it just a case of “wait til your father gets home?”

The big story of 1952 was the successful detonation by the United States of the largest, most destructive single bomb in world history, the H-bomb. The political world of 1952 was one of widespread unrest in many of the same geographical areas that we read about today. The Korean peninsula was far from peaceful. Southeast Asia was looming as the next bone of contention between the power structures of capitalism and communism. The Mid-east was continuing in its role as the age-old cauldron of religious and cultural hatred. Up to that point in history, the United States was the only world power which had executed the ultimate deterrent in modern warfare, nuclear weaponry. And it worked. The total annihilation of two Japanese cities deterred Japan from continuing their war efforts. The United States held the club of nuclear warfare over the kindergarten class that was the world of 1945 as if to say, “Allright, everyone keep your hands to themselves or nobody gets recess.” After seven years of club-waving, a survey of the world situation of 1952 indicates that the deterrence of nuclear enforcement of the “rules” was approximately nonexistent.

How many times have we heard or said the words, “ If you do that again, I’ll kick your ass”? And how often was the promised ass-kicking not forthcoming? If a galley slave, chained to the oar gets the lash, it will have the effect of subjugating that individual because there is no chance of retribution. The lasher knew that he need not look over his shoulder. A family dog can be terrorized into submission only because he depends on his master for food. If that dog had a ready and independent supply of kibble, he would chew, dig, piss and shit to his hearts content knowing that he could simply duck out of harm’s way.

Enforcement of rules does not rely on the threat of punishment in the world of relatively free individuals. We break rules all the time. We drive too fast until we get a ticket. Then we pay the fine and speed off as if nothing had happened. I believe we expend more energy and thought in circumventing the rules than we do in actually following them, especially if the rules seem to impede the natural flow. When I was a teen-ager, I frequently went out the bedroom window after my family was in bed to roam the neighborhood with my like-minded friends. I was caught sneaking back into the house three times in one summer. This frequency indicates that I learned something…I got better at sneaking back in before my absence had been discovered. My punishment for each escape was a week in my room…with no visitors…the same room with the same window through which I would escape the very first night of every new sentence. I was of the opinion that if my actions were de-criminalized, if I were allowed to go out late at night as I pleased, my parents would be saved the embarrassment of authoring ineffectual disciplinary measures. I don’t believe that we ever came to an agreement on the issue, but I did take notes for future reference in the event I ever owned a dog.

The years passed and I did own a dog or two, none of which I ever had to ground, or beat into submission for that matter. But as the saying goes, “Wisdom from the mouth of babes.” I learned a great deal about the ineffectual nature of deterrence when I began to take my oldest son to the grocery store. I suppose that he was just over two at the time that the trouble started. He was just old enough to sit in the shopping cart, reach out with his arms and pull down an entire row of breakfast cereal boxes as I sped down the aisle. I tried all the usual dad-like tricks. “Knock it off” didn’t work. I suspect that he was just taking me literally. Yelling, begging, pleading…nothing worked, and he continued to reach out with both arms, fingers working, and repeating, ”daddy, I wanna look”.

Hmmm…daddy I wanna look, eh? I decided to think like a two-year-old (not a big stretch for me) and it dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, he just wanted to look. The aisle that caused us the most problems was the aisle in which the drugstore toys were displayed. Squirt guns, balloons, eggs filled with silly putty, crayons, toy cars etc. I decided to experiment. The first stop on our next trip to the market was the toy aisle. I took him out of the cart, lowered him onto the floor, and told him that he had five minutes to look and that he could pick one thing to take with him. He exhausted his curiosity in under four minutes, and concentrating on his new toy car kept him too busy to interfere with my shopping for the rest of the trip…for the rest of the time that he fit into a shopping cart for that matter.

I have no idea whatever what that story has to do with world politics. But I do know a few things about human nature. I know that if my daily needs and the daily needs of my loved ones are met, and if I have the freedom to work, play or worship if I so desire, according to my own conscience and without political conditions…well, if that were the case, I would not feel the need to enrobe myself in explosives and order a cappuccino from a dead person.

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