Sunday, July 15, 2007

How Should We Respond?

I and many others are upset over a recent story out of Santa Rosa, California. On June 19, two fifteen-year-old girls poured accelerant over a feral kitten trapped in a cage, lit him on fire, and laughed while he writhed and howled in pain. Community outrage was immediate, and money poured in for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of this horrendous deed. The kitten survived, is now undergoing treatment for its injuries, and it appears as though he may recover. Meanwhile, witnesses finally stepped forward and identified the girls, and they were arrested and taken to juvenile hall.

In the comments section of a local paper, people expressed their anger and hatred toward these girls, suggesting that they be punished with everything from prison to "an eye for an eye," or, in this case, a burning for a burning. Relatively few expressed any sympathy for the perpetrators of this sick act, much less urged that they receive psychological treatment rather than punishment.

I must admit that my initial response was also more vindictive than reflective. Here is what I wrote in the comments section:

Had I seen these girls laughing while that kitten burned and cried, I don't know what I might have done to them in a blind rage. It wouldn't have been right, but it would be understandable. I agree with those who say that these girls must have been mentally ill or deficient in some way to do what they did, and that such a condition is the likely result of a difficult life quite possibly filled with abuse. Nevertheless, as I grow older, I am less inclined to accept these explanations, as true as they might be, as excuses for letting the perpetrators, if they are adolescents or adults, off with a proverbial slap on the wrist. I agree with those who have suggested that these girls should be forced to spend time in burn wards watching patients undergo debridement and skin grafting. They should also be forced to watch similar treatment of the kitten they burned.

I also agree with those who suggest that we need to return to using public shaming for crimes. These girls should be forced to appear in public wearing signs describing what they did. Their parents should also be required to pay the vet bills for the kitten, or, if they are living here illegally, they should be jailed and then deported along with their daughters. Society needs to send an unequivocal message that extreme animal cruelty is utterly and completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated. Parents need to know that they bear significant responsibility for the crimes their children commit. And if would-be parents are living in human ratholes such as the Papago Court Apartments, they should think twice about having kids until they can provide them with better circumstances for their upbringing. With the right to have kids there should also be the responsibility to raise them properly along with serious consequences for failing to do this.

But a few days later I had calmed down enough to write the following in response to someone who argued that because he knew people who had been abused as children and did not proceed to abuse animals, child abuse does not cause animal abuse:

I agree with jgp that not everyone who's abused as a child ends up torturing animals as a result and that people need to be held responsible in some fashion for the terrible things they do no matter what their backgrounds happen to be. However, the fact that not everyone who's grown up in difficult circumstances does what these girls did does not prove that growing up in difficult circumstances did not cause or partially cause these girls to act the way they did, any more than the fact that not everyone who is stung by a bee goes into anaphylactic shock proves that bee stings never cause this deadly condition. Nevertheless, I believe that these girls need to face severe, but not wantonly cruel, consequences for their horrendous deed. They and the public at large need to know that we as a society regard such sadistic behavior as beyond the pale of human decency and beyond our tolerance.

As I review my comments above, I wonder whether and to what degree I may be contradicting myself. If I believe that what these girls did is sick, and I do believe this, and I believe that this sickness may result from a bad upbringing, which I think is distinctly possible, am I being consistent in calling for these girls to be publicly shamed, incarcerated, and perhaps even deported along with their parents for their criminal cruelty? If these girls could not help doing what they did under the circumstances in which they did it, am I urging that society be too punitive toward them? What IS the proper way to handle people who commit these kinds of acts?

I guess I think that people torture helpless animals because either their sick urge to do this overpowers their normal inhibitions from doing it, or they lack the normal inhibitions to keep from doing what mentally healthy people do not wish to do in the first place. Furthermore, they did not wake up one morning with healthy desires and normal inhibitions and suddenly freely choose to desire sick things so much that they acted them out. They did what they did because their mind, brain, society, and culture aligned themselves in such a manner at that particular time that they produced the acts in question.

But if this is true, what should we as individuals and as a society do about it? What should we do with these girls? Does it make any sense at all to punish to any degree a sick act that these girls, under the circumstances, could not help but commit? Or is this not unfair?

I do not know what you, dear reader, think, although I hope you will tell me. But I am inclined to think that there is such a thing as appropriate punishment for acts such as these and that it would closely approximate the multi-pronged approach I outlined earlier: incarceration, restitution, empathy training, and public shaming. I am inclined to believe that these punitive measures are not excessive and may very well work together to help create a constellation of conditions which deter these girls and others from committing similar crimes in the future, as well as provide society with the vital sense that justice has been done.


Tom said...


Torturing animals as a child is, perhaps, THE prime indicator that the person is a sociopath.

From identical-twin tests, it has been determined that sociopathy is genetic half the time and a function of environment the other half of the time. [Or, is in the middle of the genetic-enviroment spectrum, whatever that indicates, exactly.]

4% of Americans are sociopaths. 20% of prison populations are. A much, much lower percentage of persons in Asia are, probably because of the promotion of social interaction.

Being a sociopath is incurable; such people are born without any empathy for others. Indeed, they think that depictions in movies and claims of 'normal' people of having feelings for others are some kind of squishy ruse.

There is a great, easy-read "The Neighor Next Door" by Martha Stout you can get from the Sacramento Library. It's a good introduction to what all is going on in sociopaths' heads.

I don't know what can be done about them. Their life inevitable becomes all about wresting power from others. But it is really rather easy to have sympathy for these folks: They can never know what love is or want to know what other people feel. They are pretty literally reptile-like. [I would bet 95% of them are registered Republicans.] BUT, to get by, smart sociopaths will be very charming. So, look out! That can be great Marines or spies since killing others doesn't bother them a whit.

Tom said...

BTW, here's a great webpage I found, at the CalTech webspace, called Profile of the Sociopath.

Here is one item in the list of behaviors:

Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency:
* Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet "gets by" by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.

Tom said...

Whoops. Here's the link I forgot to paste in:

Nagarjuna said...

Hi, Tom.
I don't know if these girls can be diagnosed as sociopaths on the basis of this one act, as horrible as it was. Perhaps they would have more human feeling toward harm done to one of their family or circle of friends. And it seems to me that if sociopathy is defined as a persistent acting out of selfish urges without the normal inhibition or remorse of conscience, torturing animals and taking delight in it goes a step further because of its shockingly sadistic nature that transcends mere unbridled selfishness.

However, I understand, as you have pointed out, that sociopathy is difficult if not impossible to cure, and it could well be that whatever root disease, disorder, or deficiency gave rise to these girls' act is incurable. Nevertheless, it's possible that some kind of approach with punitive elements could deter the symptoms of their condition and prevent other animals from becoming victims of it.

I think animal cruelty--whether it be burning kittens, cockfighting, pit-bull fighting, or whatever--should be regarded and punished as an extremely serious offense, not only because it is an intrinsically awful but also because, as you point out, at least some of these kinds of acts can, if not dealt with severely, devolve into similarly harmful acts against humans.

Nagarjuna said...

Thanks for the CalTech link on sociopathy, Tom.

Tom said...

You wrote, "if sociopathy is defined as a persistent acting out of selfish urges without the normal inhibition or remorse of conscience, torturing animals and taking delight in it goes a step further because of its shockingly sadistic nature that transcends mere unbridled selfishness."

I don't think that sociopathy has to do with a lack of inhibition. It has to do with a complete inability to empathize. Thus, a sociopath doesn't think of torturing animals as being sadistic. It's just fun!

Also, I don't think of their actions as unbridled selfishness so much as a matter of having nothing else to do (if one is bereft of an emotional connection with others). I mean, a sociopath doesn't choose, he necessarily is selfish because he has no conception of not being selfish, i.e., thinking of others.

But, yes, a sociopath's behavior can be channeled. Punishment and other inducements will inspire him to behave, acting in his self interest.