Thursday, July 03, 2014

Emotionally Loaded

Okay, Paul Bernardo is a sociopath.  This should not come as a big surprise to anyone who followed the investigation and trial that eventually put him in prison.

That he has managed to convince a woman that he is a "good man" comes as little or no surprise.  Sociopaths are often experts at manipulating and twisting things to their advantage.  Bernardo has spent the last 20 years in a high security prison.  One might imagine that he has relatively little to do, and no doubt all the time in the world to put into manipulating those people who present any kind of opportunity to mess with them.  

Frankly, if you engage with someone like Paul Bernardo, whether it is for research or personal reasons, caution is essential.  For a man like him, manipulating people and playing with their emotions is sport.  He thinks it is fun.  No more than that.

When the Sun chose to make the alleged engagement between Bernardo and an Ontario woman their front page story, they really just played into Bernardo's ego, and his notoriety.  However, like Bernardo, who has spent months or longer manipulating this woman to make her believe that they are in love with each other, the Sun spends its story and headline space trying to manipulate its readers.

In this case, the Sun has chosen to use the Bernardo story to try and pry open the capital punishment debate in Canada.

Someone like Paul Bernardo, or in the past Clifford Olson, regularly gets trotted out by the proponents of capital punishment as reasons why we should have such a punishment on the books. 

These are purely emotional arguments.  People like these are horrifying.  What they did to others is appalling, and their apparent lack of remorse is horrifying to anyone with a sense of empathy.  Of course they provoke strong, visceral reactions when brought forward of examples of the most heinous of criminals.

However, the discussion around "dangerous criminals" is nowhere near as clear and well defined as we might wish to suppose.  

Many have argued that Vincent Li should be held to the same standard and executed.  That said, it was quite clearly established that Li was suffering from a psychotic episode when he killed Tim McLean.  That doesn't make what happened any less horrible, but it raises the question of criminal responsibility.  Mental illness is a serious issue, and not one that you can simply sweep away with the rubric that he committed a heinous act.  Yes he did commit the act, but given that we know his brain wasn't working normally (hallucinating etc.), can we hold the person who emerges from a psychotic episode responsible for what happened during that episode?

Then there is the ever present spectre of applying the death penalty in a situation where the accused is factually innocent, or there are significant questions about the degree of their culpability for reasons ranging from circumstances to mental capacity.  The United States has numerous cases like this. 

The Sun is being manipulative and dishonest with its "poll" and the associated article.  They aren't trying to create a reasoned debate.  Instead, like a sociopath who enjoys pushing people's buttons until there is a reaction, they are trying to get an emotional response from Canadians on a subject that requires careful consideration and thoughtful analysis.

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