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How Much Are We Willing To Hurt The Innocent To Punish The Guilty?

symbol-of-justice

There are certain questions that nobody likes to ask, but still need to be answered. Questions concerning crime, justice, and punishment are usually at the top of that list. Lately, answering those questions has becom more urgent. If current cultural trends continue, that urgency will only increase.

That’s not because people are becoming more keen on justice. It’s more a byproduct of injustice being so much more visible in the age of the internet and social media. Crimes don’t just make the news these days. They can trigger full-blown social movements, destroy careers, and bring down powerful people.

To some extent, this is a good thing. We, as a social species, have an innate sense of justice hardwired into us. When we see something unjust, be it a kid stealing a cookie or a gruesome murder, most sane people want to see some level of justice enacted. When it isn’t, that bothers us. That’s where our sense of empathy comes from.

That said, it is possible for that innate desire for justice to go too far. Nature is a blunt instrument, largely out of necessity. Our desire for justice is no different and in the same way egregious injustices are harder to hide, gross misapplications of justice are becoming more visible as well.

As of this writing, the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organization that works to exonerate those who’ve been wrongly convicted of a crime, have freed 350 people, some of whom were on death row. Those are the lucky ones, though. In a 2014 study, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that approximately 4 percent of those sentenced to death row may be innocent.

Think about that, for a moment, as a simple math problem. For every 100 people who are executed by the state for their crimes, 4 of them are completely innocent. Whether you’re liberal, conservative, libertarian, or communist, the murder of an innocent person offends our humanity to the core. Only a sociopath would be comfortable with that math.

That murder of some innocent people for the sake of punishing the guilty is an extreme example, but one that nicely highlights the potential pitfalls of our reckless crusade against injustice. I don’t bring it up to start a debate on the death penalty, which is very much a dead-weight issue within politics these days. I’m using it to provide context for misapplications of justice that aren’t as clear cut.

Thanks to social media and global connectivity, it’s a lot easier attack injustice without the rigid bureaucracy of legal justice system. It’s largely because of this emerging technology that the ongoing anti-harassment movement and the push for greater diversity have become more vocal. Instances of injustice that might have been ignored in the past are now much easier to confront.

Instead of hiring a lawyer, getting the cops involved, or going door-to-door to raise awareness, these perceived injustices can be attacked online, which can subsequently lead to offline consequences. While that can be an effective recourse for those who wield great power and have an army of lawyers, it does come at a cost and innocent people have felt that cost.

While there are plenty of cases that don’t become mainstream news, some of the most notable include the Duke Lacrosse incident or the UVA rape case. These are both cases that struck the right and wrong chords at the right and wrong time, evoking in people their inherent aversion to injustice in the utmost. It got people upset and emotional, so much so that they didn’t stop to wonder whether those involved were really guilty.

The alleged crimes were undeniably heinous. There’s no question about that. Anyone guilty of such crimes deserves to be punished. However, in wanting to punish such crimes, innocent people suffered. Some had their reputations temporarily ruined and others have been irreparably destroyed.

There are other lesser known cases of innocent people suffering because of an accusation that later turned out to be false. There are likely more in which the innocent person never gets justice. It’s impossible to know how common they are. Most will point out how rare those instances and in terms of raw numbers, that’s true.

However, that still implies that we have to accept the price that some innocent people will suffer in our pursuit of justice. It also highlights how important it is to have a functioning justice system that includes traditions such as due process and the presumption of innocence.

It’s a tradition worth belaboring too.

It’s an imperfect process, admittedly. There have been notable cases where someone likely got away with a crime because the standards for a conviction are so high. The principle behind that system is that, in the name of not condemning the innocent, we accept the price that some of the guilty may escape justice.

For some people, that’s more untenable than the condemnation of an innocent person. That has become a much more prominent theme in recent years, due to the anti-harassment movement. That’s somewhat understandable, given how long men like Harvey Weinstein got away with their deplorable behavior.

In the effort to prevent or punish such deplorable behavior, though, those critical tenants of our justice system that are supposed to protect the innocent are being cast aside. There are some within the anti-harassment movement who emphasize the importance of believing the victim’s accusations in lieu of the presumption of innocence.

Other, more radical, voices in the movement have favored changing the standards of evidence for rape cases so that they would no longer be subject to reasonable doubt. Granted, these are somewhat extreme measures that probably won’t upend our justice system anytime soon. Others far smarter than me have already pointed out the dangers and debunked many of the assumptions.

None of this is to say that the anti-harassment movement or the effort to hold people accountable for their behavior is entirely misguided. I’m in favor of exposing crimes and having the guilty pay for those crimes, provided they really are guilty. I support efforts to reduce harassment, sexual or otherwise. I support efforts to reduce sexual assault on women and men. Most decent human beings share that sentiment.

What I don’t support is the idea that it’s okay for more innocent people to suffer for the sake of capturing even more guilty people. As I mentioned before with the Innocence Project, our flawed justice system already condemns innocent people. A willingness to let more innocent suffer is the wrong direction to go in fighting injustice.

I know that’s easy for someone like me to say because I’ve never been the victim of a serious crime. I’ve had some stuff stolen before, I’ve been cheated out of some money, and I have been roughed up before, but I’ve never been seriously injured or assaulted. I can’t imagine how someone who has been seriously victimized feels about what happened to them.

Their suffering matters. The suffering of innocent people matters too. It’s why the question surrounding hurting the innocent to punish the guilty needs to be asked, even if the answers make us uncomfortable. The fact those answers make us uncomfortable reflects the flaws of our justice system and how imperfect our world really is.

At the same time, it also reminds us why seeking justice and combating injustice matters. We, as a society and a species, cannot function if there isn’t some semblance of justice. For victims and innocent alike, we need those institutions so that we can prosper and grow as a civilization.

From the anti-harassment movement to crusading prosecutors to overt bias in the court system, there comes a point in the pursuit of justice where compromising the innocent is a price that some are willing to pay. Once that line is crossed, though, it sets a dangerous precedent that relies on dangerous assumptions.

To be willing to compromise the innocent, it’s necessary to believe that people who fit a certain profile are guilty by default. If their gender, race, ethnic group, religion, or nationality checks enough boxes, then innocence becomes an afterthought. It becomes another numbers game in assessing potential guilt over actual guilt.

That’s a precedent that can easily devolve into a panic and, as history has shown, panics tend to harm the innocent far more than the guilty. It also undercuts the suffering of actual victims because if actual guilt becomes an afterthought, then so too does actual victimization.

That, in many ways, is the greatest price that comes with compromising innocence. Punishing a guilty criminal simply rights a wrong. Punishing an innocent person has impacts that go beyond simply making an undeserving individual suffer. It has a ripple effect on the entire concept of justice, much of which cannot be qualified.

That’s why, even if it is as rare as some claim, the punishment of one innocent person should offend our sense of justice more than a guilty person escaping. A guilty person is still going to be guilty, no matter what their high-priced lawyers say. An innocent person who is punished for a crime they didn’t commit often lose so much more than just their innocence and that’s an injustice no one should tolerate.

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Contemplating The Perfect Drug (And Whether We Could Handle It)

psychedelic-delirium-hallucination

Imagine, for a moment, you took the perfect drug. By that, I don’t mean the kind of drug that alleviates a headache, settles an upset stomach, or just makes it so you can function normally. I’m not talking about the kinds of drugs that gives us Captain America level superpowers either. I’m talking about the kind of drug that alters, enhances, or somehow changes the way you experience the world, physically and mentally.

It is a very subjective thought experiment, especially compared to some of the others I’ve explored. It might even be somewhat inappropriate to contemplate as parts of this world are dealing with a serious prescription drug problem and violence generated by the illegal drug trade. However, with the War on Drugs that Richard Nixon first declared being almost 50 years old, I think a little nuance on the issue is warranted.

In the same way we’ll never have a society of perfect monogamy, despite the best efforts of religion and government, we’ll never have a completely drug-free society. Human beings have been experimenting with drugs since ancient times in some form or another. Some major historical figures are known to have done drugs that would’ve gotten them thrown in jail today.

The choice of drug may vary, but so too does their reason for taking it. Some seek to alleviate pain. Some seek to enhance pleasure. Some are just bored and want to experience something new and profound. Whatever the reasons, the fact that so many different people from so many different eras, cultures, and situations seek drugs is revealing in and of itself.

In some respects, it reflects our inherent dissatisfaction with our current limits. We are, at the end of the day, at the mercy of our bodies, our brains, and the evolutionary mechanisms behind them. We get tired too easily. We can’t run as hard or as fast as we want. We can’t remember things that well or learn new things that efficiently. That doesn’t even begin to the limitations that effect our sex lives.

If anything, our own evolution gives us a powerful imperative to seek out powerful drugs. Our bodies and brains are programmed with two imperatives, survival and reproduction. If we can find a drug that enhances both, then we’re just improving our evolutionary standing in the world.

While I wouldn’t make that argument to a DEA agent, I think it’s worth contemplating the kind of drug that would do more to help us transcend our limitations than what we have now. Modern drugs, legal and illegal alike, do some amazing things. However, as anyone who has dealt with the side-effects of pain killers knows, there’s room for improvement.

Ignoring side-effects for a moment, think of the effects and benefits of the familiar drugs in existence right now. Look at what they do, how they do it, and why people pursue those effects in the first place. Then, imagine which of those effects you would want to include with the perfect drug.

Would it make you really astute and focused like Adderall or Ritalin?

Would it make you really relaxed and mellow like Xanex or Marijuana?

Would it make you really energized like cocaine or amphetamines?

Would it give you better stamina and endurance like anabolic steroids?

Would it give you mind-altering perceptions like LSD and DMT?

Would it make you extremely happy and empathetic like MDMA?

Chances are, you might want a little of everything. What you want might also depend on your situation. If you want a drug that’ll help you lose weight, you’ll probably want the effects of steroids and amphetamines. If you want to sleep better, you’ll want the effects of Xanex or weed. If you just want to be happy, sometimes all you need is a cigarette or a beer.

The perfect drug, by definition, would be able to grant you all or at least part of these experiences. Ideally, you wouldn’t need to a new prescription or a new dealer. The same drug would be capable of evoking those effects. It may require some tweaking of the dosage, mechanisms, or chemical processes, but it’s still capable of delivering.

It may sound like an impossible substance and to some extent, it is. However, it’s still only as impossible as our limitations and there are plenty of ongoing efforts to transcend those limitations through biotechnology, nanotechnology, and human/machine interface. I’ve mentioned a few of those efforts, including smart blood and neural implants. With future refinements, they’ll provide the catalyst for the perfect drug.

It may take the form of a special pill full of programmable biomatter. Maybe you want it to help you sleep. Maybe you want it to help you focus. Maybe you want it to help you make love to your spouse for five hours straight. With the right programming and the right application of biology, it can do that.

For some effects, maybe a pill isn’t enough. To have the kinds of effects that would give someone the kind of physical or mental enhancement they seek, it may be necessary to inject this programmable matter directly into the body via an IV drip. That might be cumbersome, but it allows for more direct delivery than a pill.

Even if it’s more effective, it still might not be ideal. Some of the most addictive drugs, like tobacco and alcohol, have a social element to them. People bond when they do them together and since humans are such a social species, that might be a necessary component of the perfect drug.

Perhaps instead of an injection or a pill, it can be ingested as a drink like tea and coffee. That will allow people to congregate and make it a social event at a bar or club. It can be part of a greater bonding experience, a group of people all sharing in the benefits of the perfect drug. It effectively complements every component of the human condition.

On the issue of side-effects, this is where the perfect drug would have to clash with flawed biology. On paper, a perfect drug would have no adverse side-effects. It wouldn’t have withdrawal symptoms, damage organs, or turn your urine blue, which does happen.

In the real, less-than-perfect world, every drug will have side-effects. Even if biotechnology and neural implants gives people superhuman durability on par with Wolverine from the X-men, it’s likely that such powerful experiences will result in equally powerful impacts, both mental and physical.

One of the most likely effects, which might still be the most damaging, involves what happens to people when they’re not on the perfect drug. Even if the drug causes no withdrawal symptoms and generally leaves the body intact, it still creates a discrepancy in experience.

There’s the state the person was in without the perfect drug. There’s the state the person was in when they took it. If the gap between the two is big enough, as would likely be the case for the perfect drug, then even an enhanced mind within an enhanced body would struggle to some extent.

It would be like going from taking a private jet across the ocean to riding a mule. One is just going to be so much richer and more intense than the other that it doesn’t matter how enhanced you or your brain are. You’re going to want that drug and you’re going to do whatever it takes to get it.

In a future where people can enhance their bodies, augment their brains, and rid themselves of disease, what else will drive them other than the inherent human desire to transcend more limitations? Those experiences and the methods to get them, either by a drug or some other means, might end up being the most valuable currency in the future.

For now, we’re stuck with a diverse array of drugs with a wide variety of effects. They all come with their own unique risks and their own blend of side-effects. With more and more drugs being developed, as well as refinements to existing drugs, people will continue using drugs and seeking them, even if it means clashing with the law.

We’re still a long way from a perfect drug like the one I just described, but it’s an idea with contemplating. It reveals why we seek drugs in the first place and what we’re looking for in using them, despite all the risks and side-effects.

We don’t just seek health, strength, or new experiences. We seek to improve and enhance our own condition. How we go about it and how well we handle it depends on a lot of factors. We might never create a truly perfect drug, but as medical science and human enhancement continue to evolve, we may still achieve its effects.

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