Can We Please Assume (TW Murder, Violence, Abuse, Ableism,
The last couple of weeks dragged me across over 1,000 miles and seven towns with no end in slight. There have been gigs, heretofore unknown cousins, research misadventures, and the miseries of breaking in new work books. Last night, I was lounging in a comfortable chair, trying not to move. I wanted to sleep but had fidgety thoughts.
They killed another one. They nearly severed his hand, called it mercy. The headlines say they were desperate. Less sensational articles note that their state offered help. They refused it. Their suicide attempts were pitifully insincere. As thorough as they were with Alex, it is odd that they failed to spare the good people of Illinois the expense of their trial. They seem to be getting more sympathy than their victim. People assume that autistics, the disabled in general, are so different from everyone else that killing us is humane. What is beneficial and desirable to others is not so to us.
Here in Georgia, we have an Autism Speaks-sponsored bill that would incentivze ABA. That is never good. This is particularly infuriating because they are parading a child around as their mascot. She seems like a great kid. I like her just from the Facebook photos. If her parents care what is best for her, they think it is being an activist.
When allistic children have public lives, we worry. Sunlight, not limelight, helps growing bodies and minds. We sigh over child stars. They are cute now, but life will be difficult for them unless they make the transition to adult acting. Many now-grown kid celebrities’ lives are train wrecks. They are anything but healthy, happy, well-adjusted, productive adults. We admire President Obama and the First Lady, whether we like their politics or not, for keeping their girls’ lives quiet, normal. Sasha and Malia turn up in the occasional Facebook photo, but their parents seem to keep them mostly out of politics and public life.
One would think that public portrayals of the first family would be a reflection of society’s wishes for all its children. Autistic kids are apparently so weird, so special, as to be an exception to the rules. Autistic youth do not necessarily need real childhoods, where they learn advocacy without being expected to man the barricades. Autistic children, autistics in general, are not thought to need and want the preservation of life, the awe-inspiring drive and common feature of nearly all beings. This is ableism at its finest: those people are such freaks that murdering them, committing one of the most viscerally disturbing crimes that others fear and dread, killing them without their consent, can be an act of mercy.
Even if you share my belief that Alex went home to a god who received him like a favorite son, that boy lost everything his life could have been. He had many more years. Nothing can compensate him for a lost future that might have been wonderful. He will never feel the sun of our world on his face again. He suffered agony and terror at the hands of those he loved, trusted most. He was robbed of the chance to realize whatever dreams he might have had. If you feel one iota of sympathy for Alex Spourdalakis’ killers, you are part of the problem. Rethink those feelings. Start working on changing society’s sense that the disabled are so different that the general rules of basic human needs, wants, and welfare do not apply.
The Execution of Waren Hill
Warren Hill is not a nice person. I would not want him living in my neighborhood. He is not in prison for one of the drug convictions that take too many, especially men of color living in poverty, from their communities. He is there because he has shown a callous willingness to kill other human beings. He murdered two brutally, his girlfriend with eleven gunshots, his cellmate with a nail-studded board. No one wants his presence in society. However, he does not deserve to die.
I read about his life. He grew up poor. He was abused. At least one parent’s ability to raise him was limited by substance abuse and dependence. His family failed him. It was obvious to his teachers that he could not understand the material for his grade level. He learned slower, more laboriously, than his schoolmates. However, I saw no indication that he got so much as tutoring to maximize his academic potential and options in life. He was born too early for special education. The schools failed him.
As an adult, Hill was in the military. They took a man with less cognitive ability than average who was raised with few examples of nonviolent interpersonal relationships and taught him violence. Military training does not a murderer make. Even combat veterans generally do not generally hurt civilians. However, it does make one better at any violence one chooses to perform by definition. The recruiter who likely came to know Hill’s limitations and something of his history but did not turn him away failed him. So did his commanding officers. He seems to have served in the Navy during peacetime. It would have been no great loss to the armed forces to let one man out when it became apparent he should not have been there.
In prison, he was not protected. According to a Guardian article, he lived in a dormitory. While the authorities did not recognize his vulnerability, other inmates did. Physically and sexually, he was mistreated as too many prisoners are. He may well have been lashing out at an abuser when he got his death sentence.
People with intellectual disabilities have moral culpability. They must be given the dignity of responsibility for their actions. Hill’s wrongdoing is ultimately on his own conscience, but society should recognize that its every institution failed him. Murder is wrong, but Hill was set up for a bad end. Then, his disability put him at a disadvantage in the courts. From birth, the people partly or wholly responsible to him and for his well-being did not help him. The arc of his life might have been diverted from this wretched course. No one stepped up.
Warren Hill is a murderer. He should be punished. Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is punishment enough. That would protect society from him, penalize him for monstrous acts, recognize that some small share of fault falls on innumerable others, and preserve his chance to reform. That would be justice. Given safe space within a prison, a useful task to perform, a bit of compassion, and perhaps whatever educational materials he can understand, he could become better than he is. It is a long shot, but society also has a debt to pay him. We should take into account that he never received his birthright. Every unwritten promise of the social contract went unfulfilled in his life.
I am especially leery of executing Warren Hill because I see intentionality in this. I suspect someone might have recognized his disability sooner if not for certain racial stereotypes of intelligence. I know poverty destroyed what little chance he had of getting help as a child in the 1960s. His socioeconomic status worked against him in the courts. I wonder if he would have received the death penalty if, all else equal, he had been white. It is possible, but, if we could make a bet and peer into a parallel universe for the answer, my money would be on ‘no.’ My gut says he would be serving a life sentence if he did not call up a specter, a caricature of black, male violence that has long haunted the South.
These are not the only reasons his life should be spared. Apart from the injustice of the situation, Georgia should not flout the law. The U.S. Supreme Court has not take the case, but they have already ruled the execution of people with intellectual disabilities unconstitutional. Whatever one’s opinion of the death penalty, there is nothing acceptable about this. It is immoral, illegal, and embarrassing. At favorite haunts in Boone, North Carolina this weekend, I may hide the car off the main drag. I would rather pretend to be from somewhere else than be seen with Georgia plates. If the Supreme Court does not intervene, if Governor Deal is silent, my adopted home will sink to a level of barbarism that will appall decent people the world over this coming Monday. It has already cropped up in foreign media. Georgia’s idea of justice is depriving a man who has hardly had anything of all he has left: his future, the opportunity to improve. Now, everyone knows.