Back in 1911, Edgar Farrar’s son, Edgar, Jr., was shot dead in New Orleans by a thief named Rene Canton. Canton was found guilty and the evidence was overwhelmingly against him. Canton was sentenced to death by hanging.
However, the verdict of the death penalty was eventually overturned on the request of the father of the victim. Edgar Farrar’s letter to the Governor of Louisiana, pleading for mercy for his son’s killer, provides insight into the psychology of guilt:
We feel that this young brute [Canton, the killer] is the product of our system of society, for which all of us, particularly persons of our position, are to some extent responsible. [Canton’s] father and mother are honest, hard working people. With them the struggle for existence was too bitter and exacting to permit them to devote the time and personal care necessary to develop the good and repress the evil in their son, who thus grew up amid the malign influences that surround the children of the poor in a large city. We believe that he shot my son as instinctively as a snake would strike one who crossed his path; and while his act was murder in law and in fact, yet it lacked that forethought and deliberation which make a crime of this sort unpardonable.
Notice how Farrar’s reasoning contains the same mistaken premises as the reasoning of those who argue against punishment for terrorists and terrorist nations.
Mistaken premise # 1: Individuals are not responsible for their actions; society is collectively responsible. If Canton killed, it’s as much the fault of the rich for being rich as it is any other factor, such as a moral flaw or irrational belief on the part of the killer himself.
Mistaken premise # 2: Irrational urges, such as murder, are instinctual. Because these impulses are obviously not rational, the killer cannot be held responsible for his actions. An individual could only be held responsible if he were in a rational, reasoning state—and surely a killer is not in such a state at the time that he kills.
Back in 1911, violent crime—and organized terrorism—was not yet the widespread problem it was to later become in the United States. Yet Farrar’s flawed reasoning, derived from totally mistaken premises, represents the dominant approach to the anti-retaliation point of view regarding terrorism.
Academic intellectuals, media elites, and even our own President have all argued, in one form or another, that America brings terrorism on itself by being too rich, too “arrogant,” and too comfortable—thereby inciting the envy and hatred of the rest of the world. This is no different from Edgar Farrar, Sr., writing that if maybe he weren’t so rich and well off, the poor would not feel like killing him (or his loved ones). Only killers kill, but guilt-ridden victims who provide the killers with moral permission are almost as much to blame.
As for the second mistaken premise, today’s psychologists, psychiatrists and philosophers do everything in their power—with increasing success—to convince the population that, when doing something irrational, the violent individual is, by virtue of his irrationality, not responsible.
If a woman spills hot coffee and burns herself, of course she was being careless and irresponsible. Because these are irrational qualities, she, therefore, cannot be held responsible and, consequently, McDonald’s (who sold her the hot coffee) is to blame. The same goes for smokers and overeaters, many of whom (along with their lawyers, in some cases) hold the producers of these products responsible for their own choices to use them.
Psychiatrists—even allegedly more rational ones (such as Sally Satel, a Washington DC psychiatrist and author of several books attacking political correctness in medicine)—passionately argued for the moral innocence of Andrea Yates, the woman who brutally terrorized and slowly, painfully drowned all of her children early in 2002. (See: The Wall Street Journal, 3/14/02) Of course Yates’ actions were brutal, heartless and irrational, these psychiatrists insist, and that’s exactly why she can’t be held responsible. There’s no such thing as evil, such people imply, only vaguely defined “mental illness.”
The combination of these two huge errors—that society and irrational “instincts” are responsible for wrongdoing, rather than flawed choices or flawed character on the part of bad individuals—has done much to create the climate for the growing terrorism and violence we see, not to mention the growing economic dislocation through ever more costly government regulations and lawsuits.
Rational ideas are the only solution to our economic and physical safety woes. Intellectually speaking, we’re still going in the wrong direction in this country. If we are to survive, there must be a dramatic U-turn in thinking—and soon. The war on terrorism is, at root, a war against irrational ideas in favor of correct ones. Until the right ideas start to win, proper policies and actions on the part of our leaders will not follow.
Without proper policies and actions on the part of our leaders, along with rational intellectual guidance from the fields of psychiatry, psychology and (ultimately) philosophy, none of us will ever be physically safe or economically secure. In short, as long as our intellectual and government leaders keep pandering and telling us, “It’s never your fault,” we’re going to enable and create the very kind of destruction we claim we wish to avoid.
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