Author Archives: Guest Blogger

Once and Always a Criminal?

Andrew Falk, left, a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute, works with Michelle Jones on a housing policy proposal at the Indiana Women’s Prison. ANDREW SPEAR FOR THE MARSHALL PROJECT

A convicted murderer is accepted into Harvard University’s graduate history program only to have university officials override the admissions decision for fear of what news reports might say, among other stated and unstated concerns: If you didn’t read this compelling story, reported by Eli Hager at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit group focused on criminal justice, and published in the New York Times, you should. It is a forceful reminder of how we fail to think adequately about the ends and means of justice.

Michelle Jones, who is starting work on her Ph.D. at New York University this fall, was released from prison last August after serving twenty years of a fifty-year sentence for murdering her four-year-old son. The story of how she managed to become a published scholar of American history while incarcerated at an Indiana state prison—with no access to the Internet—is impressive in its own right. According to Hager, not only did Jones, now 45, lead “a team of inmates that pored through reams of photocopied documents from the [Indiana State Archives] to produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project last year. As prisoner number 970554, Ms. Jones also wrote several dance compositions and historical plays, one of which is slated to open at an Indianapolis theater in December.”

The details of why Harvard overrode the history department’s decision to admit Jones (one of eighteen selected from more than 300 applicants) are not entirely clear. However, Hager uncovered a memo from two American studies professors who examined Jones’s acceptance (she was a top alternate) and “questioned whether she had minimized her crime ‘to the point of misrepresentation.’” One of the professors, John Stauffer, further noted that “frankly, we knew that anyone could just punch her crime into Google, and Fox News would probably say that P.C. liberal Harvard gave 200 grand of funding to a child murderer, who also happened to be a minority. I mean, c’mon.”

C’mon indeed. Probably unintentionally, Stauffer voiced one of the unspoken presumptions of America’s criminal justice system: once a criminal, always a criminal. This presumption too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the collateral consequences those with criminal convictions face after release from incarceration, including restrictions on access to employment, student loans, public housing, and other federal benefits.

But there is more for us to consider.

The one thing we know for sure is that Jones’s possible “misrepresentation” and “minimizing” version of her crime was cause for concern. Her crime was unquestionably a terrible one. After getting pregnant at fourteen as a result of what she called nonconsensual sex with a high-school senior, her mother beat her in the stomach with a board and she was placed in a series of group homes and foster family situations. This damaged and completely unprepared mother ultimately confessed to beating her four-year-old son and leaving him alone for days in their apartment, eventually returning to find him dead. Jones was twenty when she committed this horrible crime, which a personal statement accompanying her Harvard application described as the result of a “psychological breakdown after years of abandonment and domestic violence.”

Her statement that she killed her son partly because of her own trauma and psychological breakdown speaks to an unresolved tension in our thinking about crime. On one hand, we need to believe that there are reasons why people commit crimes; otherwise, we fear that anyone could become a victim or a perpetrator of violence at any moment. At the same time, we can give only so much credence, or even thought, to the explanation of why a crime was committed; too much understanding might cause us to question our criminal justice system’s reliance on incarceration as the most efficacious response to crime.

The belief that offenders should accept their responsibility and repent of their wrongdoing is so baked into our criminal justice system that it rewards offenders by taking months and sometimes years off their sentences if they say the magic words. As a federal public defender, I have counseled clients about their allocution to the court before they are sentenced. After all the lawyers have spoken, what should defendants say in those final moments before the gavel drops? The general advice is always to avoid blaming anyone else—or even pointing to conditions beyond one’s control—because the American myth of self-reliance and autonomy requires the defendant to bear the full weight of the offense in that moment. And when defendants offer their mea culpas, they give us all permission to think that justice has been well and fairly served.

After Jones spent many of the best years of her life in prison, why should it matter now how she describes something she did a little more than two decades ago? It matters because we need to ask ourselves whether the actions of someone as bright and capable as Jones were largely the result of forces beyond her reasonable control, namely intense trauma and extreme psychological duress.

And if we conclude, reasonably, that they were, we might further ask if fifty years of incarceration was an appropriate sentence in the first place. Would fifteen years have sufficed? Would psychiatric hospitalization have been a better response? Undeniably, Jones’s crime was horrific, but she fulfilled her end of the bargain, doing everything that the sentencing court and the Indiana Department of Correction asked of her, and then some. The Sentencing Project estimates that 161,957 people were serving life sentences as of 2016. The other two million adults currently incarcerated in the United States will be released someday. If Jones is not entitled to have her debt declared repaid in full, what hope can we extend to them?

Lisa Lorish is an assistant federal public defender in the Western District of Virginia and a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law.

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Terror, Photographed

Two people escape an Oslo office building after the 2011 terrorist attack there; Morten Holm/AFP.

Audio brought to you by curio.io, a Hedgehog Review partner.

Terror trades in images—it needs spectators to feed itself. It is commonplace to say that atrocities like the terrorist attacks in Manchester, London, Brussels, or Boston are “unspeakable”—whether to indicate that words are inadequate to describe such an act or that using words in this way is somehow, in itself, a form of violence. While these attacks may be unspeakable, they were most certainly not un-picturable: On the contrary, they generated a great number of images. These images mobilize shock, disbelief and repulsion, as well as gratuitous voyeurism. Becoming prime mediators in interrelationships between the targeted local communities and global audiences, they deploy a visual force that releases the impact of terror to the world at large.

Although piercing, images of terror are becoming more and more disconnected from the context in which they take place—all too often, photographs of mayhem, wounded bystanders, and destroyed buildings could have been taken almost anywhere in the world. No longer novel, photographs of terror now seem to create a sense of déjà vu or anxious anticipation. Many of us—myself included—have projected the photographed scenes against the background of own cities. Still, a few images stand out: Davina Douglass pressing a gauze mask to her face after being rescued in the aftermath of the 2005 London tube bombing; Tarana Akbari in a green tunic screaming in horror just minutes after a 2011 suicide bombing in Kabul; or dazed and bloodied Omran Daqneesh in the back of an Aleppo ambulance after a 2016 airstrike. Is any one of these as indelible as, for example, nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked and napalmed down a Vietnam highway in 1972? That remains to be seen, but all of these demonstrate the essential qualities of terrorism photographs: their emphatic, graphic reality and unavoidably exploitative nature.

The Intersection of Photography and Terror

Any consideration of the impact of terrorism’s imagery must also examine the entanglement of photography and terror. Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero defines terrorism as an act of violence that destroys any notion of safety, integrity, or distinctiveness for individuals or society as a whole. In fact, she argues in her 2011 book Horrorism that words such as “terrorism” and “war” have become obsolete. Terrorist acts, says Cavarero, whether bombing or stabbing, are as ubiquitous as they are random: Every person, innocent or guilty, armed or defenceless, civilian or soldier, believer or atheist, is a potential target for obliteration. Terror disperses violence from its designated territories (battlefields, camps) into civilian settings (a pop concert, a restaurant, a Christmas fair), making the quotidian into a war zone. As for photographs of terror, Cavarero follows Susan Sontag’s lead in considering such images as the eroticization of horror.

But terror is also the emotional response that the act of violence engenders among bystanders, a mixture of fear, angst, disgust, and disbelief. To respond to terrorism (or horrorism as Cavarero would have it) is to experience a visceral and brutal check to our usually unexamined feelings of personal and public safety, our comfortable integration in the world, our very concept of existence. It is precisely the generation of this affective state among large populations, rather than the death and dismemberment of individuals, that is the ultimate goal of terrorists. From ISIS to white supremacy, terror’s power is in its emotional undoing.

Photographs of terrorist attacks operate to document the results of terror as an act of violence on helpless civilians and to instill a feeling of terror in viewers—viewers often caught unawares by these images and thus unwittingly coerced into a state of anxiety and fear. Further, photographs of terror create a sense of loss of time and place, a de-temporalization as lived experience comes to a halt. We become temporarily paralyzed—a reaction, it should be noted, that is fundamental to the experience of photography itself. Photographs stop a moment in time and arrest our sense of the ongoing movement that characterizes the body and the world around it. What’s more, photography interrupts our sense of interiority, disrupting with its insistence on motionlessness our feeling of being anchored in a temporal world. When the camera captures a moment of violence, it freezes the act of terror, making it unending, even eternal, forever perpetuating our emotional reaction to it.

In the Moment and After

Images of terrorism come in three forms. First, there are images of the immediate aftermath of the attack, civilians—often the most vulnerable, women and children—staggering out of the danger zone, faces bewildered or distorted by anguish, clothing torn and bloody. These victims have seen and experienced the carnage. “In the moment” imagery also includes first responders and aerial shots taken by police helicopters or drones. The latter can be particularly disquieting as they often reveal bodies of the wounded or the dead who may be the attackers themselves. Formalistically, these images tend to be visually arresting: vivid colors, dynamic compositions, chaotic scenes filled with authentic, unstudied human expressions. The element of immediacy and a lack of finish also contribute to a sense of dread. What we can see within the frame is bad enough—what horrors are taking place just out of sight?

Then come the images of mourning, grieving, and commemorating—photographs that invite viewers to become part of the visual script for grief. Streetscapes changed into shrines, a sea of snapshots, handwritten messages, flowers, and teddy bears. There are candlelight vigils and stern police officers patrolling the streets. These photographs offer no grand gestures, no sweeping emotions, no spectacle. Rather, they speak to the more mundane work that terror develops over time, of the personal, political, or cultural effort to make sense of the event and move beyond its senselessness. These images spark solidarity and identification, appealing to the feeling of shared mourning. They also run the risk of trivializing the act of terror and the depth of human response by replacing scenes of violence with those of sentimentality.

Accordingly, we have grown accustomed to visual performances of institutionalized grief: heads of state and high officials—Queen Elizabeth, London mayor Sadiq Khan, former prime minister Theresa May—making somber hospital visits and condemnatory speeches. Following the May 22, 2017, bombing in Manchester of an Ariana Grande concert, there followed a novel expression of performed grief: Grande’s June 4 benefit concert. Except for images of the singer sporting her One Love Manchester sweatshirt (merch available online), photographs of the event look exactly like any one of hundreds of other carefully choreographed and highly lucrative pop star concerts. The visual medium in this instance has brought us quite a distance from an act of terror to scenes of entertainment and capitalism seen through a screen of philanthropy.

The commemorative power of photographs reaches new potency in the world of social media. Twitter and Facebook were deluged with profile images of concertgoers as they looked before they became victims—who can forget the sweet-faced Saffie Rose Roussos, an eight-year-old victim, or Georgina Callander, a bespectacled eighteen-year-old who was shown in an older photograph with her arms around Grande’s waist? All of these private images became gateways to lives that would have otherwise remained unknown to us. Rather than being manifest and visible in these images, terror remains stored, contained, releasing an insidious emotional reaction for which we are unprepared. In the social media environment where self-celebratory rhetoric mixes with conflict reporting and funny cat videos, the snapshot portraits of victims became an affective portal for our voracious and indiscriminate quest for media consumption.

In Pursuit of Clickbait

Photographs of terrorist events also have other troubling aspects. More than other forms of photography, portraits seem to reflect the Western bias in the media coverage of terrorist attacks. Victims are presented as precarious and grief-worthy. After the concert bombing, the Greater Manchester Police Twitter account, for example, was transformed into a kind of digital shrine of personal images as a tribute to lost lives. At the same time, private images of the victims of attacks in Kabul and Baghdad, which happened around the same time as the UK attacks, are hardly to be found in the Western media. Occasionally, we do encounter memorable photographs of non-Western child victims (Omran Daqneesh, refugee Aylan Kurdi, or Kim Phúc), but countless others remain invisible and nameless.

In addition, especially since the Manchester bombing, Facebook and Twitter have been filled with images of fake victims, images stolen and posted alongside messages pretending to beg for help in finding “loved ones.” Generating thousands of shares and re-tweets by well-intentioned bystanders, these hoaxes extend the emotional impact of terror by amplifying and confusing the event for no other purpose than sowing chaos and eroding our ability to make meaning from meaninglessness. With the increasing prevalence of trolling and accusations of fake news, the credibility of media imagery grows weaker and the possibility of sensationalism, exploitation and anonymous malice increases. Photographs of terror, loss, and death and the feelings they spark become so much clickbait. These manipulations expose our disenchantment with the medium of photography, once thought to be an unimpeachable source of objectivity and truth.

Photographs of terror remain a powerful tool. More than simply capturing evidence of violence done to people and places, they provide concrete evidence of the unravelling of human identity and communities. Intentionally or not, they also reinforce the concept of violence as a norm, accommodate and expand our appetite for manipulable visual media, and forge affective (or potentially abusive) connections between individuals separated in space and time. In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, photographs deepen solidarity and care for one another, but they can also intensify fear and xenophobia, invite voyeurism, and expose vulnerability. They may coerce viewers toward specific narratives, generate unwelcome emotions, manipulate people to spend money, or indoctrinate certain outlooks or ideologies. In a media saturated world, one in which photography flourishes, it is critical to recognize its dynamics, endurance, and significance.

Dr. Marta Zarzycka teaches at the University of Texas, Austin, at the Center of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of Gendered Tropes in War Photography: Mothers, Mourners, Soldiers (Routledge) and essays on photography in Los Angeles Review of Books, Lens Culture, and Huck Magazine.

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The Groot Gang: Superheroes, Politics, and Art

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Image from a film by Louis Feuillade. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, good guys die by disintegration. They flake apart; their death leaves confetti everywhere. This residue—sparkly, expensive-looking, soon gone—resembles the way the film exists in the memory.

As for the bad guys: They die, as in all Marvel movies, by extreme, cartoonish violence, of the sort one is supposed to find cutely amoral. In this case, it’s a glowing flying space arrow (don’t ask) that a character controls by whistling (don’t ask) and that carves beautiful arabesques on the screen as it disposes many dozens of henchmen. The crowd around me laughed, just as they laughed last year, when Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool killed eleven goons while dodging twelve bullets, or nine years ago, when Robert Downey’s Iron Man flattened those hostage-takers with the shoulder-mounted rockets. Superhero films resemble slasher movies, these days, in the cleverness and dexterity of their kills. In Guardians 2—as in the first film, which featured a space-jailbreak that presumably left hundreds dead—the audience is expected to go along with this violence, and largely does, because of the excellence of the heroes’ repartee. They’re bounty hunters and killers, but they’re cute, and one of them is a tree.

The amoral turn in superhero cinema—you can trace it to Iron Man, with Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990) as a fascinating precursor—is really a turning back. Historians generally attribute the distinction of “first superhero” to Superman, but this requires willful blindness to the great silent crime serials of Louis Feuillade—the Fantomas series (1913–14), Les Vampires (1916)—or their imitators: 1926’s The Bat, based on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s play; Fritz Lang’s Spies (1919). Les Vampires in particular, with its elaborately costumed, endlessly clever, undeniably sexy conspirators, in turn drew on the activities of the Bonnot Gang, an anarchist sect known for expropriating (though they never got around to redistributing) the goods of wealthy Parisians. Just as the first detective was a thief—Eugene Vidocq, a nineteenth-century thief-turned-fence-turned-informer, invented criminology and opened the first private detective agency—the first superheroes were supervillains. Continue reading

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What Is Innocence Worth?

lorish innocence FLAT

In its recent Nelson v. Colorado decision, the Supreme Court affirmed what might have seemed to require no formal affirmation—namely, that a person whose criminal conviction is overturned on appeal is entitled to the return of any fees, court costs, or restitution paid to the state as a result of the conviction. Previously, the state of Colorado required an exonerated defendant to file a separate civil suit and prove actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence before funds would be repaid. Having a conviction overturned on a mere legal technicality would not suffice for financial recovery. The central question in the case—which was decided six to one in favor of the petitioners, with Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting—concerned due process.

While it was notable that the Supreme Court took up such a seemingly self-evident case, the Court did not address the question of compensation for periods of wrongful incarceration. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, explained that the “[petitioners] seek restoration of funds they paid to the State, not compensation for temporary deprivation of those funds. Petitioners seek only their money back, not interest on those funds for the period the funds were in the State’s custody.” Justice Ginsburg continued: “Just as the restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction.” She made it clear what compensation is and what it is not: While compensation may be the return of something wrongfully taken, it is not necessarily compensation to be released from prison in which one was held for no lawful reason in the first place. Compensation is something more—an award for loss, suffering, or an injury. Continue reading

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Princeton Seminary, Presbyterian Pastors, and Purpose

Princeton Theological Seminary library.  Billy via Flickr.

Princeton Theological Seminary library. Billy via Flickr.

Last week, Princeton Theological Seminary announced it was rescinding its decision to bestow an award upon Presbyterian pastor and author Tim Keller. The seminary’s president explained that Keller’s leadership role in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America was at odds with the school’s mission. Keller’s denomination, unlike the seminary’s own Presbyterian Church (USA), “prevents women and LGBTQ+ persons from full participation in the ordained Ministry of Word and Sacrament.” He also emphasized that the school’s reversal in no way undermined its commitment to open dialogue—the award comes with a lecture, which Keller was still invited to to deliver: “We are a school that can welcome a church leader to address one of its centers about his subject, even if we strongly disagree with his theology on ordination to ministry.”

Keller is in some ways an unlikely candidate for headline-generating controversy. He’s more known for writing readable books, ministering to Millennials in New York City, and engaging in dialogues with atheists on college campuses. Last year, he and I coauthored an article that argues, among other things, that we can and must figure out a way to live peaceably in the midst of our deep differences, and that we can treat each other charitably across those differences. Those ideas emerge out of the intersection of Keller’s approach to pluralism as a pastor and my academic framework of confident pluralism.

One of the core commitments of confident pluralism is that the First Amendment should permit private associations—including private institutions of higher education—to follow their own norms absent extraordinarily compelling governmental interests. Since interests of such magnitude are not implicated here, Princeton Seminary can do whatever it wants. It could give or not give the award to Keller. It could—as it did—offer and then rescind the award for just about any reason. It could—as it did not—disinvite Keller to deliver his lecture. Still, this whole episode raises questions, not only about the purpose of Princeton Theological Seminary, but whether or not the school has adequately articulated its sense of purpose. Continue reading

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Beyond the Legality of Executive Orders

A young Japanese-American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A young Japanese American waits to be taken to an assembly center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This Sunday marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Executive Order 9066. Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, the order authorized the secretary of war and military commanders to establish “exclusion zones,” which ultimately led to the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of these actions in a series of decisions culminating in Korematsu v. United States.

We are now in the middle of a heated national debate over another executive order: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States,” signed by President Donald J. Trump. The two orders are not the same in scope or consequence. But they do bear some similarities. Neither Executive Order 9066 nor Trump’s immigration order singles out a group of people by name. Yet both orders make possible discriminatory action.

As much as I disagree with its substance and symbolism, many of the constitutional arguments raised against Trump’s executive order strike me as unpersuasive. The order does not flagrantly overstep the bounds of executive power as they are currently understood; nor is the purported Establishment Clause challenge as obvious as some commentators have suggested. (I find Michael McConnell’s analysis of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion closest to the mark.)

But whether or not an executive order is constitutional is not the only question that can be raised about it or even necessarily the most important. The actions of our president—particularly those formalized and ritualized as executive orders—have expressive as well as legal consequences. They tell us something about who we are and who we should be as a people. From this perspective, the historical connection to Executive Order 9066 reminds us of the dangers of fear and the human toll that can too easily result from that fear. Continue reading

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Illiberalism Rising

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Death of Socrates, Daniel Chodowiecki. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America. White nationalists…are celebrating.”—Senator Harry Reid

“Political correctness is the biggest issue facing America today. Even Trump has just barely faced up to it.”—David Gelernter, Weekly Standard.

Both the left and the right warn of a growing illiberalism. Continue reading

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Support Your Local Cat Café

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency

Cat Café MoCHA in Japan, photo HIS Travel Agency.

Before visiting Los Angeles a few months ago, I did what I always do when planning a trip to a major city: I made reservations at a cat café. For the uninitiated, cat cafés are small businesses that offer patrons the opportunity to admire and play with domestic cats. The cats come to the cat café from local shelters, and if a guest and a cat hit it off, the cat can be adopted. All the while, guests sip coffee and munch pastries (which usually have to be brought to the café from separate facilities due to health code restrictions on the preparation of food in the presence of animals). Reservations are necessary because having too many humans in the café at the same time could be stressful for the cats.

Cat cafés started in East Asia and have spread to large cities in Europe and the United States. After having previously visited Meow Parlour in New York City and Crumbs & Whiskers in Washington, D.C., I eagerly went to Crumbs & Whiskers’s new Los Angeles café on my first full day in town. Waiting inside was just what awaited me in New York and Washington: a little slice of heaven for a dyed-in-the-fur cat fanatic like myself. Continue reading

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