Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Saw on the TV news that a young man had constructed what was described as a "homemade firecracker," which he then blew up in his yard. The thing was so powerful that it blew his hand off. The TV reporter said that local authorities had charged him with possession of an explosive device and some other minor offense.

It’s pretty clear that the young man broke some laws. It’s also pretty clear that the natural and very unpleasant consequences are far greater than any consequences that might ensue from prosecution. What exactly is the point of bringing these charges? We’re going to teach him a lesson?* We’re going to teach others a lesson?** I’m sorry, Mr. Prosecutor, but I’m pretty sure whatever lessons are to be learned have already been learned. This gentleman is supposed to say, “Gee, now that I’m facing a stiff fine and some court costs, I guess maybe blowing my own hand off was a mistake. I hadn’t realized that before.” Sometimes, the power of the state is trivial compared to the powers of fate. Prosecuting this young man seems just a little pointless and redundant.*** If it had been his neighbor’s person or property he’d blown up, then by all means slap him in irons and haul him to the hoosegow. Roll out the heavy artillery of the criminal justice system because you’d have a worthy target in the offender and an aggrieved victim for whom the system may be able to provide some redress.

And as for deterring others, I think that’s just as much of a stretch. Most people who are predisposed to such recklessness and stupidity have convinced themselves that the bad stuff won’t happen to them (“Well, when I play with explosives, I’m way smarter than that dude who blew his hand off.”)

* This is the theory of specific deterrence, which holds that swift and certain punishment is more effective than any punishment meted out inconsistently or long after the offense.
** This is the theory of general deterrence, which has been shown to be pretty weak and ineffectual, especially in Western cultures.
*** I was going to say that it’s like rubbing salt in the wound.

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