The Tuesday

Law & the Courts

Criminal-Justice-System Error

A guard escorts inmates at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., in 2012. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

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What Happened in St. Paul
The late Mike Quinn knew something about killers with three names — you can see his Dallas Morning News coverage of the Kennedy assassination at the Smithsonian. But Quinn, who later in life became that most unusual of creatures — a useful professor of journalism — had some less-famous stories about three-named criminals.

Some notorious criminals used their middle names habitually — Lee Harvey Oswald was one, and John Wilkes Booth was another. Also James Earl Ray and Sara Jane Moore, the failed assassin of Gerald Ford. But mostly, we know infamous criminals by three names because of a newspaper convention. There are lots of John Smiths in the world, and even people with unusual names often have name-twins and name-triplets out there. Sometimes, that’s because the name is only locally uncommon: If there is a Muhammad al-Muhammad in Muleshoe, Texas, he’s probably the only one, but there are lots of Muhammad al-Muhammads in the world. And if one of them does something awful, you want to be as clear as possible about which one it was. Hence the old print-journalism formula: “Police arrested 55-year-old Michael Ray Collins of the 4300 block of 75th Street in Mulberry, Ala.” You want to do that in order to spare the innocent: I just made up the name “Michael Ray Collins,” but Google it and I guarantee you will find dozens of people with that name.

(There is no 4300 block of 75th Street in Mulberry, Ala.)

Quinn liked to tell two stories about double names, both involving college newspapers. In the 1950s, the Daily Texan at the University of Texas reported that a socially prominent young woman on campus with the memorable name Barbara Booze was in some minor trouble with the Austin police (unpaid parking tickets or something like that) and made a gentle joke about it. Wrong Barbara Booze, as it turned out — and Papa Booze, a politically connected lawyer, was not amused. In a less funny story, another college newspaper at a different school learned that a convicted sex offender with an unusual foreign name had been hired to work in a women’s dormitory, and its editors ran with the story. They had the wrong guy: The dorm worker had the same unusual name as the sex offender, but wasn’t him. Imagine being that man seeing the newspaper first thing in the morning, and having to explain to your family and friends that what’s in the newspaper, identifying you by your unusual name, is not true. This was back when people mostly believed what was in the newspaper. The lawyer’s advice in that case: “If he asks for anything less than $1 million, just give it to him.” There followed the issuance of a sincere apology and the cutting of a large check.

With that in mind, I was not at all surprised to find that two out of the three men named as suspects in that horrible Minnesota bar shooting had exact three-name matches for men convicted in prior violent crimes. I don’t imagine that I am the only person whose first reaction to a story like this is to Google the suspects. At the time of this writing, the St. Paul police have not shared any specifics about their cases, but the department did confirm to me that the suspects have “extensive criminal histories.”

(But these are not necessarily the crimes that turn up on Google: Thanks to National Review’s news desk, I can pass on that one of the St. Paul suspects shares three names with a man charged in a violent crime in Florida but is not the same man — the two were born about a decade apart. First, middle, and last name sometimes isn’t enough.)

The journalistic language in the coverage of the St. Paul shooting was tediously familiar: “Gunfire broke out,” reported the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “This is an issue of gun violence,” declared local do-gooder Molly Jalma. They write and speak as though those triggers just pulled themselves.

But we know that isn’t the case.

A New York Times survey of police records found that the vast majority — and here I mean more than 90 percent — of the homicides in New York were committed by people with prior criminal records. In Baltimore, the police find that both homicide perpetrators and victims overwhelmingly have criminal records, mostly for violent crimes. It’s 85 percent in Milwaukee. The situation is the same in most other cities.

Nationally, more than a third of violent felons have an “active criminal-justice status” — meaning they are on probation, parole, or awaiting trial on another charge — at the time of their most recent offense. The great majority (more than 70 percent) of violent felons have a prior arrest record, the majority of them have been convicted of a crime, and more than a third of them already have been convicted of another felony. Two out of three murderers have a prior criminal history. So reports the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

You may know the Fugazi song “Bulldog Front,” which begins, “Ahistorical, you think this sh** just dropped right out of the sky.” I think hearing that song was the first time I encountered the word ahistorical. (You could get a fair bit of vocabulary from 1980s and 1990s punk music, especially if you were a fan of Bad Religion. And I remember seeing the Dissent record “Epitome of Democracy” and pronouncing the first word “eppy-toam” the first time, until it occurred to me what it said. Usually, I have the opposite issue: knowing words that I have seen in print but being unsure of how they are pronounced.) Our discussion about crimes such as the one in St. Paul tend to be ahistorical. But we have a lot of history, and a lot of data, when it comes to violent crime. We just do not desire to acknowledge it.

In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.

As I have argued elsewhere (and at book length), a great deal of our political discourse — most of it, in fact — is not an effort to talk about things but a programmatic way of not talking about things. You see this in the tepid language that so irritated Orwell, as horrifying euphemisms such as “ethnic cleansing” become part of the ordinary vocabulary. And this tendency is not limited to language: It is present in data and data-collection as well. I have written from time to time about the persistent tendency of police departments to produce not only occasional criminals but full-blown organized-crime rings, and one of the things that is most striking about the scholarship in this field is that there is . . . not very much of it. There is no reliable data-collection on the subject of how often the ladies and gentlemen we entrust with badges and guns abuse those instruments in deliberate and sustained criminal enterprises; such information as we have is mostly journalistic, along with a few desultory scholarly efforts to aggregate news reports. You can learn a great deal about a society by understanding what is not talked about and what cannot be talked about.

One of the things that is studiously not talked about is the fact that our criminal-justice system works on a worst-of-both-worlds model: It is simultaneously cruel and ineffective. Some of us might be inclined to tolerate a liberal but underperforming system, and a great many Americans would defend a vicious and cruel system if it were effective. Each of those models has its problems. But who could defend the system we have? Our criminal-justice regime ranges from the petty (reincarcerating paroled offenders over minor noncompliance) to the monstrous (effectively turning many prisons over to gangs, weaponizing rape) while failing to protect our cities and other communities from criminal violence of a sort experienced in few if any other advanced countries. (This includes advanced countries with relatively widespread gun ownership, such as Canada, Finland, Austria, and Switzerland.) Conservatives sometimes whisper among ourselves that this is not talked about because of the relative prominence of African Americans among criminal offenders. But it is, I think, much more the case that we do not talk much about the facts of the case because those facts inconvenience some very powerful actors: police departments and penal systems, the vast bureaucracies of parole and probation, the vast workforce employed in our 2,000 state and federal prisons, our 1,700 juvenile jails, our 3,000 local lockups, and our hundreds of other incarceration facilities, along with countless parole offices, drug-testing centers, grant-dependent “social services” agencies that function as ATMs for the politically connected and the corrupt, etc.

Personally, I’ll take a dozen honest drug dealers over one corrupt parole officer.

What happened in St. Paul was the work of particular criminals. But it also is the work product of a vast, vicious, ineffective apparatus of criminal justice that is big on surveillance and officiousness but not very big on achieving justice, or even securing order. We should stop acting surprised by these episodes — and we should stop allowing our police, mayors, city councilmen, social workers, and legislators to pretend that they are surprised. There is no excuse for being surprised.

And we can begin by trusting the English language to express that the men named as suspects so far in this investigation are Terry Lorenzo Brown Jr., 33, Devondre Trevon Phillips, 29, and Jeffrey Orlando Hoffman, 32; that this violence was not perpetrated by firearms or any other inanimate object; and, above all, that this is not something that just happens, that gunfire doesn’t just “break out.” Sentences have subjects, and it matters that we get them right.

In Other News . . .
Speaking of things we do not talk about, last week the name of Julia Kristeva came up in my reading. Kristeva is a feminist philosopher and literary critic, a celebrated one: She is a commander of the French Legion of Honour and a recipient of the Order of Merit and has won most other scholarly and cultural awards that you can think of short of a Nobel Prize. Because we are very good at memory-holing inconvenient facts about left-wing intellectuals, I offer this reminder that Kristeva is, among other things, a former collaborator with the Bulgarian Committee for State Security, effectively an arm of the KGB. That’s way there down at the bottom of the memory hole, somewhere near The New Republic’s unhappy Stalinist phase and “Hymietown.” But we should remember these things.

Words About Words
If Matthew McConaughey does end up running for governor of Texas, his campaign slogan surely will be, “Alright, Alright, Alright.”

Is that alwrong?

In a recent piece, I wrote: “The message from the labor market seems to be that teachers are doing alright.” A reader asks: ¿Qué pasó?

Some people insist that there is no such word as alright, that what you want is all right.

I disagree.

My usual criterion for these questions is clarity — it is useful to have different words for different things, which is why I want to preserve the difference between careen and career, between jealousy and envy, etc. And all right and alright don’t mean the same thing. All right means just what it says: all correct. “I checked out his figures, and they were all right.” Alright, on the other hand, usually means acceptable or mediocre: “I’m not at the top of the class, but I’m doing alright in chemistry.” “How am I feeling? Alright, I guess.” But alright is also an exclamation denoting excellence or desirability: “Pizza for breakfast? Alright!” Sometimes, it just means yes or okay: “Do I want to go play tennis? Alright, I’ll come.” For McConaughey, it’s the expression of a generally high-on-life (and, who are we kidding, probably on a hell of a lot more than life) sentiment.

The 1979 Who film is The Kids Are Alright, but the 2010 Annette Bening film is The Kids Are All Right.

Rampant Prescriptivism
Alternate is a verb meaning to take turns with something else or to go back and forth between two conditions: “This time of year, sunny days alternate with overcast periods.” Alternate is also an adjective describing things that alternate: “My alternate periods of levity and despair.”

An alternative is a choice or a possibility, or an adjective characterizing such a choice. “Mrs. Thatcher’s motto was, ‘There is no alternative,’” “I offered an alternative solution to the problem.”

Alternately as an adverb means occurring in an alternating sequence: “Jekyll and Hyde appeared alternately.”

Alternatively as an adverb means presenting a choice or alternative: “We could run for our lives; alternatively, we could stay here and fight.”

One thing alternately never means is alternatively.

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away
You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. There is no alternative.

My National Review archive can be found here.

In case you missed it: Government by sanctimony is a terrible idea.

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Recommended
The New York Times’ latest report on Rikers Island, part of a long-running series of reports, is worth your time.

Enjoying the Morning Sun
Katy and Pancake have been enjoying a visit from their cousin Quinn, no relation to the journalist mentioned above.

(Kevin Williamson)

In Closing
From criminal to god and back again — the other St. Paul’s career is not entirely unfamiliar in our age of brief, toxic celebrity:

When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.

And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.

And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.

Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.

Paul was beheaded a few years later.

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