Sense of Balance – Astounding criminal justice inconsistencies

I love Eddie Izzard. Do you?

Eddie Izzard, on The Myndset Brand StrategyIn one of his absolutely best skits, dressed in his executive transvestite garb, in Dressed to Kill, Izzard says that we all know how to name and punish someone who murders one or several people.  We have monikers such as a serial killer and mass murderer.  However, Izzard points out that we come up blank when it comes to labelling individuals who murder over a hundred thousand people (read: Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot…).

Murder and the penal system is a tricky and sensitive topic. Not an easy dinner table conversation, by any standard. It is not a topic that leaves one neutral.  Perhaps because of the level of sensitivity, it seems that the world has no sense of balance or center of gravity in the affair.

Around the world, it is astounding to see the range of standards for dealing with criminals. There is the autocratic, unmerciful, unsupervised version in certain radical states (China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen are purportedly the top 4 in meting out the death penalty, followed unceremoniously by the US)*.  As of May 2012, the death penalty is legal in 33 states in the US. Then, according to various laws, some countries will hand out sentences of “life imprisonment” – with life being some fanciful number, well below 100 years.

It seems curious when you can have, in the “developed” world, such discrepancies in sentences.  Murder can be far less punishable than financial embezzlement.  Here are a sampling of different cases:

  • The 74-year-old Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years (and $17B in forfeiture) after his titanic Ponzi scheme came apart. [USA]
  • The 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel was sentenced to pay $6.7B in fines and 5 years in prison (plus 2 years suspended) for his derivatives trading errors at Société Générale, despite the fact that the gains were not his personally to realize. [France]
  • A death sentence (that was successful only on the second electrocution attempt) for the apparently falsely accused 18-year-old Willie Francis (see my friend, Gilbert King’s book, The Execution of Willie Francis).  [USA]  Of course, there are many more such cases around the world – see Wikipedia’s entry for wrongful executions.
  • An elaborate 11-year stalemate in Guantánamo for the 5 masterminds of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Only recently, the Pentagon has declared that the charges “could carry the death penalty.”  [USA]
  • In the UK, this week, an armed robber, Yohan Clarke, 33, was jailed for 22 years for shooting, but not killing, someone in the stomach.  Source: Evening Standard.  [UK]
  • And now, there is a pending punishment for Anders Breivik in Norway, for killing 77 people in two separate attacks: 21 years in prison with possible five-year extensions for as long as he is considered a danger to society.  21 years, really? That is, basically, 4 months per victim.  Source: Telegraph [Norway]
Eddie Izzard Executive Transvestite, The Myndset Brand Strategy

Dressed To Kill

Of course, as Izzard points out, there was house arrest for Pol Pot (aged 72), responsible for 1.7 million deaths in Cambodia, during a 3-year stint.

What is a life worth?  What is life imprisonment, if it is not until the end of your life?

I am beginning to doubt that their system is any less crazy than any Western so-called civilized system?  Who has it right?

It is all rather confusing, if not demoralizing, when you start to see such discrepancies in terms of punishment.  You almost think there must be some form of arbitrage going on among criminal circles.  Better to kill in certain countries and not get caught doing financial misdeeds in others.  What are your thoughts?  Please drop in your opinion!

*The list’s top 10 is rounded out by Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Somalia — not very good company, eh?

Psychiatry is politics… and dollars and cents

I had never been fully exposed to the downside of psychiatry until I visited this week the exposition “Pyschiatrie: la vérité sur ses abus” in Paris at the Hotel Castiglione, 40 rue deFaubourg St Honoré. Sponsored by Citizens’ Commission on Human Rights CCHR* (French or English, this exposition is based on the exhibit at the Los Angeles “Psychiatry, An Industry of Death” Museum (6616 Sunset Blvd).

Featuring a series of 14 films, with alarming statistics about the US and the world, this exposition definitely makes you think twice. (A psych mind game if you want). The presentation style of the films is too Hollywoodian for my taste, drawing on the excesses of Nazi psychiatry and tracing a morbid history of psychiatry as a medical field; but the underlying message is compelling. Whether or not you subscribe to psychiatry as a well founded practice, the exposition deserves a viewing.

Some facts that the films point out:

  • 20 million children worldwide — of which more than 6 million (out of 52 million in school) children in the US, up from 4 million in 1997 — are taking psychiatric drugs

  • More than 100,000 patients die each year in psychiatric institutions.

  • Annually, up to 10,000 people die from the use of electroshock treatment —460 volts of electricity through the brain. Three-quarters of all electroshock victims are women.

  • Psychiatrists and psychologists have raped 250,000 women. Studies show that 10 to 25 percent of psychiatrists sexually assault their patients; of every 20 of these victims one is likely to be a minor.

Between bio-chemical imbalances, bi-polar, ADD, ADHD or depression, psychiatrists have a flotilla of “diseases” which they can attribute to children and adults, and for which they can prescribe medication. I was struck by this modern day statistic: between 1950-1990, there have been more deaths of “patients” in US Federal psychiatric hospitals than of US soldiers in all the wars since the War of Independence (including the Wars of Secession, WWI, WWII, Vietnam and Korea). Needless to say, such a statistic seems completely inflammatory. At the very least, there should be a little more precision on the nature of the deaths (end of life Alzheimer, for example?). I note also that it has been 17 years since that statistic has been updated. Have the rate of deaths declined so much since? Are the statistics no longer available?

Many of statistics are about modern day USA. Of course, the cases of Soviet ‘psychiatric’ treatment are also quite contemporary, as exposed by various dissidents, including Boris Kovhar, Sergei Potylitsyn and Mikhail Kukobaka. Given the recent internment of the journalist Larissa Arap, there is still plenty to be worried about in Russia regarding their psychiatric practices.

Behind the exposition, there are a lot of dollars and cents… including the proposed sale of their own related books and DVDs, etc. But, there is also clearly an industry of psychiatry. Numbers put forward in the films at various stages:

  • $19B of US tax dollars since 1948 have been invested in psychiatric research.
  • US consumption of anti-depression, anti-psychotic drugs have sky rocketed from $9.7B in ’94 to $35B in ’04, with a corresponding hike in insurance payouts and, therefore, premiums. For comparison, in France, 543 million euros were spent in 2001 on psychiatric medication.

With the economics of psychiatry thrown into the equation, the field of psychiatry is more than ever political. US [not just Nazi German, or modern day Russia, China] politics have had ties with psychiatry, including involvement with the creation of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Troubles (DSM) which was first published in 1952 (see wiki listing). And with a quick trawling of the net, you will find that there are a number of activists out there against psychiatric abuse, (for example).

My overall opinion is that psychiatry continues to have its place as a field of practice. Grave psychiatric disorders exist and obviously need research and treatment. Perhaps, for everyday accompaniment in life, the role of the psychologist is more appropriate than psychiatrist. And, with my interest in literature, psychology is always near at heart. I have long admired the thought experiments that authors such as Turgenev initiated in the 19th century. Literature and psychology are a happier marriage than politics and psychiatry.

The exhibit in Paris closes August 12th.


* The CCHR is an international psychiatric watchdog group co-founded in 1969 by the Church of Scientology and Dr. Thomas Szasz, Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus, to investigate and expose psychiatric violations of human rights.

Mahjong can cause epilepsy

Whatever next? The BBC report states that a study in Hong Kong reveals that Mahjong can cause epilepsy. Are they for real? A “unique” Mahjong strain of epilepsy? The BBC report writes “Mahjong is cognitively demanding, drawing on memory, fast calculations, concentration, reasoning and sequencing.” At that rate, might as well as stop thinking and living normally too.

I have just visited the (anti-)Psychiatry exposition, “Psychiatry: the truth & its abuses” at the Hotel Castiglione, 40 rue Faubourg St Honore, in Paris. This report out of Hong Kong is a good “amuse bouche” for an upcoming post I will make on the exposition. If in Paris, go visit the exposition. It runs through August 12th.