Civil Liberties and Populism: A Reflection on Some of the Protests

                There has been much ado about the third-degree murder charge against the officer who killed George Floyd with protesters demanding it be increased to first-degree. While I am a veteran of Black Lives Matter protests and support the peaceful parts of the protests, I do not support a first-degree murder charge and for important reasons. Namely, from a legal perspective, the killing of George Floyd was probably not first-degree murder since first-degree murder in Minnesota likely requires premeditation which is absent in this case. What concerns me is the demand that dangerous precedents for civil liberties are being demanded by ostensibly left-leaning protesters. It reminds me of the complaints about Dylann Roof getting a Burger King cheeseburger after his capture in North Carolina.

                Dylann Roof was given a cheeseburger because they wanted to interrogate him and since he said he was hungry and he plausibly was given that he’d spent the previous many hours escaping a murder scene without thought to much else. Firstly, I’m not going to criticize an act of kindness even to a mass murderer. If he was hungry, regardless of his crimes, he should have been fed. Yet, more importantly, he needed to be fed for legal reasons since hunger and starvation are torture methods that would make anything in the interrogation inadmissible. Induced hunger, passively or actively, shouldn’t be legal. If he had spent a long time without food, he should not be punished by further deprivation not only for his own sake but the legal precedents it would set.

                Effectively, what the complainers about Dylann Roof getting a fast food cheeseburger were demanding were that civil liberties be dismantled out of emotional haste. He got the death penalty, eventually. That’s evil. People may have an instinctive and irrational desire to say the system was too lenient on him but it wasn’t, he’s in a supermax prison, and it’s planning to kill him. It is disturbing and disheartening to see a populist call for the undoing of civil liberties. Calling for the murder charge in the George Floyd case to be increased to first-degree sets the precedent that it is not the actus and mens rea of a crime that determine the gravity of it but the neurochemical effect on the public.

                In an era of rising authoritarianism, this instinct needs to be checked. The protests in Hong Kong that began last year began after China decided to enact an extradition treaty on the pretext of trying to extradite of boy who murdered his girlfriend. The boy guilty should definitely have answered for his crimes in an official capacity and the fact that there was the lack of an extradition treaty to facilitate that is unfortunate but is a far better outcome than having a dictatorship usurp one’s government. Between the two, I’d much rather let a single murderer run free than have a tyrannical regime gain power over a liberal democracy.

                By setting the precedent that the emotional effects of a crime should take priority over actus and mens rea, the system will be worse for the very racial minorities that the people demanding that claim to represent. Most murders are street-crimes committed in haste and are disproportionately in socioeconomically depressed communities for various reasons. Keeping these legal precedents is very important because it means that we can give shorter sentences to people who can probably reintegrate successfully into their communities. Most crime victims will get angry and overreact to their victimizers and will want harsher punishments for them. They shouldn’t get that.

                Understanding cognitive biases and that people skim text more than analyze it, I suspect that readers of this may misunderstand my position. I am not saying the person who killed George Floyd shouldn’t face consequences for what he did. I believe he should be involuntarily committed to a psych ward for treatment since I don’t believe in prison. Yet, until and if we replace the current penal system with a psychological quarantine system that I would support then he should be charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter just like he is being. He needs to be off of the streets and the gravity of his acts need be recognized and condemned and, right now, the system we have for that is the unscientific and inhumane penal system. Yet, as long as we have it then it is yet more imperative that civil liberties are kept and respected.

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