Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I've been reading Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, in which he charts the history of official punishment in the Western world. In a section on torture and execution, he attempts to enumerate the reasons why executions were treated as public spectacles, especially in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

One reason is to declare the truth of the crime. Prisoners were expected to make a public declaration of their crimes as part of the execution. This was seldom undertaken voluntarily; declarations were cajoled out of them, or were simply supplied by a sign the prisoner was made to wear around his or her neck on the way to the gallows. Even if the prisoner rebelled, making no declaration or a declaration of innocence, the official records would nevertheless state that a confession was given.

Reading about the legal systems that humans have used before makes me all the more glad that we've got the one we do now. Granted, we still have our problems to work out of the system, but think of a world where you can be accused and judged in secret, then arrested only to get a confirmatory confession. In a system with such little allowance for procedural justice, the illusion of infallibility, or at a minimum of correctness, becomes even more important to maintain. Therefore, the public declaration becomes a tool of asserting the truth of the finding, and the rectitude of the punishment.

Obviously, executions still take place today. In the US they are private, viewed only by those directly tied to the case. They are also relatively rare--very few criminal trials end in a death sentence. But on this anniversary of the tragic events ten years ago, it seems like we still find ways to maintain the illusion of truth. A case in point: Netflix just conspired to land me with the DVD of United 93, the 2006 dramatization of the events of September 11, 2001. It's primarily told through the eyes of the passengers of the titular flight. Of the three planes that were hijacked, this was the only one to not hit its target, through the heroic intervention of those passengers. The writer and director, Paul Greengrass, went to great lengths to make the movie as accurate as possible: the events depicted hew closely to the official report of the 9/11 Commission, and even the terrorists are humanized, showing a range of emotions that many might not want to ascribe to them.

But a movie is a movie; a movie is a staged production telling a particular story in a particular fashion. Nevertheless, once a movie is made, and especially if it is widely acclaimed, it takes on a certain patina of truth. The understanding that we have of the actual event begins to call back to the dramatization of the movie, and the events as portrayed in the movie start to represent, even if they are not strictly regarded as, the truth. In an event as complex and vast in scope as 9/11, this process is likely to be magnified; no one person, alive or dead, knows the full truth of the events of 9/11, and even after all the evidence was marshaled for an official investigation there are still unknowables.

What other ways do people have to create the appearance of truth? In other criminal justice systems - South Korea is one example - it is common to have a suspect reenact a crime--demonstrating how a murder transpired, for instance. Again, seeing the events imparts a certain level of truth to the matter, even though this is not the actual crime taking place, but just a staging of it. The legal systems that we develop leave us with official accounts and judgments of the truth of events, but we find other ways to satisfy our yearning for certainty.