A proposal for
Issue #79 • January/February, 2003
It was an interview I caught just a part of back in the ’70s. I can’t remember who the interviewer was; it’s not important. He was interviewing a diplomat from Saudi Arabia just after the price of oil went to dizzying heights and Western money began to pour into Arab coffers changing Arab economics. The interview went something like this:
The interviewer said, “Your country is trying to leap from a 13th century feudal society into the 20th century on this oil money…”
“Yes, we are,” the Saudi conceded.
“…and yet you retain a lot of barbaric ways.”
The Saudi looked perplexed. “What do you mean we have barbaric ways?” he asked.
“Well, if a man is caught stealing, you cut his hand off, don’t you?”
The Saudi thought about this for a moment. “You consider cutting off a hand barbaric?” he asked.
The interviewer said, “Of course.”
The Saudi said, “We don’t cut the hand off for the first offense. A man has to commit two or three offenses before we do that. Each year we cut off six or seven hands, but we have almost no crime in our country. In your country, every year you throw people in jail for awhile, or worse, you put them on probation, and every year you turn hundreds of thousands of criminals out of prisons and back onto the streets, knowing full well that hundreds of thousands of these criminals are going to continue to murder, rape, rob, steal, and molest children. Do you think this is more civilized? We don’t.
“In my country the guilty suffer the punishment and the stigma that goes with it. But men, women, and children can walk our streets in safety. Can you say that in America? The way you turn criminals back out into the general population is like loosing packs of wild dogs into the streets. We consider Americans the most barbaric people in the world.”
The interviewer was embarrassed and quickly changed the subject, never again coming back to the question of “barbarism.” And though those weren’t the exact words exchanged, that was the gist of it, and 30 years later the Saudi’s response is still on my mind.
There is no doubt that there is an ongoing crime problem in this country that all the prisons and all the social workers are incapable of fixing. But I think there is a solution. Here’s my proposal: We change the Constitution, amending the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and we institute some exceptions.
The punishment? Those now regarded as either career criminals or criminals who are both violent and incorrigible, would have their right arms and left legs cut off—or left arms and right legs, but the dominant arms go. And they’re sent home right afterward. No prison, but also, no welfare and no state aid of any sort.
Think of the impact of such punishment. If Bubba raped two women, or he’s a hit man for the Mob, or he got caught once too often robbing liquor stores, and he’s tried and convicted, it’s off to the hospital, whack, whack, and he goes home minus an arm and a leg. His life of crime is over. No long-term prison costs, and he becomes a walking—hobbling—billboard for how crime really doesn’t pay.
Street gangsters who admire members who spent some time in the Big House aren’t going to look up to or respect Bubba when he’s a pathetic invalid sitting on his porch all summer with nothing to do except swat flies away with his one good arm. Kids aren’t going to admire him, women aren’t going to give him those sidelong glances they reserve for the tough and the powerful. Sexual predators aren’t going to have to register anymore. We’ll know who they are.
Again, it would only apply to violent crimes. Not drug crimes, not adultery, not speeding, but murder, armed robbery, burglary, rape, child molestation. For most crimes, the sentence would be carried out only after two or three offenses. For a few, like murder or child molestation, there would be exceptions; one offense and whack, whack.
The recidivism rate for violent crimes in this country now stands at about 60 percent in three years. This means that 60 percent of offenders who have been through the system will eventually be caught and convicted again—in three years or less. But before they’re caught again, they’ll have committed dozens and sometimes hundreds of crimes. And that’s just the ones who get caught.
How many of the people we read about who have abducted, raped, and murdered little girls turn out to have been repeat offenders? How many women have been raped and how many store owners murdered by career criminals who already have a string of convictions behind them? What are these people doing on the streets?
Crime wouldn’t completely disappear. There would still be the psychotics. But my prediction is that murder, robbery, burglary, and all other violent crimes would soon drop more than 95 percent. People would begin to feel safer in their homes. They’d feel they could walk the streets at night. Gun control advocates could take solace because the general population would feel less need for guns.
For those who would want to argue that it was still cruel and unusual? Don’t worry, soon it would almost be unneeded, as cutting off the right hand is almost unneeded in Saudi Arabia, because there’d be almost no crime.
But who’d take care of them? I don’t care. Their families can, charities can, churches can, but no public money.
And what if they still commit a violent crime after that? Well, they still have one arm and one leg left so, whack, whack, then send them home again. Let me see them commit a crime then.