Illegal Technique: Bear Hunting and the Death Penalty

October 21, 2010

The Hartford Courant informs me this morning of the following: “2 Connecticut Men Charged With Illegal Bear Hunting Technique.” Now usually I don’t click on all of the stories on the Courant’s website because most of them are about car crashes or drug arrests or other occurrences that either bore me because I deal with them at work (in the case of drug arrests) or bore me because, honestly, who fucking cares? (That is the case with car crashes. I know that the people involved and their loved ones care, but beyond that, the topic is frighteningly mundane, especially here in the Land of Steady Habits, being, as it is, an archipelago of small cities and suburban commercial centers amid a sea of forests and highways.) But when I read about the illegal bear hunting, my interest was piqued. My hope – and I recognize, because I am a realist, that this is a hope against hope, in that it’s probably unrealistic – was that the illegal technique would be something awesome, like hitting the bears with kung fu punches, or capturing them with a backhoe, or anything involving robots. In fact, however, the illegal technique was to create a pile of apples and acorns that would draw the bears to an open place for easy shooting. Apparently, that is verboten in Vermont, since the story informs me that “[i]f convicted, [the men] could get 60 days in jail and lose their right to hunt in Vermont for three years.”

Now I should say that I do not have a strong feeling on hunting. A lot of people who, like me, are from cities and tend to abhor guns also feel that hunting is (a) somehow barbaric and (b) bad because it is tied up with the NRA and the existence of guns, and with poor, rural, white people whom we find entirely culturally inaccessible. I do not feel that way because I’m not overly concerned with animals except in their capacity as food and fodder for public television specials, so if people I don’t really understand get a lot of happiness from shooting animals and manage to do so without hurting other people), I’m cool with that. Also, my feelings about the Second Amendment have really evolved over the last ten years, and I part ways with a lot of my political kindred spirits when it comes to the ultimate importance of the “keeping of a well-regulated militia” language, but I digress.

Here’s the thing about this Vermont no-baiting-bears law, though: Honestly, what difference does it make if you draw bears out with apples and acorns or if you go find them in the places where they usually go to find apples and acorns? The end result is the same: you are shooting a (probably unsuspecting) woodland creature with a gun so that it will be dead. You use all manner of artifice to trick this creature – camouflage, perfumes that make you smell like the woods (or deer pee, or whatever), structures built in trees that seem to deceive your prey, &c. So why is the bait pile unsportsmanlike? What the hell does “unsportsmanlike” even mean in this context? (I understand that shooting bears and sportsmanlike behavior are two things with a long relationship in this country (see below), but still.)

Strangely, this imposition of particular, artificial rules reminds me of the death penalty, and specifically of the penalty phase of death penalty trials, in which the defendant’s lawyers, their client already having been found guilty of some heinous crime, try to persuade the jury that, while their guy is pretty fucking awful, he’s not quite awful enough to be put to death. The prosecutors, for their part, try to show (as though they hadn’t already done this in the guilt phase) that, YES, HE IS THAT FUCKING AWFUL, and also, “Have you seen the survivors and how sad they are? Have another look.” I see similarity between these things not because I think the death penalty is unsportsmanlike (although it is, except that really, using the term “unsportsmanlike” to talk about the death penalty makes a grotesque mockery of the seriousness of the issue), but because the rules we erect around the death penalty – the separate mini-trial preceding its imposition, the restrictions on executing juveniles or the mentally ill (unless we can medicate them until they are well enough to be executed), the concern that execution methods be “humane” – are like the rules Vermont has put in place to make bear hunting sportsmanlike: Complicated, non-intuitive armatures of morality that we create to support a practice that we want or need, but suspect is fundamentally wrong or unfair or, at the very least, unsavory.

I think of this because of another event involving Connecticut residents, which has of late been frequently covered in the Courant: The trial, conviction, and now-ongoing penalty phase of Steven Hayes, who was one of two participants in a home invasion, rape, and murder-by-arson several years back in Cheshire, Connecticut. Courant columnist Helen Ubiñas, who has been covering the trial, wrote a column about the penalty phase today that is fairly well summed up by its headline: “Hayes Tried Suicide, Had Bad Childhood. Who Cares?” While she doesn’t explicitly take a position on whether Hayes should be executed, Ubiñas makes a good point: how is what Hayes did made less horrific by his difficult childhood, or the fact that lots of people who knew him thought he was a nice guy? I mean, we’re talking about the death penalty here, which we presumably only impose for crimes that are so far outside the realm of permissible behavior that we don’t think the people who commit them deserve another chance to participate in society, even when they are really old. Why should we care that Hayes had a rough life?

The secret, of course, is that we don’t care. What we mitigate at the penalty phase in a death penalty trial is not the defendant’s culpability – it’s our own. When someone does something brutal to society, something that frightens and disgusts us, we want to do something brutal in response. We can’t help ourselves, really. Maybe on some rational level, we know that there are millions of complicated social and environmental factors that create someone capable of doing what Steven Hayes did, but those things take time and effort and understanding and patience to fix, and none of that satisfies the desire to meet brutality with brutality. So we dress the whole exercise up in rationality and rules and hours of excruciating testimony, and we distract ourselves from the fact that none of this will keep other people from doing other awful crimes or bring those two girls and their mom back to life. We read about the salacious details of the crime and feel glad that someone so clearly cruel and heartless – and so clearly guilty – will get a well-deserved punishment, and that helps us not think about the many many innocent people who have assuredly been put to death in this country. It’s all basically like giving people 60 days in jail for illegal hunting techniques: Bait piles or no bait piles, we’re not going up and killing the bears with kung fu. We’re hiding at a safe distance and killing them with bullets.

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