[This article appeared in the October 1990 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 228-30.]

 

Is the Bottom Falling Out?

America’s Moral Inversions are Leading to a Failure of Governments

To Perform Their Basic Functions 

Dwight D. Murphey

 

            The protection of life and property has long been a basic governmental function, without which a civilized society cannot endure.  One of the reasons conservatives decry the assumption by government of far-flung and illegitimate functions is that those activities make government less prepared to perform the minimal tasks that all governments have a sacred duty to perform.  Moreover, life and property especially go unprotected in an age, such as ours, when ideological haze and moral inversions take the place of a sure commitment to fundamental values.

            In recent years, with the writings of the likes of Nozick and Rawls, there has been some revival of “social contract theory,” which has been out of vogue for almost two centuries but which formed the basis for the thinking of most social theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries.  

            The idea behind virtually every version of social contract theory has been that people come together to form government to overcome the imperfections of “the state of nature.”  Civilized society is seen as impossible in the absence of a government performing at least basic functions. 

Protection of Life and Property

            It isn’t necessary to embrace the construct of a “social contract” to agree with the main point.  All of us except the most extreme of anarchists agree that the peace, social tranquility, security of person, respect for property, and justice of interpersonal relationships that are essential  both to civilization and to a free society depend upon government’s being on the job, doing day-in and day-out what most fundamentally it is responsible for doing: protecting the lives and property of law-abiding citizens and punishing those whose crimes would destroy the common bond of social order.

            Disturbingly, we have come to a time in America when there are growing indications that governments lack the will to perform even those most basic of tasks—even though governments at all levels have grown to Leviathan proportions compared to those in our earlier history.

            Not only is government too preoccupied with its many layers of added-on responsibilities, it is deflected from its course by the tortured ideological atmosphere in which we have come to live.  This is an atmosphere that has in many ways inverted our moral sensibilities.  Thus, even though the Warren Court is now a thing of the past, we continue to suffer from an envelope of ideas that has more solicitude for the criminal than for the victim.  Let’s look at some recent examples: 

Getting Off Easy in Wichita

            Most of our readers will not have heard of the situation I am about to cite.  Wichita, Kansas, is not one of the major media centers.  It is in the heartland of America, one of those places where presumably “such things can’t happen.”

            Well, they do happen, even in a community that, with exceptions such as those I am about to cite, is a pretty darned nice place to live.  On March 17 a mob of black teenagers, consisting in part of the members of a gang that calls itself “The Junior Boys,” went on a rampage on one of Wichita’s busier streets.  In all, seventeen passing cars were pelted with rocks and chunks of asphalt torn from a nearby parking lot.  Most of the motorists escaped with their lives, but one did not.  He was Raymond Guerrero, hit in the head by one of the asphalt chunks.  He remained conscious for a short time before lapsing into a four-month coma.  He died on July 16.

            The “youths” who committed this atrocity were charged with aggravated battery.  After Guerrero’s death, the district attorney, pressed to increase the charge, explained that the only more severe charge she could file was that of “involuntary manslaughter,” a charge that paradoxically carries a lesser penalty than aggravated battery.

            In saying that she could not file a charge of first degree murder, the district attorney chose to ignore the legal guidelines for first degree murder that had been stated clearly by the Kansas Supreme Court just a short time before.  First degree murder requires a killing done “maliciously, willfully, deliberately and with premeditation.”  The Court said that “the element of malice may be inferred from the use of a deadly weapon.”  (Chunks of asphalt aimed at human heads are deadly weapons, as Guerrero’s demise makes clear.)  Then it said that “while use of a deadly weapon is not alone sufficient to infer premeditation, it is one of the circumstances [that can be weighed]….”  The Court added that “if, in addition, other circumstances are shown such as a lack of provocation, evidence may be sufficient to support an inference of deliberation and premeditation.”  (Needless to say, driving by in a passing car is not a “provocation.”  There was a case that could have gone to a jury.  It’s hard to imagine a jury that would not convict.)

            We can only speculate on why a district attorney will take refuge in sophistry rather than prosecute to the hilt those who by their bestiality make our lives a lottery.  There’s a loose connection somewhere. 

The “Insane Crips”

            In late July, another Wichita gang, known this time as the “Insane Crips,” set fire to one house, broke into another, stabbed a woman’s companion several times, raped the woman, and then brutally kicked her to death.

            Retired Kansas State University physics professor Bob Clack is the author and publisher of a delightful monthly newsletter The Kansas Intelligencer.  In his August 1990 issue, he commented on the rape and murder, saying that “considering the trail of evidence left in their wake, we have to suspect that [the gang members] believed themselves immune from police authority or criminal law.  The reported gang action is not unique to Wichita.”

            His conclusion: “Our government is failing to provide a reasonable degree of domestic tranquility or common defense.”  (He had earlier quoted from the Preamble to the Constitution.)

            It is good that we understand such acts as bearing generally upon a failure of government to perform its most necessary functions.  I am sure, however, that the deceased victim’s relatives can translate the rape and murder into more graphic language than just a denial of “domestic tranquility.”  We need to understand that the Preamble doesn’t refer, with the words “domestic tranquility,” merely to the right to sleep late on Saturday mornings; Clack’s observations point to the fact that what is at stake can be, and often is, our very lives. 

Assault on the Highway

            This past summer, I had occasion to take two long motoring trips, first through New Mexico and Arizona, and later to Colorado.

            We are so accustomed to seeing the statistics of 50,000 people killed annually on our highways that we have long since become inured to the fact, even though it represents an enormity of almost unspeakable proportions.  According to what I’ve read, drunk drivers are to thank for about half the deaths.

            While driving long distances across the desert and along the crowded freeways of Denver, however, I became impressed with a phenomenon that is, to me at least, new.  I found that many times the flow of traffic was ten to fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit, and that if a driver didn’t exceed it by at least fifteen m.p.h. a semi-trailer would be bearing down on his back bumper, demanding clearance.  As a man of the old school, I’m not about to admit to having “been afraid.”  It’s enough simply to say that this repeated “vehicular assault” seemed to me highly dangerous.  What would have become of my and my wife’s lives if we had wound up in a heap of contorted, burning metal?

            We all know what would have become of us.  We’d have become simply two more statistics.  It’s not too presumptuous to say that our family and friends would have missed us.  But would our deaths have caused the “barbarians of the highway,” the “executioners” who bear along at great speed to kill us whenever we’re not wary, to take pause?  Or the thousands to throw away their “fuzz busters”?  Or the authorities really to enforce the speed laws? 

And, Finally, Our Moral Inversion on AIDS

            I’m glad my grandfather, a wonderful man who loved all that was best about America, passed away in 1964.  Who would have thought, at the time of his death, that the practitioners of anal sex and the users of dirty drug needles would come to possess so formidable a lobby—both politically and ideologically—in America that the public would not be given the most complete possible protection against a deadly virus for which there is, as yet, no known cure.

            So fuzzy has been our thinking, and so powerful the influence of interest groups and anti-majoritarian ideology, that our governments have been far more concerned about protecting homosexuals from “discrimination” than about saving the lives of the general population.  AIDS has rightly been said to be “the first politically protected disease.”

            A Knight-Ridder newspaper commentary on July 31 reported that the federal Centers for Disease Control would meet in August to consider whether patients ought not to be informed when their doctors, surgeons or dentists have AIDS.  At least prior to August—which is to say, during several years of the AIDS crisis—there has been no legal obligation on the part of the government or the medical professional to let a patient know.  “At the moment,” the commentary said, “the only thing being recognized is that of the AIDS-infected doctor or dentist to keep his condition confidential—assuming he chooses to be tested at all.”  The piece said that at least 5,000 medical professionals are among those known to have the symptoms of AIDS.

            The same social policy—to shield those with the disease and to let everyone else be the subject of a life-and-death lottery—was exemplified by a memo on “The policy and procedures for responding to students and employees with AIDS” sent to the faculty and staff at my own university this past April.  (The speaker at a workshop on AIDS later told me the memo had its origins in the federal government.)  Among other things, the policy statement says that in situations such as contact sports and laboratory experiments “where an exchange of body fluids may occur,” persons with AIDS or who are infected with the HIV virus “should discuss the advisability of participation with their physician.”  The policy puts the responsibility on the participant with AIDS to “inform other participants of the possibility of contamination.”

            The same policy statement says that “individuals with AIDS… will not be restricted access to food service areas nor will food service workers be so restricted, unless they show evidence of another infection, condition, or illness for which there should be such restrictions.”

            Going further, it says that “occupants of residence halls will not be advised that another occupant has AIDS, ARC or a positive HIV test.”

            Why do I say that all of this is a result of moral inversion?  Perhaps as good an example as any comes in the form of a column by Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson.  If Jackson is to be believed, the great moral fault for the AIDS problem comes from the likes of George [H.W.] Bush and Jesse Helms.  Here’s what he says: “There are some things that you just cannot expect a stiff, straight, sanctimonious and scaredy-cat president of the United States to do when it comes to AIDS.  Las Vegas would place no odds on Bush hugging an openly gay man who is dying of AIDS.”

            (My late grandfather died thinking that a politician’s main obligation along those lines was to kiss babies.  Things have changed.)

            Mr. Jackson goes on.  About Senator Helms, he writes that “no senator in the United States is so visibly devoid of human caring about AIDS as is Helms.”

            So we’re led to believe that it’s all the fault of Bush and Helms’ “lack of compassion.”  The Boston Globe columnist isn’t morally relativistic about that; his condemnation of their “lack of caring” comes through loud and clear.

            But notice the moral relativism that gallops in when he writes that we should “treat AIDS as a disaster, regardless of who has it and how it was acquired.”  By no means exercise any moral judgments here!, he admonishes.

            For my part, I surmise that Bush and Helms do care.  But perhaps their compassion is directed toward the rest of us, those who don’t engage in what is euphemistically called “high-risk behavior.”

            It’s too bad they don’t call the shots on government policy.  The policy is set, instead, by the prevailing ethos among America’s liberal-leftist elite and the millions who, priding themselves in their sophistication, adhere to the prejudices of that elite.

            Where are John Locke and the social contract theorists when we need them?

 

Dwight D. Murphey, a lawyer and faculty member at Wichita State University, is the editor of Universitas and executive director of University Professors for Academic Order (UPAO).