Hamilton-Smith: Good Morning I Am Full of Rage

Ed. Note: This is a guest post by Guy Hamilton-Smith.

The last time I read something that made me feel quite this flavor of incandescent was a decade ago, in law school — it was Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas. In fact, as I recall, I had to stop reading it before I finished I was so enraged, and the only thing that I could do to salve my anger was to comfort myself with the knowledge that it was, in fact, a dissent.

I’d been thinking about the idea for some time of doing this — finding someplace where I can write something in between long-form articles like law review articles or extremely short-form things like tweets. So, in a way, I’m grateful to USA Today and Josh Salman for giving me the kick I needed. But I am also very angry. Angery, even.

USA Today apparently thought it newsworthy that someone who did an admittedly terrible thing fourteen years ago and was held to account for it now has (or, had) a job as a hospital janitor, and sought to correct what it had perceived as an injustice.

The subject of the story, Mr. Lopez, was convicted of crimes related to criminal sexual abuse in 2006, and received a prison term which he completed in 2010. He then did, presumably, what we want all people who are released from prison to do: to live law-abiding, productive, and meaningful lives. If we don’t want that of people exiting the legal system, then what exactly are we doing? What’s the purpose of punishment in the first instance if we don’t want that?

At any rate, Lopez was a veteran, and so he secured a federal contract to provide janitorial services to the VA as the story reports — which as the headline indicates, was terminated after “USA TODAY asks questions.”

Though the questions that USA TODAY asks aren’t really related to anything that Lopez was doing now. There was no allegation of impropriety (aside from an insinuation that apparently it’s dangerous to have anyone with any kind of a past conviction for a sex offense in a hospital, as if they’re contagious):

That means doctors, nurses and other medical professionals with past sex crime convictions are not allowed to practice in VA hospitals and clinics in Illinois without a special waiver. Others argued those same protections for the public should extend to janitors and other contractors who might work in these buildings, where an offender could have access to VA employees and patients.

As near as I can tell, the story trades on well-worn tropes about sexual harm and dangerousness — that if someone committed a crime 14 years ago, and if that crime was a sexual one, then they are simply bound to commit it again (despite, of course, all available data, including from the government itself, indicating that’s flatly incorrect).

Were Salman interested in, perhaps, doing a journalism, those might have been interesting points to interrogate. However, none of that was raised — they were unstated premises that the piece wholly and credulously accepts as fact.

Had he interrogated those premises, then the piece falls apart as journalism: how is it relevant? Why does it matter what he did in 2006 if there’s no allegation or indication he’s doing anything wrong in 2020? When can we say that he’s done his time? And why does that mean you need to make him unemployed now, in the midst of a pandemic? If being a hospital janitor is too good for Mr. Lopez, what employment does Salman think is appropriate for him?

Leaving it at that, it just would have been a bad piece of journalism and I’ve read many of those and written a few (though, I don’t think I’ve written any that set out to see someone lose a job for shaky reasons in the midst of a global pandemic), and that wouldn’t have made me take time out of my morning to write this.

But the reason why I’m writing is that Salman and his editors apparently thought it appropriate to include his home address in the story, with a screen grab taken from the Illinois’ registry (which I am not reproducing here for obvious reasons).

There’s a lot to say about this, but the short version is just because the government is in the business of doxxing unpopular people and their families doesn’t mean that you have to help them, especially if you’re pretending to be in the business of journalism. Presumably this cleared editorial standards because no one thought to question the basic, major, unstated premise of the piece — that people with past sex offense convictions are immutable monsters, and thank goodness that the government has this handy list where we can know where all the bad people live.

That, of course, is wildly out of step with the realities of sexual harm in America.

Murder, violence, and vigilantism against people whom the government compels to appear on these registries and their families is not uncommon. A few months ago, a man in Nebraska who was required to register was murdered at his home by a man who used the registry to target him. I can think of a good half dozen other cases off the top of my head.

Even if you wouldn’t shed a tear for Mr. Lopez, presumably you don’t think his family would deserve to die, or perhaps you do — in which case I would invite you to consider, who is the monster in this scenario?

As I stated up top, I’m not defending his crime. I’ll accept Salman’s recitation of the facts for these purposes, and not try to rehabilitate or defend Lopez’s actions: what he did was terrible, and he was held accountable for that, as he should have been.

But punishment that becomes unmoored from considerations of proportionality, the opportunity for redemption, and mercy, becomes little more than a poison that diminishes us all.

If what we tell people who have committed some crime (which is, by the way, all of you) that you can never be anything other than the worst thing you ever did, why should anyone try to be something better?

Edit: As Kevin Phipps points out on Twitter, a fact of the article which I breezed by in my morning anger is that it was Mr. Lopez’s company that was awarded the contract, meaning it is entirely possible both that he was not even providing direct services and that multiple people are now joining the ranks of the unemployed due to USA TODAY’s “asking questions.”

25 thoughts on “Hamilton-Smith: Good Morning I Am Full of Rage

  1. John Regan

    Well, I thought Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence was wonderful, but of course like so many of his pointed dissents they seem pretty irrelevant now.

    But your main point is extremely underappreciated, not to mention sane and rational when that counts. So thank you for making it.

  2. Miles

    What USA Today did was outrageous, but it didn’t become outrageous because you were enraged, and your need to inform others of your rage detracts from your point. I realize it’s the current fashion trend to out your feelings on display, but we’re lawyers, not sophomore grievance studies majors. I couldn’t care less about your feelings. I may very well care why you feel that way.

    Show, don’t tell.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not a fan of this stylistic approach either, not merely because the writer’s feelings contribute nothing of substance (I have my own feelings and don’t need anyone else to tell me how I should feel), but because it’s a game either side can play. But here, Guy backs it up with substance, so the issue is stylistic rather than substantive.

      Unfortunately, far too many people don’t back it up and rely on their emotions in lieu of substantive argument, the basic appeal to emotion logical fallacy. It’s a very unfortunate trend these days.

  3. Lane

    And I think putting your emotions on display is a powerful means of connecting with your audience. People aren’t emotionless logic circuits; often, emotions are the way you can connect with them primarily as a means to persuade them. Show them that you’re “like them” and they let down cognitive barriers. When you’re dealing with 12 non-lawyers (and possibly 12 people who can neither spell logic nor understand a rule of inference), rigid adherence to propositional logic looks like an affectation.

    Appealing to emotion might be a poor means of persuading me, true. But to discount the appeal to emotion simply because it is logically fallacious fails to account for its ability to persuade by non-logical means, especially on people who aren’t exactly logical in the first place.

    1. Miles

      Evoking emotion isn’t the same thing as telling emotion. But given your skills at logic, you should stick with emotion.

      1. PseudonymousKid

        I was about to point out so many fallacies in your argument then I remembered I’m not Lane and can make an argument without being snooty as fuck about formal logic that might also appeal to emotion a bit because that’s sometimes more effective.

    2. David

      Expecting logic to rule the day is, itself, an illogical proposition given what one observes actually happening.

      Aside, the discussion of logic and emotion reminds me somewhat of the arguments between Leopold Dilg (Cary Grant) and Professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman) In “The Talk of the Town” which was on TCM this afternoon and which I had on briefly as a break (having seen it before).

      1. SHG Post author

        Aristotle posited that the three proofs are ethos, pathos and logos. Pathos, or the appeal to emotion, is not about being emotional, but evoking emotion from others to persuade them. In other words, don’t proclaim emotion, but make them feel the emotion.

  4. David

    I find it curious that much of reaction to this post is on twitter rather than in the comments. It seems like a generational issue, although it might be that writing a comment would require greater skills than some of Guy’s fans of social media possess.

    1. SHG Post author

      Frankly, I’m surprised and thrilled they had the attention span to read the post. That they would rather express themselves on twitter is their choice.

  5. PseudonymousKid

    Just like enslavement being totally OK as punishment for a crime, banishment too is fine. I just wish judges would be forced to actually pronounce the real punishment. Admonish those dirty criminals and tell them they are going to be slaves and outcasts forever if that’s what we want. I’m sure Judge Kopf would be happy so long as he was actually told what the appropriate sentence is without having to go to the Ouija board of mystical sentencing guidelines.

    “You’ll be taken from the place you came to the place of your enslavement. After which you will be barred from participation in society forever even after you serve your time. Oh and we’re going to make sure hateful fucks can find you no matter where you run.” If we’re so bloodthirsty then at least we should say it like we mean it.

  6. Ron

    I get Guy’s rage, but I think he’s a bit too forgiving here. This doesn’t smell like journalistic excess or mindlessness, but a targeted attack either against the person (some personal vendetta, perhaps?) or sex offenders in general. The USA Today writer tried hard to destroy this guy for nothing. This was deliberate. This was no accident or mistake. This was a lynching.

    1. SHG Post author

      You make a good point. Josh Salmon went out of his way to inflict harm. He may well have his own “moral clarity” beef here.

    2. Alan

      The man who lost his contract also tried to destroy someone deliberately too, a child no less. Was that a lynching?

        1. Alan

          Why isn’t such language used to describe his actual violent acts of hate but is used to describe a news article that arguably went overboard? And those are legal principles. There is no right to have your wrongs kept under wraps by journalists or forgotten by the public.

            1. Alan

              That is not an answer. Words are lynching, yet actual violence is not lynching? And in America, the 1st amendment protects freedom of speech and of the press. Even when it hurts your feels and makes you “angery”.

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