The Washington Times

There’s that sight again: The captain of industry or titan of Wall Street emerges from his palatial home in the early morning light. But this time he is in handcuffs, being led by a squad of police and prosecutors, who have visited him at six in the morning to arrest him on charges of nefarious financial wrongdoing and lead him away as his bleary-eyed wife and children look on and the cameras roll and click.

We had a fair bit of this in the 1980s, formerly known as the “Decade of Greed.” Now, as the “New Economy” recriminations continue to work their way through the politico-criminal justice system, we are getting it again. Many more will no doubt be taking that morning walk.

It seems fairly obvious that a number of them are indeed guilty as sin. And, if the prosecutor thinks, on the basis of the evidence, that they can be convicted, they ought indeed to be prosecuted, and if found guilty, to be sentenced according to the severity of their crimes.

But about that walk. What is it? And what is it for?

Well, surely, no one would deny that the walk constitutes a certain kind of official grandstanding. Here is a case in which public opinion is mightily aroused – and here are the authorities bringing the perpetrators to justice. Would Rudy Giuliani ever have been mayor of New York when the city really needed him if he hadn’t done a fair bit of grandstanding [and not just over Wall Street scoundrels, but also over mafiosi and other violent types] when he was U.S. attorney in the 1980s?

But that’s not the justification officials themselves offer for the walk.

Well, they say, it’s proof that the authorities are determined to treat accused white-collar criminals as severely as others less privileged than they. Money will not buy you a key to the handcuffs or the holding cell – or anything else that smacks of an arrangement whereby you yourself structure the circumstances of your surrender to suit your personal convenience. There is a broader point to be made, and that is that all those accused of a crime will be treated equally.

And the spectacle of it? Well, the authorities say, perhaps this is the best way to send a message to others who might be tempted to bend the law to the breaking point in similar circumstances. A fine may not deter, nor even the prospect of a stint at a minimum-security prison farm, in quite the way that the thought of being led away from home in handcuffs – in front of your weeping family, while the cameras are recording the event for posterity – will deter.

OK. But forgive me for not buying this. It seems to me that what we are witnessing when we see clips of the walk on television news is purely and simply an exercise in humiliation. The authorities are thus mounting a defense of humiliation as official practice. Yet the defense they offer turns out to have nothing to do with the person being humiliated. The only way you can manage a defense of humiliation is by abstracting from the particular person suffering it.

For example, there is talk about equality of treatment. But this is false for two reasons. First of all, most arrests are not staged for television cameras. The authorities might claim that the cameras just happen to be there, but in fact, they are the essence of the exercise, the source of a public aspect to the humiliation that is not typical of criminal cases. Second, and more important, what does it mean to say that because some arrestees are treated in a humiliating fashion, all arrestees must be treated in a humiliating fashion? Isn’t there a better case that the purpose of arrest is to bring people into custody in as peaceable a manner as possible, and that we ought to be looking for ways to reduce the amount of humiliation in the system – bearing in mind that in some cases we will be dealing with people who are dangerous and need to be handled accordingly, but not in all?

And then there’s deterrence: I will humiliate Mr. A in order to deter Ms. B. So what we’re saying is that we are no longer willing to look at A as a human being who constitutes an end in himself and instead are willing to treat him as a means to an end, namely, for his effect on B. Mind you, we will never be able to prove that we have deterred Ms. B. She is in fact an abstraction herself, and an especially mischievous one in the amount of abuse her hypothesized conduct can be asserted to justify.

I am against special privileges for rich people accused of white-collar crimes. But I am also against the practice of official humiliation, no matter how guilty the perpetrator nor the nature of his crime.