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Home / Social/Political / The Labors of Hercules: Modern Solutions to 12 Herculean Problems / VI. Justice

 

VI. Justice - Defeat of the Stymphalian Birds

Myth and Introduction

 “Justice, justice, you shall pursue”
—Deuteronomy 16:20

The valley of Stymphalia once held a beautiful lake ringed by tall, tree-covered mountains. As the valley became more populous, the forests around the lake were cleared for lumber to make more fields for crops and cattle. Before long, cropland and pastures completely ringed the lake. Consequently, every winter the seasonal rains would wash dirt and dung from the plowed fields and pastures into the lake. After a number of years the lake became a pestilential swamp. At the same time that this tragedy was occurring, giant wolves from a neighboring region drove a swarm of rapacious herons into the Stymphalian valley. 
    
The birds thrived in the tall grass of the reedy marsh and began a reign of terror. The birds feasted on plants, animals and humans alike, but no one knew who or what they were going to attack next. The predators flew back and forth over the swamp in a tight swarm, appearing like a dark amorphous specter. Individually, the birds were limited in their destructive powers, but together they formed the mind and body of a fearsome and dangerous shape-shifting monster. The capricious flying demon invoked a siege mentality in their human victims. Fear ruled Stymphalia. The farmers spent most of their time huddled in their stone cottages nervously watching a shrinking number of farm animals picking over the weeds in their untended fields.  They watched helplessly as the birds would swarm at will to devour their animals, their neighbors and their family members. Stymphalians became haunted and suspicious, afraid to go out. They armed themselves with knives and pitchforks. They became afraid that they would have to share their meager resources with each other and despite their terror began to experience grim satisfaction when they saw a neighbor get eaten by the birds. Stymphalians who lost everything sometimes went mad from hunger and ventured outside to become food for the birds, or they became night marauders, sneaking into their neighbor’s barns at night to steal a chicken or a goat.
    
If a neighbor were suspected of thievery, a gang of vigilantes would form to catch him. The thief would be killed outright or sometimes be tied up outside to face the hungry birds. Terrible, unspeakable things happened. Many people wanted to leave, but they were more afraid of the rain of beaks from the sky than from the day-to-day misery induced by the slowly deteriorating living conditions. Once, under the cloak of darkness, one of the accused managed to elude both the vigilante gangs and the birds. He also escaped the packs of wolves that lurked on the edge of town hoping to scavenger some of the victims. In a wild state he finally reached King Eurystheus and told him what was happening. In his typical fashion the king was not particularly concerned about the people’s distress, but he thought that these birds might help defeat Hercules.
     
Hercules received his orders to go to Stymphalia calmly and dutifully journeyed to the infamous marsh.  He arrived in the middle of the night, and waited for dawn while hiding in the cattails on the edge of the marsh.  Hercules had with him a pair of bronze rattles, which he had borrowed from his half-brother, the lame demi-god and blacksmith, Hephaestus. At the first blush of light, Hercules created a terrible din with the rattles. The frightened birds rose in a disorganized fashion that clouded the malicious and capricious intentions of the swarm mind, and Hercules was able to fill the sky with arrows.  The bodies of the birds fell all around him like hail.  The rest of the terrified birds flew off and never returned.

Modern Symphalia

It was winter in the Peloponnessus, and there were few cars on the road as I drove in the sunshine up a long, winding road from the Sea of Corinth to Lake Stymphalia.  As I neared my destination I came upon an unmarked fork in the road. There was a hunter of the modern-day Stymphalian birds standing beside the road and I pulled over to ask him for directions. He squinted sternly for a moment—possibly at my speaking English or perhaps because he was poaching the endangered ferruginous ducks. He then pointed wordlessly with his shotgun at the sun, which was struggling to push some rays out from behind the glowering clouds. As I entered the Stymphalian valley, dark clouds enveloped the sun, welled up against the steep sides of the narrow valley. A cold rain began to rattle my windshield.  Through the wipers, I could see the village of Stymphalia was buttoned up against the storm.  During a momentary lull in the rain, I pulled up on an overlook and gasped.
     
The Stymphalian marsh really existed, and it looked just as I had imagined. The wind was blowing hard across a beige sea of undulating cattails. Thousands of small gray herons clung to the reeds as if they were riding the backs of ocean swells. Just then, hundreds of these Stymphalian birds took flight and swarmed in a dark cloud across the marsh.  Just like in the story, they all moved in a synchronized formation while the flock shifted rapidly from one form to another. I could see the shapes of birds, animals, humans and chimera of all types.  When the flock reached the distant edge of the marsh, it turned instantly and flew back again in the shape of another beast. I shot video of the swarm of sharp-beaked herons for my documentary and many times they went, back and forth, as if eagerly acting out their timeless role in the Herculean tale.
     
The spectacle was brought to an abrupt end by a sudden rain shower, which drove me back into my rental car.  I started the engine and turned on the heater.  The windows fogged up and my world was suddenly shrunk to the claustrophobic interior of the Euro-sized car.  I wiped the inside of the windshield with a dirty rag and lowered the windows to let the humid air blow through. The mountains closed in around the valley forebodingly. 
     
The locals were tucked away inside their cottages as I drove up and down the one road in the village. Smoke spilled from a chimney on a stone cottage only to be immediately sucked away by the wind. Looking for another vantage of the swamp, I took a wrong turn and ended up in the midst of a clandestine dump ground that was being picked over by rapacious seagulls.  I backed out of the dump, and turned the car around. As I left Stymphalia, I stopped my car to videotape the signpost at the edge of the village. A ray of sunshine found its way through a break in the clouds and illuminated the scene. It seemed as though Hercules, as the solar deity, had sent a message down from Olympus that even in the midst of fear, misery and injustice, there is hope. 
  
Throughout history injustice has stalked us like the capricious man-eating birds of Stymphalia, whether it involves a kid running amok with guns in a school, vigilante justice, genocide, or war. Whenever humans compete over resources that have become polluted or depleted this has often precipitated a new round of injustice. As in The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie thriller set in the seaside town of Bodega Bay, the Stymphalian birds seemed guided by retribution from a wronged Mother Earth. The shape-shifting birds of Stymphalia are also like a shadow play on the scrim of the world. The play consists of the infinite manifestations of injustice in our world, and the ways in which we attempt to exact justice. Often we fail and create new injustices. Sometimes we succeed and create new standards for how it should be done. Over the millennia Jewish and Christian scripture evolved from calling for an eye for an eye to turning the other cheek and practicing the Golden Rule. It is a human failing to want to seek revenge, so doing unto others as you would have them do unto you has been a rather tenuous proposition, at best. For our fragile human enterprise to be more than a series of retaliatory attacks, we have to strive to take the high road to stop familial, tribal, and increasingly lethal internecine warfare by building a global society based on justice and cooperation. Instead, like the silted-in and poisoned Lake Stymphalia that created condition for predators to wreck the social fabric of the surrounding community, our society has sullied the communal waters with misguided laws that allow us to be picked over and destroyed by the spawn of our failed social policies. We begin with the story of one such predatory creature. 

A Murderer’s Tale

In 1986, fifteen years before I even knew it existed, my neighborhood was showing the dual effects of suburbanization, which had sucked the life out of the inner cities, and the War on Drugs, which had been declared in 1971. The drug war had by this time spread from the bigger cities into small towns like DeLand, Florida. Older folks, who remembered a time when people didn’t bother to lock their doors, now lived behind deadbolts and seldom ventured out after dark. Some even kept their old hunting rifles handy, just in case trouble came knocking.
     
It was close to midnight on June 27th. Roger Lee Cherry, an intoxicated 35-year-old black man with a long history of theft, violence and substance abuse, told his girlfriend that he was going out because he “needed some money.” When he came back, an hour later, he had rifles and a wallet belonging to a couple he admitted robbing. During that hour, Cherry had walked three blocks over to Osceola Street where a frail, elderly couple named Leonard and Esther Wayne lived in a small, wood frame, two-bedroom bungalow. Cherry cut their telephone line. He then removed three panes of glass from a jalousie window on the porch so he could let himself in, and then walked the few steps to their bedroom. Leonard, who was frail and legally blind, confronted the 5’-11” 230 lb. intruder as best he could. Cherry shoved the 80-year-old Leonard in the chest causing him to collapse with a fatal heart attack, and then he proceeded to beat the man’s 77-year-old wife so severely that her skull became dislocated from her spine. He also stomped on her for good measure, leaving his shoe imprint on her buttock. As they lay dying Cherry robbed them and stole their car. Apparently he was able to fence some of the rifles and other things he stole and score some crack that night. A week later, thanks to his girlfriend who had informed the police, he was arrested a week later at his apartment. Eventually, Cherry was convicted on four charges—burglary with assault, grand theft, and two counts of murder—and sentenced to death.
     
This story was first told to me in 2002 by the grandson of the slain couple, who was doing some work on my street for the power company. He told me that as a boy he often used to visit his grandparents in that house, which is only a few hundred yards from where I live now with my wife and young daughter. While writing this book I revisited the case and read in depth about what Cherry had done. In fact, I felt an involuntary surge of outrage and disgust when I first pulled up a picture of Roger Lee Cherry on the Web. I imagined myself pulling the switch on the electric chair to rid the Earth of this abomination. I could sympathize in that moment with all those who consider some people to be the incarnation of evil and not worthy of walking the Earth with the rest of us. As my teeth began to grind I took on my persona as the unofficial neighborhood cop and remembered having half-watched Magnum Force (1973) a few days before as I was doing office work. This was the second of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies. My face began to take on the pained sneer of disgust that Clint’s character Harry Callahan gets just before he blows away another piece of scum with his .44 Magnum. I took a walk to settle myself down, but instead found myself walking to Osceola Street taking a look at the scene of the murder. The humble clapboard cottage looks just as it did back then, even down to the jalousie windows on the porch which Cherry had removed in order to let himself in.
     
After I got back to my home office, I continued to read the appeals, which contained detailed accounts of the murders. The jurors had found that Cherry’s actions were “especially wicked, evil, atrocious, or cruel” thus meeting the qualifications for the death penalty. In fact, this is the very definition of whether a person should have their life taken away from them by the state. I stared at the word “evil,” which seemed to stand out, and I read the accounts of Cherry’s childhood. An appeal filed a decade after Roger Cherry had been sentenced listed these mitigating factors which—if he had admitted his guilt at the trial, presented witnesses, and been subjected to thorough psychiatric evaluation—might have spared him the death penalty:

     1) Abject poverty: Raised in abject poverty, Roger wore dirty clothes that had been given to him by neighbors, and he often slept under the house. The Cherry family “never had any food and Roger would steal food or get it from neighbors.” He was ridiculed and even assaulted for eating from dumpsters.

     2) Severe abuse and neglect: Roger’s father was brutal and abusive, and his mother was a “neglectful alcoholic.” In other testimony it was suggested that Roger might have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome because of her drinking through the pregnancy, and he was hit in the mouth with a hammer at age 13. One witness said that Roger’s father fashioned a chain around Roger’s neck and “drug [sic] him home like he was a dog.” Another time the father tied up Cherry’s hands with a kerosene-soaked rope and beat him “like he was trying to kill him.”

     3) Witnessing extreme violence as a child: Roger’s mother was “severely and regularly beaten by his father and he was exposed to this throughout his childhood.” “Roger’s father beat Roger’s mother and shot both her and a man in front of Roger.” According to a witness, this incident “seemed to mess with his mind.” Roger saw a man named “Shorty” die from having his throat cut.

     4) Institutionalization as a child: Roger was sent to a reformatory called Dozier School for Boys, which at the time was “a segregated and brutal institution.”

     5) Mental health issues: There was testimony that Mr. Cherry had organic brain damage, borderline mental retardation (IQ of 72), incompetence at time of trial, and alcohol intoxication at the time of the offense. One lay witness testified that he had huffed gasoline as a child. As an adult he abused alcohol and crack cocaine, and suffered from “anti-social disorder.”

This testimony, coupled with his biology and the unknown circumstances of his life, would almost certainly explain his behavior. Some people claim certain people are just plain evil, as if that is an explanation, but if you dug into the facts of an evil-doer’s life, even without understanding all the complex psycho-physiological factors in depth, there would remain the inescapable assumption that people have unassailable reasons for being exactly who they are.
    
It was after digesting the testimony about the contributing causes that I remembered the rest of Magnum Force. The rookie motorcycle cops who had formed a renegade unit that went around dispatching suspects in vigilante fashion cornered Harry Callahan in a parking garage. They asked him, “Are you with us or against us?” Even though Harry was disgusted at how the criminals were working the system he ended up fighting the vigilantes. Many of us are in the same dilemma as Harry. We feel an emotional, visceral reaction to unfairness and our first impulse is often some variation of “hang ‘em high.”  However we also realize, just as Harry did, that the logical solution is to improve the system because the alternative is far worse.
     
Of course there are many people who have deplorable childhoods—and who experience many terrible things—yet who still somehow manage to make it through and remain law-abiding citizens capable of contributing something to society. But exceptions do not prove the rule. If we line up all the people that have been raised by honorable, intelligent, loving, parents with good genes who are admired by society, and on another side we line up the ones that have had parents and childhoods like Roger, it will be clear that biology, culture, environment, education, mental/physical health and wealth determine our behavior. The part that is murky has to do with our ability to understand the complex interaction of all these things and how these factors will determine the actions of any one particular person.
     
Cherry was not all bad. Despite all of the difficulties he experienced as a juvenile, and his low IQ, he still managed to stay in school until the 10th grade. He had also never been fired from any of his jobs, which had included construction and hauling pulpwood. But even after assuming all actions have a cause, and accounting for all the mitigating circumstances, one important fact remains. Bad parents, poverty, mental problems, or drugs did not kill Mr. and Mrs. Wayne—Roger Cherry did.
     
Ultimately we rely on the concept of free will to decide the fate of people who are influenced to do things by factors that clearly mock the concept. In fact, it is still a matter of debate whether free will really exists, even though our judicial and religious institutions depend upon the notion.  No less a thinker than Albert Einstein considered free will an illusion. As a physicist he believed that all actions are determined by causes. When asked how he could justify holding people accountable for their actions he said, “…Even though I know a serial murderer has no free will, ….I still do not want to have tea with him… On a practical basis we have to act as though people are responsible for their actions.”
     
Einstein had philosophical difficulties with quantum theory, which asserts that events, especially subatomic events, are predicted on the basis of probabilities, and can never be measured precisely. Einstein famously retorted, “God does not play dice with the universe,” but it appears that he was wrong at least in regards microcosmic events. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1926) states that the values of certain conjugate variables cannot both be known with precision at the same time.  Matter is spread out in space and wave-like. The world of the tiny, upon which the world of large and predicable physical events is built, runs on probabilities instead of certainties. For example, in the case of the behavior of a subatomic particle, the more accurately you can measure its momentum, the less you know about its position. In another example, light can be both a wave and a particle (photon) at the same time as demonstrated in the venerable two-slit experiment. This is an inherent quality and not due to problems with our measuring instruments.
     
The fact that nature is a game of chance at its core has given some comfort to those nurturing the concept of free will, but we do not know how much effect quantum mechanics has on the practical dynamics of everyday human life. Would the argument for or against determinism in regards our judicial system have a practical effect on the human scale if we knew that there was, for example, a 99% chance that Roger Cherry would be a criminal capable of murder, based on the facts of his nature and upbringing? Whether we hold him 1% responsible, 100% responsible, or totally guiltless on the basis of his background, we still have the practical issue of dealing with him and the consequences of his actions.
     
Whether there is free will or not, we feel like we are making decisions, and that fact alone counts for a lot. Even if it is determined conclusively that there is no free will, or that it constitutes a very tiny part of only some decisions, the functioning of society would still depend on people making responsible choices. Nevertheless, understanding causation in the role of criminal behavior, even causation based on probabilities, must still temper judicial policy. It is clearly unfair to base policy on either personal revenge or retribution (which is impartial revenge) rather than on the principles of deterrence, rehabilitation, restitution, and humane confinement for the protection of others.
     
This is part of the reason that capital punishment is wrong, which bolsters a number of practical and moral reasons for banning executions: The death penalty is not a deterrent; it does not save money; and people are sometimes unfairly executed for crimes they did not commit. It appears to violate the injunction against cruel and unusual punishment enshrined in the Eight Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it also disproportionately targets lower socio-economic groups who are more likely because of circumstances to get in trouble, while also being less able to afford effective counsel. We should not kill others, except in self-defense, and a person already locked up has already been neutralized. Capital punishment is widely regarded in most of the world’s developed countries as barbarism, and 12 states and the District of Columbia already ban it. The primary countries where the vast majority of executions still occur are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the U.S., and Iraq, in that order. The U.S. is not in the best of company on this issue, for the simple reason that we have it wrong. Revenge and retribution have no place in society for practical reasons. Our society simply works better when we assume that there are underlying causes of errant behavior that can be addressed. That being said, any adult in prison should be given the option of terminating their own life, after a suitable period of psychiatric evaluation and consultation, just as any adult outside of prison should.
     
We may also take comfort in knowing that, rather than there being an inner beast that needs to be constantly beaten back, there is a universal sense of justice, or fairness, built into our very nature. This has even been observed in other mammals in scientific studies. Capuchin monkeys have an instinctual aversion to unfairness and will refuse a food reward if they see another monkey getting a better reward. (I’ve noticed this with my young daughter too.) Dogs playing a game, such as putting their paw in a researcher’s hand, will take the food reward no matter what it is—bread or sausage—but they’ll get miffed and will not play along if they do not get a reward while observing other dogs getting one. A 2008 study done on humans at UCLA showed fairness satisfies a basic need in the same way that winning money and eating chocolates does. Fairness is a reward and we tend to feel out of sorts if we do not get our just reward.  People offered less than a fair deal in experiments showed activity in the insula, a part of the brain that generates disgust. Many people are thus naturally disgusted at the injustices that exist with our society, and we shall endeavor in this labor to ferret them out one by one.

 

To read more about Justice and the other Herculean labors experience the sensation (whether determined or free) of willing yourself to buy the books click here.  Cheapskates can read the free introduction to Labor VII: Economics click here.

 

 

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