Friday, November 23, 2007

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

[4/29/08: Title explanation in first comment]At one point in the movie the diamond cutter says something like, "There is evil in the world. Some people make money off it and others are destroyed by it."

I don't believe in the existence of evil as a force in the world, but clearly, there is metaphorical evil, and the Alaska political trials have demonstrated how some make money off of it, and others are destroyed. And some make money before the they are destroyed.

My writing about the political corruption trials here, has always had the goal to try to understand why some people succumb to temptation and others don't. The

traditional explanations - he's evil, he's bad, he's greedy - simply label people, as if the label were an explanation, end of discussion. But the labels don't explain how they got to be evil, bad, or greedy. Such labeling also puts the blame squarely on the individual and thus let's us change topics rather than look at the social, economic, and political structures that reward the 'bad' behaviors, such as requiring politicians to raise large amounts of money to get elected, thus setting up obligations to big contributors. This also takes the blame off of the rest of us who have tolerated this sort of corruption as long as we were the beneficiaries - all that earmarked loot from Uncle Ted for example. How many times have I heard someone say, "That's politics." But in a democracy, we the people are part of the political process, and if politics are corrupt, we bear some of the responsibility. We could spend more time learning about the candidates, we could sacrifice a little television or surfing to contact our legislators. We could stop saying "there's nothing I can do" and take some action. Of all states, Alaska's small population gives individual action much more impact.

Those who get angry at the convicted politicians because they don't seem to own up to their guilt enough for us, ought to face our own denial in all this - denial of our own lack of anger and action while the APOC was gutted, while campaign finance laws were weakened, that we were too lazy to get past the party labels in the polling place and continued to vote in the people we now so easily condemn. And if what you just read angers you and and you feel unjustly accused, then you know how Anderson, Kott, and Kohring have felt. I think they were wrong to feel that way, but their behavior was not that out of the norm in Juneau, and Kott and Kohring had been reelected regularly. That couldn't have happened without the majority in his district voting for him. And those who didn't bother to vote also share the blame. Kott was even elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. Why would he think he was doing anything wrong? He was doing, in his mind, what he needed to do. And we all use that excuse - we have lives to lead, we don't have time to get involved. But in a democracy, if the honest people don't get involved, you know who that leaves.

I'm not saying that these politicians aren't guilty and don't deserve to be punished. The first three have been tried and convicted. They will all serve time in prison. But their crimes couldn't have happened without the rest of us allowing the corruption in Juneau to get worse and worse. And they might well still be honored elected officials if the Department of Justice hadn't gotten involved. Righteous indignation about these defendants says the guilty have been punished, and thus it denies our complicity. And thus prevents us from taking the action needed to minimize the risk of future repetition. Yes, there are people who were politically active, people who didn't vote for these legislators. Your joy at the guilty verdicts is nobler if it celebrates that justice was served, than if it celebrates the suffering of those found guilty.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead [I have no idea what the title means] lets us watch how a crime is planned and committed. We run through events over and over again from slightly different angles. We learn about the weaknesses of the characters, the father-son, brother-brother relationships that mold people to be able to do what they do, or not be able to do what they should do. The crime is evil, ill conceived, monstrous - yet desperate men succumb. The younger brother succumbing to the older brother's taunt "You said you were going to do it, you can't back out now." [How many siblings never break out of their childhood patterns of behavior with each other?] He succumbs to the $2000 on the table, as the echoes of his daughter asking for money to see the Lion King on a school overnight outing still ring in his head and through his empty pockets. Attending the political trials in Anchorage gave a similar perspective that one just can't get by reading the accounts of the trials. We heard the crimes described from different perspectives. All of these people are human beings whose life stories help us understand how they got to here. (But since Anderson and Kohring did not take the witness stand, we learned less about them than we did about Bill Allen, Rick Smith, and Pete Kott.)

I'm not saying everyone is good or that people need not take the consequences of their actions. I accept that there are people who will always take and never give. I accept that there are psychopaths, people whose brains are missing the parts that give the rest of us a conscience. This makes it easy for them to do monstrous things. But if the part of the brain that stops the rest of us from doing evil acts is missing, can we really blame them for what they do? We don't blame the blind because their brain cannot read the light patterns that hit their eyes. Though past civilizations did attribute sometimes favored and sometimes evil status to many who had physical and mental disabilities. Letting psychopaths live free to keep doing harm is not an acceptable answer, but neither will saying they are evil help us find humane solutions to their and our problems. Yes, their problems, the problems of all who break the law, are our problems too simply because they live among us. But I also believe that most evil acts are carried out by ordinary people who never got the approval and love they needed to become mature adults, to grow comfortable with who they are. Rich children can be just as emotionally deprived as poor children. I believe a great deal of attention to child rearing is called for. Parents need more assistance in how to raise kids and the time to be with their children. They need less stress. Mexican siestas, French cafes, these are not idleness and luxury, these are cultural answers to the stresses of life. Pressures on individuals to look younger and more beautiful, to be fitter, to wear the right clothes, to have a good house, to buy flat screen televisions, all this means we have to raise enough money to live the lifestyles we see on tv and in the movies. The more debt we take on to live this advertised dream, the less freedom we have to act ethically. Most of us, faced with the right combination of setbacks become vulnerable. It doesn't take much.
  • Factor 1: a medical expense our insurance doesn't cover (that's how Kohring got his $17,000 credit card debt), loss of income because of an injury, which threatens our ability to pay our mortgage, which means we might lose our house, if we have one
  • Factor 2: an illegal opportunity to escape our problem is offered
  • Factor 3: by a person we trust or who has some power over us

And there are those who will stand up strong and say no to temptation. Why? Saying, "They are good people" is not enough. Why did they turn out that way? Life is complex.

Someone who walks away from this movie and simply says "They were evil" and does not rather say, "They were flawed" has missed much. Or perhaps they've taken their own story about how human beings work into the movie and used that model to interpret the facts. Just as I have.


  1. Irish Everyday Toasts
    May you be in heaven a full half hour
    before the devil knows your dead.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. It's easy to demonize Kott et al without looking at the factors that contributed to their crimes and asking some of the hard questions you pose here. People who supported those politicians feel so betrayed, and people who opposed them feel so vindicated, that we all need to be wary of getting too caught up in our emotional responses to the corruption trials, and instead focus on what we can do as voters and citizens to keep this from happening again.

  3. Thanks for the explanation siberart of the title, that makes sense. Not sure that it was particularly relevant to this movie - well, there were dead folks - but no one was explicitly Irish (Hansen?) and the devil was clearly working with most of the characters right up til they died.

    Myster - that nicely clarifies why people are caught up in the blame game. Why couldn't I say that in the first place? How much of feeling betrayed is anger at allowing oneself to be taken in? Betrayal by a close friend is one thing, but by a politician with slick 30 second ads of Alaskan cliches?


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