SYNDICATED COLUMN: Does Your Brain Have a Right to Privacy?

Cannibals, Thoughtcrime and a Rising Police State

“I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me because I was young,” the wife of 28-year-old NYPD “cannibal cop” Gilberto Valle testified at his trial.

After she installed keyboard-tracking software on his laptop, Kathleen Mangan-Valle went on, she found that her husband planned to stuff one of her friends in a suitcase and murder her. Two other women were “going to be raped in front of each other to heighten their fears,” while another would be roasted alive over an open fire.

Planned? Or fantasized?

There’s no evidence that Officer Valle, on trial for conspiracy to kidnap, torture, kill and eat women, ever acted on his voreaphilia, a cannibalism fetish. If convicted, however, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

George Orwell called it “thoughtcrime”: punishing people for their thoughts rather than their actions. The case of the cannibal cop – or, more accurately, the wannabe cannibal cop – is a perfect illustration of why a society can be tempted to try to monitor what goes on in people’s brains, and to sanction citizens whose opinions and fantasies fail to conform to “normalcy.” Suppose the federal jury lets Officer Valle off the hook. The idea of this guy roaming the streets of Manhattan picturing the women he sees roasting on a spit – one of the staged (ßlink not safe for work) and Photoshopped images he perused online – is, well, the word creepy hardly does it justice.

Voreaphiliacs are rare, but one of the great things about the Internet is that it allows pervs and other weirdoes to find one another. “If you were someone mildly interested in cannibalism 30 years ago, it was really hard to find someone in real space to find common cause with,” Joseph V. DeMarco, ex-chief of the cybercrime unit of the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, told The New York Times. “Whereas online, it’s much easier to find those people, and I think when you have these communities forming, validating each other, encouraging each other, it’s not far-fetched to think that some people in that community who otherwise might not be pushed beyond certain lines might be.”

That’s what happened in Germany in 2001, when a man who responded to an online post seeking a victim willing to be killed, slaughtered and eaten got his wish. No one disputes that the 43-year-old Berlin engineer died voluntarily; the cannibal videotaped his chatty – and perfectly happy – prey before finishing him off.

As bizarre and – yes, I’ll say it – disgusting and terrifying as the so-called cannibal cop’s online chats were, I am disturbed by convicting people for actions that they not only never committed, but might never have committed. And yeah, things – bad things, as in Germany, do really happen sometimes. But as Sartre said, we are all responsible for our actions. Should we go to prison for our fantasy lives? Should we give up our right to cranial privacy to protect ourselves from the exceedingly rare chance that some nut will eat someone?

Take another look at the quote above by Joseph DeMarco. It’s so full of conjecture and speculation: “not far-fetched”…”might”…”might.” Well, anyone might do anything, right?

What if Saddam had WMDs? What if they had them and what if they gave them to terrorists? And then, what if those terrorists used them against us? If if if.

We know what happens when we act based on ifs.

Thoughtcrime prosecutions often revolve around sex. A 50-year-old man in South Florida currently faces more than 3000 years in prison for possession of child pornography. (Prosecutors filed separate 15-year counts for each of 200 videos found on his hard drive.) Even if you buy the demand-side argument that no one would make kiddie porn if no one bought it – a dubious claim, given the zillions of people who happily “sext” nude photographs of themselves for free – aren’t we forgetting something? Looking at child pornography isn’t the same as producing and disseminating it. In America, convicted rapists serve an average of about eight years. Wouldn’t it make more sense to send the actual rapists away for three millennia?

As America continues to degenerate into unapologetic authoritarianism, prosecutions for thoughtcrime are increasingly common. In 2008 a Pennsylvania woman, Karen Fletcher, was sentenced under a plea bargain for writing fictional erotic stories about sex with children. The victimized children didn’t exist; her criminal record does. In 2001 an Ohio man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “textual child porn” – writing stories in his private journal that depicted kids being raped and tortured. Again, no actual kids were hurt. The diary was for personal consumption and never shown to anyone else.

In 2010 an Iowa man was forced to plead guilty and went to prison for six months for possession of porn manga – Japanese-style comics – that depicted children having sex. The same thing happened in October 2012 to another consumer of kiddie porn manga, this one in Missouri.

In the Missouri case a press release by Project Safe Childhood asserted that “the depictions clearly lack any literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Of that, I have little doubt. The same could be said of the contents of most TV shows.

Hysteria leads to irrationality. Dwight Whorley of Richmond, Virginia is serving 20 years in federal prison for looking at Japanese anime images of cartoon children being raped. Upholding the decision, Judge Paul Niemeyer of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that “it is not a required element of any offense under this section [of the law] that the minor depicted actually exists.”

WTF?

Has it ever occurred to anyone that cartoon porn might be beneficial to society, a way for people whose fetishes are illegal to get themselves off without hurting anyone?

The main reason that so many of these cases, including that of the so-called cannibal cop, are prosecuted in federal court is that most state and local jurisdictions set a higher bar for conspiracy convictions, requiring that at least one member of the conspiracy be proven to have taken at least one decisive action toward carrying it out. The young Somali-American charged with plotting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in downtown Portland in 2010, for example, was handed a fake detonator by an undercover agent and told it would set off a bomb. He pushed it. I agree with the jurors. He meant to do it.

The cannibal cop, kiddie porn and other thoughtcrime cases, on the other hand, involving sending people to prison for things that they thought, not that they did. I don’t see how any society that does that can call itself free.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

16 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Does Your Brain Have a Right to Privacy?

  1. The War on Thought Crimes follows the same steps as a whole series of previous Wars: the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, the War on [fill in blank]. Look at the War on Child Porn as the case example:

    You start off with something almost everyone can get behind: Gosh, I think child pornography is disgusting, and something ought to be done about it. A politician, seeing which way the wind is blowing, jumps aboard the bandwagon. And for something like child porn, it’s hard to see how you couldn’t, as a politician, be able to win points by being against it.

    Then competition kicks in. No one wants to be the last one to come out against child porn. So the bills start multiplying. Let’s set up a safety zone around schools. Let’s expand it. Let’s require registration of sex offenders. Let’s require door-to-door notification by sex offenders in a quarter-mile radius. Let’s put up a website that anyone can check. Let’s make public urination classifiable as a sex crime because part of the pee-pee is visible, and thus constitutes flashing.

    Someone has a moment of clarity and realizes that the whole thing has gone completely nuts. What started out as a pretty good idea has now begun to ruin the lives of sexually harmless men who couldn’t hold their pee any longer. Some poor bastard who took a photo of his naked three-year-old kid playing in the bathtub is now facing police interrogation of his whole life because some fanatic at Walmart saw something in the photo developer and freaked out. (Google Fells Acres Daycare for how easily “expert” witnesses and their “testimony” can destroy someone’s life.)

    The politicians don’t dare pull back though. Why? Let me write the first paragraph in the press release from the opposition: “While you’re worried every day that a roving gang of pedophiles is coming to ass-rape your children, Sen. X is working hard to make it easier for them to get away with it. Sen. X recently begged Congress to lessen sentences for convicted sex offenders …” etc.

    But it’s all for one purpose, all these wars. By elevating each situation to a bogeyman status, the system gains more leverage and control.

    If we’re going after people for thought crimes, for fantasizing about murder and rape, well, hang on, I’ve got a question:

    Has anyone here seen the series, “Oz”? There is (I hear) tons of rape and murder in that program. People die in every episode. One character got sodomized twice. If you enjoyed that show, isn’t that a clear sign that you need to be placed into custody and put under someone’s control?

    Not yet. But it’s coming.

  2. @someone

    >I am not advocating wire taps and a 1984 style of processing thought crime from twisted fantasy, but when someone has, on their own, collected evidence of what they fear is attempted premeditated rape and murder that in part targets them, something DOES need to be done.

    For every spy in government there’s 15 private eyes. If we count snooping family members, we could start to adopt an argument not unlike Mussolini’s argument for fascism. It’s a positivist argument:
    Privacy is a fairytale. Period. So we might as well let the state keep us all safe.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this crime would have never happened, but using a precautionary principle because I believe in social contract, for now, I will say that in my ideal world she could instead hand the evidence over to mental health professionals who would be legally empowered to detain and question the man, and he would be justly compensated for his time away from work. If he is really mentally ill, he would remain in therapy until he is better or indefinitely. This is a million times better than what happened.

    It makes NO SENSE whatsoever to prosecute insane people.

  3. @olegna78:

    You are absolutely right, the police state needed to read and disentangle every potential crime from fantasy would create far more and worse crimes then any of the potential criminals who would otherwise go on caught would. But that is not what I am advocating.

    In the case in question it appears that it was the wife who collected all the evidence and she submitted it to authorities presumably out of fear for her life. When these types of things happen, they need to be examined. I am not advocating wire taps and a 1984 style of processing thought crime from twisted fantasy, but when someone has, on their own, collected evidence of what they fear is attempted premeditated rape and murder that in part targets them, something DOES need to be done.

  4. In regards to the Somali Christmas Tree incident. This is a case of entrapment, and the authority figure who “encouraged” this person should go to prison for it.

  5. Someone,

    We don’t need to create a police state to protect against really rare occurrences, especially when we know the police state itself will be the source of much more hazard than that which it supposedly guards against. If we set about the task of disentangling premeditation from idle fantasy we have already conceded that the authorities ought to be able to read everything, just in case.

    Instead, why don’t we look at the sources of large scale death and suffering with well-understood causes, and apply the powers of the law and enforcement against those? The sensational nature of
    rare crimes mixes with the entrepreneurial, credit-claiming nature of prosecution and legislation to create a system which treats symptoms at the expense of treating root causes. Take say the mass shootings. It is extremely rare to be killed in one, but if you are a lawmaker you can propose a turn-key, easy to understand piece of legislation of gun control. It would be much less a mass consumable product to instead rebuild the mental health infrastructure. So we all lose the ability to purchase certain weapons, and the likelihood that we get shot in a mass shooting actually continues to rise. Meanwhile, REAL problems (ie. ones that are much much much much more likely to kill you) are ignored.

    Why? Because people like exkiodexian can’t get nearly as frothy and excited about bringing the number of undiagnosed, untreated ill people down to first-world levels as they can get about some guy possibly eating his wife.

  6. Thought crime is real and one can get fired for it.

    Especially, if you write something down.

    Personal lesson learned, I think what I want about my co-workers and their eventual, and deserved demises, and how slow and painful or quick and gruesome it might be (in theory, of course). But I never, EVER put it in writing.

    Again.

    Once is enough.

  7. Wow, great post Ted. I think the commenters who are getting upset are missing the fact that Ted seems pretty clearly to be saying that it’s not really black and white, and that it is of course sometimes a good thing to prosecutes someone for planning a crime, you just better be damn sure there is evidence they’re actually planning something. I’m guessing if the cop really was planning something, it will become obvious during the trial. It’s amazing that people are getting convicted for writing stories about sex with children, I mean one of the great novels of the 20th century, Lolita, is about sex with children. Another one of the great novels of the 20th Century,. Gravity’s Rainbow, involves multiple scenes of sex with children. One of them involves the protagonist. Statements like “it is not a required element of any offense under this section [of the law] that the minor depicted actually exists.” make me feel like I’m on some alternate earth or something, where everything is backwards. It’s like I fell asleep in 1978 when things at least vaguely made sense, even if they sucked, and woke up in an alternate universe now. I keep waiting for Rod Serling to stroll out of the wings with a cigarette…

  8. In the early days of the Web, back in the early ’90s, I came across a photograph of a young child being raped. I’m not absolutely certain, since I am not a photographic forensic expert, but it looked like the child was really being raped rather than Photoshopped. Naturally, I wanted to submit the photo to the appropriate authorities for prosecution, and tried to look up the correct place to report the offensive photo.

    Every site I checked said I could be jailed for 10 or more years just for having seen the photo, a) because we have to stamp out child pornography; and b) (of course) because judges and lawmakers are quite fond of child pornography and can’t have trouble makers interfering with their legitimate pleasures (legitimate only for judges and lawmakers, of course).

    So I deleted my browsing history and never returned to that page nor mentioned its existence to any police authority.

    ***

    And I quite agree with exkiodexian: we not only have to go after those unanimously predicted to commit a crime by the three predictors in Minority Report (or their real-life police equivalents), but those predicted by even one, or not even quite predicted, just mentioned. It’s important that we prevent all crimes, so it is far, far better for 1,000 innocents to be severely punished than for one guilty person to go free: that is the basic, underlying principal of modern, 3rd millennium American justice.

    ***

    And olegna78, yes, the War on Iraq was fully justified because a) they MIGHT have had WMDs; and b) the US was attacked by 19 Arab Muslims, so any killing of any Arab (whether Muslim or not) by the US was and is fully justified, and the killing of any Muslim (whether Arab or not) was and is fully justified, and it was and is all IVSTICE, not a carefully constructed campaign to put US government dollars into the pockets of the Friends of the Administration by a war replete with no-bid contracts and a disruption in the world oil supply, predictably driving up the price of oil to the great financial advantage of those who knew about the disruption in advance.

  9. I agree with the sentiment of this piece, but I am a little troubled by the cannibal cop example. It is a very fine line in distinguishing between premeditated murder and extremely detailed voreaphilia fantasy with real plans and intricate operations involving real people.

    Meanwhile for things like drawing or writing child porn based purely on fictional characters, I fully agree that the illegality of that is just cruel and is a matter of punishing thought crime. As you say, in such situations beyond the wrong that is thought crime itself such practices also punish a possible steam outlet for some such individuals that might be necessary to keep some from commuting the actual crimes.

    I would even go so far as to completely agree that the German case of consented cannibalism, while weird and disturbing on astounding levels, should not be a crime if both individuals were actually consenting. Behind closed doors among consenting individuals concerning actions that only effect those present and consenting, I don’t see that there can really be anything illegal or even wrong. Disturbing and Disgusting yes, but those are my opinions which are irrelevant to the legality or acceptability of such scenarios.

    But this brings us back to the cannibal cop. Sure I see no problem with his Photoshopping of relevant fetish images (though I really don’t want to click on that link to see them), but the issue comes in with the detailed plans of rape and murder involving real people. If we can really truly say that this was pure fantasy, well then okay that is fine. But we need pretty good and pretty specific evidence to conclusively disentangle this from premeditated rape and murder. Prosecuting premeditated rape and murder may in some people’s mind may still be a thought crime, I can certainly see that line of argument and interpretation, but we need to draw the line somewhere. When people’s lives are potentially at risk we do need to do something about it.

    Yes I know, “what about Saddam and WMDs?” That is a valid point for a lot of cases involving thought crimes. But for the Saddam and WMDs example to be a reasonable analogy to the cannibal cop one, Saddam would not only need to have WMDs but have spent significant time provably colluding with others and drawing up long and detailed plans that are provably his on who and how to use them. At such points something needs to be done. Maybe not a war for this hypothetical example, but you NEED some sort of intervention, a peaceful one could probably do fine to get to the bottom of the things in such cases.

    It is that knife edge between thought crime and premeditated murder or equivalent that needs SOMETHING. Maybe not an arrest. Maybe the necessary intervention and possible trial needs to both be kept from public awareness as to prevent harm to any individuals via their reputations and public perception. If it can be determined beyond a reasonable doubt that such a situation is pure fantasy, then yes such cases should be dismissed.

    But we also need to think of the other people in question. Even if this can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that this is just a thought crime, we still need to care for, say the wife in this situation. Again, if provable fantasy only, her husband should be spared any problems, but if she feels she needs an expedited divorce, restraining order, and protection from the witness protection program or equivalent, then she should be able to get that as well ASAP, as well as possibly more.

  10. >Yes, I want him to be stopped before his plan is carried out. Yes! Fuck yes! I don’t think his wife should have to wait around for her insane husband to abduct, torture, rape, kill and eat her for the authorities to take action. Oh, and “fuck you” for suggesting she should. The son of a bitch belongs behind bars forever.

    Ted, you have overdone it. This character is no longer believable. I get the strategy; stimulate conversation by posing as archetypical petite cultural positivists… but even US395 (RIP) understood when I was agreeing with him.

    Out of respect, I will “respond”.

    @Ex: You had offered a small-scale synthesis of a precautionary principle. I would like to know if you believe it would apply in cases where more than an extremely small amount of people will be affected. Take say, the most recent war in Iraq. Would you have exercised the precautionary principle the same way the Bush administration would have in that case as well? Or take, say, the rate of death by amenable diseas in this country. We know that the healthcare system will http://www.tinyurl.com/killpoor. Your precautionary principle would force an immediate adoption of universal single payer healthcare.

    I would be interested to get your take on the countless and growing number of phony terrorism cases being brought (you know, where authorities come up with the plan, carry out most of the implementation, offer encouragement, make the social outcasts feel like they are really a part of something). I mean, I like federal work programs for as much as the next guy, but I did not figure you for the type that wants to pay federal employees to create work for themselves.

  11. What about columnists who write columns in support on convicted child porn users? Sounds like aiding and abeting. You’re a brave one Ted! I’m almost scared to admit I read your column

  12. @olegna78 said: “In other words, the precautionary principle. Great.”

    Are you dense? Or are you just on dope? Or are you a dope? Let me re-write what I already wrote:

    “Now that the trial has begun, we’ll see the evidence of a deliberate plan — not just a fantasy.”

    To repeat: Yes, I want him to be stopped before his plan is carried out. Yes! Fuck yes! I don’t think his wife should have to wait around for her insane husband to abduct, torture, rape, kill and eat her for the authorities to take action. Oh, and “fuck you” for suggesting she should. The son of a bitch belongs behind bars forever.

    Maybe you don’t understand the law. Perhaps should STFU until you do. The authorities stop people ALL THE TIME before they carry out plans. All the fucking time. It’s the law, as it should be. So go back to Minority Report and wack off if that’s what you’re into. The rest of us are into reality.

  13. @ex
    >…sit around and wait for the dead bodies to pile up before doing anything, even though we have all the evidence in the world that a plan is going to be carried out.

    In other words, the precautionary principle. Great.

    Now, do you believe in it when there actually is a potential for body pile-up, and where there is no downside to society at large?

  14. “There’s no evidence that Officer Valle, on trial for conspiracy to kidnap, torture, kill and eat women, ever acted on his voreaphilia, a cannibalism fetish.”

    This is a total bullshit statement, once that should be retracted for credibility purposes. The trial hasn’t even begun yet, other than opening statements. Evidence has not even been presented yet, so Ted can’t assert that there’s no evidence. All Ted is going on is what he’s read in the papers, PRE-trial. Now that the trial has begun, we’ll see the evidence of a deliberate plan — not just a fantasy.

    And yes: We absolutely DO have the right to convict people of planning crimes. We do it all the time, as we should. In Ted’s world, we sit around and wait for the dead bodies to pile up before doing anything, even though we have all the evidence in the world that a plan is going to be carried out. That’s not just stupid, it’s offensively stupid.

    There’s more in this “op-ed” that’s just as bad, but no point. Ted’s off the rails. He continues down the embankment, and is going into a roll down a large, steep cliff.

    I won’t look for your retraction Ted, once the evidence is in. This sick fuck needs to be behind bars, permanently. Or perhaps you wouldn’t mind if your own spouse had detailed plans to abduct you, torture you, kill you, and eat you. Of course you wouldn’t Ted. Being a good liberal, you’d just sit and have a chat with your wifey, smooch a little and say “it’s ok sweetie, I understand. It’s just fantasy.”

  15. Ted,

    I”m surprised you left out “Boiled Angel” and Mike Diana. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Diana)

    The most alarming parts of the Diana story are these:

    1. He had legal defense and he lost.
    2. This was back in the early ’90s, well before the Internet had infiltrated every detail of all our lives.

    I am reminded of the Star Trek episode in which Picard and the crew are transported to a distant part of the galaxy by the superbeing Q. While there, they encounter the Borg for the first time, and run like hell to try to get away. And as the Borg close in, the superbeing Q taunts Picard: “You can’t outrun them. You can’t destroy them. If you damage them, the essence of what they are remains. They regenerate and keep coming. Eventually you will weaken. Your reserves will be gone. They are relentless.”

    And what have we got? The newspapers are fading out. The things that have come up to replace them are wholly inadequate. Look at WikiLeaks. They had to fight just to keep PayPal online for them. AdBusters came up with OWS and the police ran roughshod over that with the same tactics they used 50 years earlier. Newspapers are able to rally the general populace. Mother Jones rallies a couple thousand people. It’s not the same thing at all.

    Give it a few more years. I’m sure at some point in the near future, we will all be informed — probably when we’re being arrested — that the mere act of visiting certain websites will constitute sufficient grounds for arrest.

  16. Like with so many other developments thought to be so unthinkable, that there is no reason to worry, thought crime, as Ted points out, is already happening. And let me just be clear about that: authorities are absolutely reaching inside the physical brain, and pilfering thoughts that they can use to prosecute people. Yes, you read that right. They are looking inside of people’s minds, reading thoughts, and sending people to jail for those thoughts.

    A journal, is of course, a piece of brain extension technology, allowing you to store thoughts on paper for easier recall, later. It is, literally enough, a part of your brain.

    So just add thought crime to the list of other phenomena thought to be so unthinkable that they are not even problems, along with the rationing of air by wealth.

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