Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: A Nail Through The Heart

I have discovered the prose of Timothy Hallinan, and now I am buying all of his books. It is so rare to find an author that not only gives us a gripping thriller mystery, but writes with an English befitting literature, I am not letting this discovery go to waste.

A NailThrough the Heart is definitely not for the faint-hearted (harharhar). It is set in Bangkok, which is unfortunately infamous as a magnet for sexual predators, and the evil characters are inspired by true people, which makes it both worse and better. Better because at least the horrors of the book have the purpose of bringing to light real events that the general public may not be aware of and not just invented by a sick mind for shock value, worse because you cannot close the book in the comfortable knowledge that it was all pretend. It is this uncomfortable truth that brought me on a rollercoaster ride of emotions while I was reading about some of the worst people that have ever lived, similar to the one that I experienced when reading Trafficked.

My first reaction, as always, was to jump in the book and kill the child traffickers and abusers. The second reaction that immediately follows that is no, killing them is too easy, then everything just ends for them, it’s almost a blessing, torture them first. Better yet, make them go through everything that they inflicted on their innocent victims, that’s only fair. After the initial heat wears off and if I actually think about it thoroughly I understand that this thirst for vengeance is of course meaningless, and I come back to the ultimate conclusion: take away their freedom, stick them in a tiny cell for the rest of their lives where they can’t hurt anyone or bribe anyone to make their lives more comfortable, having to stare out of a tiny barred hole in the wall day after day. This time, however, I thought a little bit more about that second reaction I feel, the one that lasts the longest and somehow feels fair, and why it is I go back there every time. Partially, of course it’s about anger and revenge, I am human after all. However there is another aspect that I understand contributes significantly to my wanting these people to suffer what they have inflicted on others.

I think that human beings have a very hard time really understanding what it means to not have empathy. Just the thought of the suffering that those children went through causes me pain. The idea that I could be responsible for such suffering in others causes me more pain than I can imagine having to endure, I would die rather than inflict such suffering on others. So many of us feel that it is this that makes us “human”, what we feel makes our species unique, our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place and feel emotional pain. How then is it possible that there are people in this world who cannot feel that emotional pain, who even get pleasure from causing other people to suffer? It goes so contrary to our very nature that we want to force them to understand what they have put others through. If that cannot understand emotionally then we want them to understand physically what it means to be on the other side of that fist, or knife, or gun.

What it really comes down to is we want them to feel guilt. Is there any worse emotional suffering than guilt? Any other suffering that persists, never fading with age, one over which humans have lost more sleep or sanity?

Unfortunately we have to accept that sociopaths do not have the capacity to feel guilt, and perhaps that makes them lucky in an ignorance-is-bliss sort of way. Torturing them will not make it click in their heads, will not force them to see the error of their ways, it only makes you the torturer the subject of their ire and a no better person than they are. If anything it justifies what they have done in some ways by demonstrating that in some cases it is tolerable, acceptable, and acceptable in society to get pleasure out of such torture. If you are one of those people that scoffs at the idea that torture is never OK and that some people deserve it, I want to pose a hypothetical scenario to you:

A man who is responsible for torturing and murdering people, getting very aroused while doing so, is caught and convicted to life in prison. In another state a similar person is also caught, but his sentence is to be tortured and killed himself. That state decides to fly in the first convict to do the honors, not being able to find anyone else to stomach the task. Would that bother you? Even if the victim deserved every bit of torture that he got, would it bother you that the person that is performing the torture is getting his own twisted pleasure out of doing the torture?

If the answer is yes, why are you so quick to justify the pleasure you feel from the idea of torturing a monster?


  1. It would bother me, but only because that particular person has forfeited any right to such a 'gift' and the chance to feel pleasure again. I don't see that as a contradiction with being willing and able to inflict violent retribution in some cases myself, or letting someone else enjoy doing so. Why would the pursuit of revenge or punishment hold any less meaning than any other motive for the things we do? The take on it that I come across most often seems to be that it is disappointing, doesn't erase the initial events and their consequences (no argument there), leaves one feeling empty or worse, etc...mostly written or said by people who have had no personal experience with it. Would it be for some? Sure. For most? Maybe (though I don't think so). But definitely not all. Inflicting what one perceives to be rightful violence upon someone else can be extremely satisfying, and I believe it is (tragically) a natural part of the human experience. Should it be part of our judicial system (offically so, because in many ways it already is)? I don't believe so, and in that I include the death penalty (something that took me a very long time to decide upon, having lost someone very close whose murderer, also a repeat rapist, has been on death row for 12 years) -- but that is because of the inevitable flaws in a machine that can never be fair and will always convict innocents, because we could never agree on what is justified, to what extent culprits are responsible for their actions, what the progression in severity of punishment is and where the boundaries if any are, etc etc... In a hypothetical case of certain guilt and crimes that are of the most repugnant sort to me (slavery/trafficking being the clearest example), do I see any problem with someone enjoying the experience of inflicting violence upon people who I feel deserve it? No.

    1. I think you misunderstood me with that last part. I concede that it is human to want to seek that violent revenge on a despicable human being, which is why I invariably go to that place in my mind when I read about these atrocities. My question was is it right to do so? Is it OK to send the message -through the law- that there are some cases in which violent torture for the sole purpose of personal gratification is morally acceptable and legal? The last hypothetical question was aimed at those people (and my experience on the internet with my reposted video on the death penalty show my there are many of them) was aimed at those who would without thinking about it scream yes! torture the bastards!

  2. Understood, and you did illustrate with an 'institutional' hypothetical, I wandered off a bit. Agreed with you on the problem with sending a message through the law to a society that is far more bloodthirsty than you are.
    On a separate note, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I first came across your blog a few weeks ago and it has prompted a lot of further thought free association and reading, helping to fill some bits of major knowledge gaps...in the case of this post, a refresher on theories of ethics led me to this guy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-moral/...who is obviously someone I should have learned plenty about already but never had! Sensible, logical approach to me, in contrast with the other dead guys who did take up some classroom time ages ago.
    Thanks for pointing in the direction of Pharyngula too, enjoying it...if not already familiar with it, think you might like simoleonsense.
    I think I share your opinions on plenty of things, but figure not much value added in a chorus of 'amens' here and there (perhaps choosing my words more carefully) even though that's generally how I feel reading you, so 'hope you don't mind me popping up once in a while and I look forward to disagreeing with you sometime...

  3. Thanks for the reading tip, I just went through the Rafferty series so far in quick succession and will be looking out for the next one. Since you enjoyed those too, if you feel like more in the same vein while waiting for Hallinan to write, I recommend John Burdett's Bangkok 8 etc...equally adept at evoking Bangkok/Thai life behind the curtain, 'bit more whimsical, interesting main character, and inevitably some similar themes.

    1. Thanks for the tip, as you can probably tell I'm always on the lookout for more books!

      And I most certainly don't mind you popping up once in a while, I'm looking forward to a long debate about something we will inevitably disagree about

  4. Cool, thanks for taking the time to say that, so am I -- chronic insomnia leaves me looking for good reads pretty much constantly too! One of the things that struck me reading your posts is the number of books we have in common recently, in a very wide range too, from fantasy to non-fiction...doesn't happen often! Guessing we both vary mental categories all the time...my Burdett mention above is definitely in the 'fun' category, personally enjoyed mainly because I recognize bits of very Thai attitudes (happen to have long-term ties there) we farang aren't so used to. I know this will seem odd given we don't know each other, but a friend of mine came back to me on a completely different type of book I'd lent her a couple days ago and thought of 'you' sort of, the facet(s) that you've made public that is...Shaking Hands With the Devil, by the head of the UN mission to Rwanda. Thought that when you next feel like non-fiction, you may react to it in a similar way...real kick to the gut/heart, and both because of the lessons in it and the bravery of its author, made my ''required for humans who care' personal list. I'd be curious to hear what you think of it if you happen to get to it sometime. I hesitated to mention it because I'm not used to engaging with someone's blog like this: obviously I find your thoughts interesting and I'm writing because I want to give back in a way to someone who makes me think, but I don't want my comments to imply an expectation of replies, for all I know this is intended more like a journal that happens to be in the public space, I'm just a random visitor and have no business in anyone else's time and space. Feels odd that you introduce yourself and open up here and I get to throw in my two cents without having disclosed anything about myself -- if you feel like evening things out sometime I'm Matt_chauvel@hotmail.com, and if you prefer the interaction to remain quasi-anonymous totally understand as well of course, just throwing it out because it's only fair. As to potential future disagreements, I'll venture a guess that the likeliest areas are government/fiscal and monetary policy, but if still welcome when it comes up, time will tell! --M

    1. You don't have to worry about commenting here! I don't always reply to all of them right away because I tend to be very busy, but all comments short of straight up trolling are greatly appreciated.

      I buy books in bulk from amazon whenever I tend to have some money coming in, so I'll be adding those books to my "basket" for the next time I'll be able to order them, since I just got a shipment in today (how exciting!!) I was afraid I was posting too many book reviews here that some may find boring, but since almost all the book reviews are really "this book made me muse on this subject and here it is" I figured they're not a total waste.

      When it comes to fiscal and monetary policy I don't have very strong opinions, partially because I'm not 100% invested in one particular country and partly because I really don't know enough about economics. The only thing I suppose I really have strong opinions about (other than thinking that major corporations should not be paying negative taxes and that CEOs should not be paying less in taxes than their secretaries) is the health care debate raging on in the US (see "an italian family's story with universal health care" and "my little head rant") mostly because I see it as a right, like access to education, that is fundemental to the acheivement of a true meritocracy, and that all the countries that have it demonstrate that it is sustainable and economically viable. Other than that, I my opinion on monetary policy will be an uneducated one at best