Thursday, October 2, 2008

Effective Talking Points

During every election season, each political party tries to get their "talking points" distributed as widely as they can. Once in a while a simple thought without context seems to capture the public imagination and become part of the vernacular, at least until the campaigns wrap up.

Canada's various opposition parties are currently trying to get people to unthinkingly parrot a factoid about the ruling Conservative party's proposed changes to the Young Offenders Act.

Here's the meme: whenever you're rattling off a list of Stephen Harper's sins (he's the leader of the Conservative party and Canada's current Prime Minister - noted for the benefit of my non-Canadian reader(s) ), be sure to mention something like, "he wants to put fourteen year-olds in prison for life."

This makes it sound like those fourteen year-olds are being randomly selected for incarceration, which conjures up an image I find amusing. Picture a dark van screeching to a halt near a group of teenagers walking down main street. Several large police officers, weapons raised, preferably in full riot gear because that makes it funnier, pour out. "You! Are you fourteen? Get in the van! I said get in the %^$&^$ van!"

Alas, the truth is far less dystopian. The actual proposal would simply make it easier to try young offenders as adults for serious crimes, including passing adult sentences in the case of a guilty verdict. This would mean, at its extremes, that some fourteen year-old murderers could be sentenced to life in prison.

This would be rare. It would require that the young defendant be found fit to stand trial as an adult, and there's no shortage of court-appointed psychiatrists willing to argue that little Billy is still too dumb to understand why he shouldn't have made the gun go boom.

However, it could happen, so there's a kernel of truth to the talking point. Stripping it of context and analysis, though, makes it sound much worse than the reality.

That's probably why it's so successful. I've seen or heard multiple references to Harper wanting to "lock children up for life" in letters to the editor, blog posts, and conversations pretty much every day for the last week.

It seems pretty simple to me. A fourteen year-old is generally capable of understanding right and wrong and the consequences of their actions. If a reasonably mature such person kills someone, then they should suffer the adult penalty for doing so, If they aren't, then they'll probably be identified as such during their interminable pre-trial psychological evaluations. Even then, they need to be kept away for a good long time.

If a dog has a history of unprovoked attacks, there are two possibilities. The first is that it's just vicious and needs to be put down. The second is that it's not capable of controlling itself (rabid, sick, or otherwise incapacitated) and needs to be put down.

I'm against capital punishment (although my internal poll results are 51-49 with a significant margin of error), so I'd substitute "put away where they can't hurt anybody ever again" for human beings, but the principle holds. I want fourteen year-old murderers locked up for a very, very long time. Life sentences for those cases wouldn't break my heart.

I'd happily flip this talking point on its head. Instead of "The Conservatives want to lock up fourteen year-olds for life", try something like "The opposition parties want teenage murderers to get off scott free after a couple of years." That sounds far worse to me, and I'm guessing to most people who think even a little bit. No, it's not entirely fair, but it's as fair as their version.

One other thought occurs to me. The whole idea of opposing stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders is that they aren't mature enough to take responsibility for their own actions. A while back, there was a lot of rumbling about the legal age of sexual consent in Canada. During that debate, there were those who wanted the age of consent set low. Fourteen was a pretty common suggestion.

The logic then was that fourteen year-olds are mature enough to take full responsibility for major life decisions and their possible consequences. I wonder if any of the same people who supported that are now arguing against these proposed changes to the Young Offenders Act. That would imply that people of certain ages are old enough to be sexually responsible, but not old enough to be held responsible for violent behaviour.

Oh, who am I kidding? I don't "wonder" that at all. I know full well that it's largely the same people, demonstrating their hypocrisy. Leftists are immune to irony.

Enough rambling. Here's another picture from our our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting.

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