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July 06, 2006

The Ken Lay Obits

It's been fascinating to watch the howls of betrayal following Ken Lay's death. This isn't just man on the street stuff, it's the Washington Post's obituary, which lamented that "none of his victims will be able to contemplate that he's locked away in a place that makes the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel look like Hawaii; that he might be spending long nights locked in a cell with a panting tattooed monster named Sumo, a man of strange and constant demands; and long days in the prison laundry or jute mill or license plate factory, gibbering with anguish as fire-eyed psychopaths stare at him for unblinking hours while they sharpen spoons into jailhouse stilettos."

Odd, but okay. What it does lay bare, though, is the weirdness of our judicial system. The subtext of the post-death commentary has been that oblivion is a mercy, jail the true punishment. Yet our most devious crimes are sent to the chair, not to solitary confinement. And, meanwhile, corporal punishment is considered barbaric, with Singapore's occasional canings generating many outraged gasps from domestic blowhards. But it's not clear why five years in prison -- with all the rape and violence that occurs behind bars -- is more civilized than a public, or private, beating. I know which I'd choose. And from a social perspective, while prison has the advantage of actually locking folks up, for nonviolent offenders, society isn't endangered by their freedom.

As for capital punishment, it's telling that we think it the ultimate in retribution when we carry it out, but an escape hatch when Lay's faulty arteries do the job for us. Never mind that his heart attack was probably more painful than the anesthetized injections that generally complete the sentence. His body's failure denied us the pleasures of revenge, and revenge appears to be what we really wanted. We're not angry that he died, but that we didn't kill him.

July 6, 2006 | Permalink


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I've also noticed several places, this Post story included, where the writer was just so disappointed that Lay wasn't going to be raped, in this case by "a panting tattooed monster named Sumo, a man of strange and constant demands". Which just goes to show both how horribly broken our prison system is, and how little desire there is to change it.

Posted by: Byron | Jul 6, 2006 10:56:59 AM

Read Lay's Death Complicates Efforts to Seize Assets which doesn't even mention that while they had the chance, the Lays poured tons of their money into untouchable life insurance. I'm waiting to hear that the body was cremated a la Hubbard.

Posted by: Allen K. | Jul 6, 2006 11:03:05 AM

revenge appears to be what we really wanted.

This desire for revenge is showing up in the Letters to the Editor section of the KC Star with disturbing regularity.

There is a segment of this society that has no wish for either justice or, God forbid, rehabilitation.

I think it is paperwight who often points out the radical Calvinist underpinnings for much of our national character. The willingness - nay, the rapturous joy that accompanies this - to consign certain lawbreakers to eternal tortures in Hell, starting now, is a good example of this.

I have been known to rant against Ken Lay and all those like him. He was evil to an extent that even murderers are rarely able to accomplish. But I don't allow his evil to contaminate my character, to unleash what Johnny Cash so rightly called "the beast in me."

Desires for justice and rehabilitation can be fulfilled. Desire for revenge is never satiated, and it quickly builds a tolerance in the user, prompting ever more elaborate and horrible fantasies for exacting this revenge.

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 6, 2006 11:06:06 AM

Right, and that's why suicide bombers or hijackers are properly named as such, because the thing that drives us crazy is that we can't punish them. But we feel that we have to punish somebody, so we invade Iraq.

Posted by: DonBoy | Jul 6, 2006 11:08:45 AM

Well, the idea of "rehabilitation" strikes me as an odd one for a white collar criminal like Lay. In what way can a person like that be "rehabilitated?" In what way can they *ever* make restitution to their victims (a necessary part of true rehabilitation)? The revenge fantasties--which I don't share--reflect the true powerlessness of his victims and the utter meaninglessness of a mere prison term/court sentence to affect the aftermath of his crimes.

I think there is something else going on here. I deplore the public media's casual references to illicit prison violence as a form of rough, but true, justice. They sicken me. But the fact of the matter is that for a non-violent crime of grand theft on a large scale, such as Lay's, there is simply no way that a country club prison can ever be seen as a real punishment. Even dying in prison, if the prison is comfortable, doesn't seem like enough punishment for a man who deliberately and cruelly robbed thousands of people of their own comfortable lives and secure deaths. I see th e public flailing around trying to understand how a crime of such a huge public magnitude can simply vanish, with its instigator, with one man's death. They have the illusion that restitution could at least have happened, in some fashion, if this one man had suffered.

If our political leaders had stepped up (or could ever step up) and a) held serious hearings, b) passed laws that prevented this kind of white collar rip off from happening again, c) created a social safety net that meant that lay's victims weren't looking at utter destitution the public's desire for prison rape/violence/long term humiliation for Lay would have been greatly sated. But it is the public's knowledge that nothing has been done, or will ever be done, to the country club criminals or their families while the victims and their families continue to suffer that has so enraged people.


Posted by: aimai | Jul 6, 2006 11:34:37 AM

Guess this will free up a presidential pardon for someone else - any takers?...

Posted by: sprocket | Jul 6, 2006 11:45:57 AM

I've often wondered which is worse: A society that openly announces its barbarism, such as Singapore's policy on caning; or a society that hides its barbarism with a wink and a nod.

Though I don't think I'd prefer the former, it is, at least, honest; the latter, however, only shows the extent of our hypocrisy, as our legal system turns a blind eye to the rape and abuse many, if not most, inmates experience while in prison.

Posted by: urizon | Jul 6, 2006 11:55:28 AM

Ken Lay was a fast-talking hustler who fooled a lot of people--including himself. He probably helped a lot of people lose money, and he deserved to go to prison. But given the choice, wouldn't you feel a lot safer hanging out with "Kenny Boy" instead of Henry Allen, the deranged psychotic who vomited his grotesque homoerotic rape fantasies all over the obituary pages of the Washington Post?

Posted by: Paul Gottlieb | Jul 6, 2006 12:03:59 PM

five years in prison -- with all the rape and violence that occurs behind bars -- is more civilized than a public, or private, beating.

I'd heard a study cited that said prison rape isn't nearly as common as popular conceptions assume it is. Anyone have familiarity with any figures?

Posted by: twig | Jul 6, 2006 12:04:35 PM

What is even more disturbing is that our whacked-out legal system declares that a defendant is not convicted until he is sentenced. Therefore, on paper, Ken Lay was not convicted even though found guilty.

Posted by: Constance Reader | Jul 6, 2006 12:15:50 PM

Any Vince Foster conspiracy fans out there? CIA heart attack? 'News' turns on a nasty obit, where's the dough? who/whom benefited? What a birthday present?!

Posted by: SnoBrdr | Jul 6, 2006 12:21:39 PM

Ezra: "And from a social perspective, while prison has the advantage of actually locking folks up, for nonviolent offenders, society isn't endangered by their freedom. "

Ezra, perhaps you should ask somebody who knows that archaic pre-9/11 history stuff about this. He/she could give you an idea of what Ken Lay did, and how many people it hurt.

Posted by: Barry | Jul 6, 2006 12:35:44 PM

One thing to remember before we get too much further with this is that Lay had virtually zero chance of any of those lurid prison scenarios coming true. He was headed for some Club Fed, where he would have been with others of his own kind. Shabby and boring, perhaps, but probably not violent and predatory.

Now that I think about it, I AM sort of pissed that he won't even get that much retribution.

Posted by: SteveE | Jul 6, 2006 12:48:18 PM

I think that part of the savagery of people is due to the fact that peoople like Ken Lay rarely get the punishment which they deserve. Partially, it's because we wouldn't torture him day by day, until he goes insane, but mostly, it's due to the fact that people who conduct mult-million dollar frauds are frequently punished so lightly that the crimes make sense, from a cost-benefit viewpoint.

How many people who want to be rich would trade a few years in a minimum-security prison for several million dollars?

Ken Lay's only problems were the fact that he was too old, and didn't cop a plea. The more common fate (IMHO) for a high-level corporate crook is a few year in a minimum-security prison, and then a return to a Nixonian 'elder statesman' status. All the while living in better houses than I'll ever own, even though he's bankrupt.

Posted by: Barry | Jul 6, 2006 12:57:24 PM

Good observations Ezra....

Well, there's our justice and there's Karma, which they say is infallible. If I read my reincarnation theory right it isn't as though we pass through lifetimes intact as one soul, necessarily. Rather, the energy of our unfulfilled lives pass on, perhaps not into one new being but several or many, whatever is required to fulfill or satiate. So perhaps Ken Lay will be responsible for a minor population explosion of poor, struggling peons to counterbalance his doings.

I don't know if this is really how it works, just pondering....

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Jul 6, 2006 12:59:57 PM

What it does lay bare
Is that some kind of a pun?

A life (or even a long) prison sentence has always sounded worse than death to me. (Although I'm not quite sure where these pound-me-in-the-ass prison fantasies are coming from. Wouldn't he have gotten minimum security?)

But I'm not sure you're exactly on the mark with your oblivion vs jail comparison. For Lay, prison sounded so punitive because he'd had it so good for so long. For your average death row inmate, we figure their lives weren't much better outside of prison, so, the thinking goes, a lifetime of free room and board doesn't sound harsh enough. As I said, I'm not quite so sure about that claim, but didn't Manson say something like, "You're sending me home"? Also, he died (assuming he died!) of natural causes, so he didn't get the long, dreading anticipation. In other words, we didn't kill him, so it doesn't count.

Anyway, media coverage seems to take a "sacrificial rite" attitude toward their criminal coverage these days. It seems to say, Ken Lay getting it up the ass makes up for all the corporate malfeasance in the world. I wanted Lay to get his just desserts as much as anyone, but sometimes I think the fixation on celebrity trials is to keep us from raising deeper concerns about more widely spread corruptions.

Posted by: Royko | Jul 6, 2006 1:24:41 PM

Any Vince Foster conspiracy fans out there? CIA heart attack? 'News' turns on a nasty obit, where's the dough? who/whom benefited? What a birthday present?!

I have heard it espoused that he may well have killed himself. His family is the most likely to benifit from his death. They get lifeinsurance and it throws the fines into jeapardy. . .

Posted by: DuWayne | Jul 6, 2006 1:47:09 PM

Suicide theory has a chink - he would have only had to hang on until February to have his annuities mature and to start collecting a cool 44 grand every month for him and about as much for the missus.

Posted by: sprocket | Jul 6, 2006 1:55:58 PM

Yes but he would have been sentenced by then and been fined.

Posted by: DuWayne | Jul 6, 2006 2:26:54 PM

Royko: good points on the contrast of lifestyles.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 6, 2006 2:47:06 PM

Except, of course, it's "just deserts." What you deserve, not a sweet treat.

Posted by: Ann | Jul 6, 2006 3:28:47 PM

I'm with aimai on this one.

Posted by: fiat lux | Jul 6, 2006 4:30:14 PM

Damn straight revenge would be good - or at least the seventy grand that bastard and his cronies stole from my mother's pension!

Posted by: Scott | Jul 6, 2006 8:58:45 PM

Lay would have ended up in a country club prison. A friend of mine did time in Lompoc and he learned to play golf.
He looked healthier after prison than before.
I think he told me that there weren't even walls.

Posted by: merlallen | Jul 7, 2006 7:01:00 AM

Speaking as someone who is honestly disappointed by this outcome, it's not that I wanted Lay executed, or raped in prison. (Yes, I think the whole "Club Fed" scenario would have played out, and it would have been too good for him.)

What I was really interested in was some heavy duty criminal fines, followed by a huge number of civil trials in which Law would have had to testify - and he really was his own worst enemy in that regard, at least at the criminal trial - and at which his criminal conviction would have been part of the evidence against him.

I wanted him to hurt, and I think a savage attack on his wallet was the only way to get through to him.

Also, as an athiest, I don't believe in Hell, so, yes, I think the bastard got off easy.

Posted by: Cap'n Phealy | Jul 7, 2006 11:09:49 AM

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