I haven’t followed the trial of Michelle Carter closely. Although horrified when I read of Conrad Roy’s suicide a few years ago, the saga of the trial wasn’t something I wished to have occupy any of my thoughts recently.
The legal issue is interesting, though.
Earlier today, WJAR’s Bill Rappleye tweeted out the Massachusetts ACLU’s statement, which insists that “there is no law in Massachusetts making it a crime to encourage someone, or even to persuade someone, to commit suicide.” As I said, I haven’t followed the case closely, so I don’t know whether there’s some technicality of Massachusetts law that creates a legal opening for the ACLU’s argument, but on the plane of legal principle, I’m not sure how that argument would square with the ACLU’s own explanations of “incitement” and “fighting words.”
If you know that somebody is on the verge of killing himself and you emphatically command (paraphrasing), “get back in carbon-monoxide-filled chamber,” that’s not substantially different from screaming “fire” in a crowd to start a riot. Your conduct, though manifested through language and speech, is the action of pushing the person back toward death.
To understand the point, bring in another topical issue. Imagine the GOP-baseball assassin had backed off just prior to the attack out of a pang of fear and conscience and somebody else who had been on the phone with him — knowing him to be an emotionally vulnerable man — urged him to pull the trigger. Speech can be action.
Of course, this being the ACLU, one suspects their opinion to be in the service of a progressive political platform, which suspicion is affirmed in the final paragraph of the release:
If allowed to stand, Ms. Carter’s conviction could chill important and worthwhile end-of-life discussions between loved [ones] across the Commonwealth.
That is, the court should not penalize active advocacy for a tragic teenage suicide because it might affect more ambiguous decisions about suicide for others. Of course, if this is a real concern, the legislature could simply put a distinction into law between that sort of discussion and raw, malicious death advocacy. It may be that the progressives in the ACLU would prefer to avoid that approach, however, because then the legislative debate would necessarily raise uncomfortable questions about assisted suicide and when it ceases to be justified.
All of this said, I should take a step back and note my… what?… general philosophical sympathy with conservative intellectual John Podhoretz’s tweet, as follows:
The idea that someone can be convicted of manslaughter for “goading” someone into suicide is a terrifying denial of personal agency
Sure, Roy took the actions that brought about his death. Clearly, the young man had his demons. The active question — culturally and legally — is when we as a society should penalize through government force the decision of another person with agency to be one of the demons. Again allowing for the possibility that I’m not aware of a technicality in Massachusetts law that Judge Lawrence Moniz may have ignored, I have to say that I agree with this:
In a statement before his ruling, Moniz said that it was phone calls between Roy and Carter as he sat in the truck — not the chain of text messages in the prior days — that caused Roy’s death. She told friends that she heard him die on the phone; she told one, Samantha Boardman, that he left the truck because he was “scared” and she told him to “f—— get back in.”