Three strikes suggests that the dangers inherent in contemporary American life are the fault of a few born criminals. Beyond redemption, these monsters can and should simply be removed from society, placed in a hell of their own making from which they will be allowed no exit. This world view oscillates between the perspective of the paranoid and that of Pollyanna: the personage of the recidivist criminal looms over all spheres of social life as a ubiquitous presence, as dangerous and undetectable as a gas leak, while at the same time the image of the law-abiding "average American" is correspondingly pristine.
Three strikes functions not as retributive justice but as a regulative ideal: the articulated purpose of three strikes is less to punish wrongdoers than to quarantine degenerates, to protect the body politic from criminals as a physician protects a patient from cancerous cells. This essentially technocratic rationale is what is left of corrective justice after the loss of the humanist faith in rehabilitation—both the ideal of criminal correction through prison and therapy and the objective of degenerate quarantine share the goal of social regulation, not social justice or even collective vengeance.
The belief in the technocratic regulation of society and the polarization of society into deviant and normal subgroups contributes to popular support for a regulative apparatus, a publicly financed state-business consortium, a carceral industrial complex: cash-strapped police departments find it expedient to arouse political pressure for higher law enforcement budgets and more sweeping powers, while a burgeoning security industry offers private armed security forces, high-technology surveillance, military-grade weaponry, and a variety of strategies to keep the teeming hordes away from the secure sphere of home and hearth. As walls and gates surround both private developments and public streets, architecture blends form and function to create office towers, shopping centers, and luxury condominiums as secure as prisons, along with prisons that blend in easily with the built topography of the edge city.13
In a vicious cycle of spectacle, televised images of crime are the catalyst for pervasive surveillance, which in turn provides the raw material for true-crime television broadcasts. Surveillance, rather than deterring or reducing crime, literally multiplies its image and hence the aura of constant threat that fuel the desire for more complete and intrusive monitoring. Thus the true-crime style media series and the surveillance industry play out a high-tech folie a deux in which each generates the raw material necessary to the other.
Technology designed to enforce what Michel Foucault calls "compulsory visibility''14 is not only able to monitor individual movement but soon, urban futurists tell us, will identify the subject of surveillance through ubiquitous, highly sensitive cameras hidden in public places and incorporated into panoptical surveillance devices. In a "twenty minutes into the future" essay, Mike Davis reports that hidden cameras could scan individually unique retinal patterns from a discreet distance, identifying potential undesirables, while camera-equipped satellites, already under development for traffic management and high-tech automobile security, could easily be used to
Urban control occurs through repressive technologies such as barbed wire, fortified structures, surveillance systems, and "armed response" units, all present in the civilian landscape of any moderately populated area in the United States. It also manifests itself through the informationalism of demographic surveys, censuses, polls, rosters, and identification symbols (the whole constellation of numbers, badges, addresses, and registration requirements) that are moved and traded, bought and sold, compiled and analyzed by government, media, and commercial enterprise for the purposes of all the more effectively tracking, predicting the movement of, and in this way controlling individuals. Paul Virilio describes the initial defining act of violence as linked to strategic information, the aim of which is "to morally and physically deny the adversary the chance to rework his hypotheses, by redefining the space he must cross or the time he has to live."16 This latter-day mutation of Herod's census, expanded exponentially, retains the hum and clatter of a technology of control.
Regulation by the identification of personality "types" has a medical component whose intensification has paralleled that of the surveillance industry17 The primary focus of the definition of deviance and degeneracy is the human psyche, the means of examination, psychotherapeutic techniques, hypnosis, and even drugs, "the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals."18 Just as fear of crime motivates individuals to consent to the monitoring of their own activities, so too individuals seek to root out hidden crimes through psychoanalysis, hypnosis, and even truth serum, all designed to exorcise "inner demons" and "repressed memories." Criminal cases are prosecuted and defended on the basis of "testimony" paradoxically made all the more credible by its resistance to verification: how, after all, does one cross-examine a voice from the subconscious, how does one test the credibility of an inner demon or a devil that made the defendant do it? (Not only justice but the goal of self-knowledge itself may be threatened rather than furthered by the psychological probing: an increasing number of former patients are now suing not the perpetrators of crimes revealed through therapy, hypnosis, or truth serum, but their therapists for implanting "false memories.")
Too often, the use of psychological evidence fuels the belief that individuals should be judged based not on what they have done, but on what type of person they are—on their identity. Psychological expert witnesses are often employed to subtly suggest not that the defendant's act was justified, but that the defendant is not a "criminal type" or that the victim deserved his or her fate. The flip side of this line of reasoning is the belief that evidence of a criminal personality justifies harsh punishment, despite the insubstantial nature of the offense actually committed.19 The psychologically troubled but morally innocent murderer finds an evil twin in the recidivist, the defendant whose very personality is thought to predispose him to a life of crime: a life sentence is justified for the third minor felony not because of the severity of the crime, but because of the irredeemably criminal nature of the defendant.
Meanwhile, Rene Descartes's split between mind and body faces its greatest threat not from philosophical deconstruction, but from "cosmetic psychopharmacology," the treatment of psychological disorders, mild neuroses, and even plain old bad moods through the use of designer drugs. In a New Republic article, Robert Wright argued that "the best way to keep the brave new world grounded in bedrock American values may be to bring cosmetic pharmacology to the masses."20 As a part of a national health care plan, Wright suggests, drugs should be dispensed by Uncle Sam to promote the American way. This entails some delicate balancing, trading off personal benefits against social values. For example, the author suggests that certain of Prozac's effects may qualify it as a "family values drug": the drug will help men to stop cheating on their wives.
We may have only mild misgivings about the voluntary use of drugs to relieve permanent psychological disabilities, and Wright's suggestion that if such drugs are beneficial, they should be available to rich and poor alike is perhaps even admirable. But the regulation of personality inherent in the "social benefits" calculus Wright proposes represents a significant (if indirect) move toward politically sculptured group-think. Listen closely, and against the background noise of national hysteria over crime one can already hear the ticking of the Clockwork Orange: why not offer convicted felons the Hobson's choice of life imprisonment or pharmacological therapy to "cure" them of their violent tendencies? Three strikes and you're strung out.