Today I finished watching a documentary that’s been on the PVR since February: Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (imdb | rotten tomatoes). All I knew about it was that it was directed by Errol Morris and that it had something to do with electric chairs. The movie actually covered two major parts of Leuchter’s life, and I did not see the second one coming.
Fred Leuchter Jr. is a nebbishly little guy, with a nasal New England accent, gigantic glasses, bad teeth and some serious addictions (40 cups of coffee and six packs of cigarettes a day). I only mention his appearance to make it clear that the rest of his stort seems extra-weird when it comes from a guy who looks and acts the way he does. You don’t expect someone dubbed “Mr. Death” to look like Charles Martin Smith gone wrong.
So yes, the movie starts out with Leuchter explaining how he became something of an expert on the electric chair, and his descriptions of the modifications he made to reduce the suffering of execution victims. Too little current and they burn; too much current and they explode…and so on. Anyway, he built or fixed a few electric chairs, and was then given the contract to fix someone’s lethal injection equipment. Leuchter admitted that this didn’t make any sense, since the two mechanisms were entirely different, but whatever. He also worked on gas chambers and gallows in some states, which made him something of an accidental expert. This leads to the second part of the story, which just came outta nowhere.
It seems that Leuchter was recruited by the defense in the Ernst Zundel case to go to Europe, take samples of brick from gas chambers at Auschwitz and other sites, and return them to an American lab to test for the existence of poison gas, in an attempt to prove Zundel’s claims that Jews were not gassed at the prison camps. The lab was not told what they were looking for (nor the reason for the tests), and the lab technicians later argued that the tests — which showed no trace of the poison gas — were performed incorrectly and didn’t prove anything. Still, Leuchter took the negative results as evidence that there were no posion gas used at these sites.
At this point, people turned on Leuchter. And no wonder; he attended neo-Nazi rallies, and his report titled “Did Six Million Really Die?” became a piece of Aryan Nation literature. Leuchter defended himself by saying he only wanted to provide as much evidence as possible for Zundel’s case because he felt Zundel had the right to free speech. The principle of that action is admirable, even if the result is abhorrent, and if that were the extent of Leuchter’s involvement, he could be accused of poor logic and bad science, but not true anti-Semitism. However, he went beyond simple testimony and specious reasoning and sided with the indefensible.
Still, in the end, you almost feel sorry for him. He lost his wife, his job, his home…everything. By the end of the documentary you really believe that he ended up where he did without even really understanding how it happened. That’s why Errol Morris is a master, and why the film is so memorable.
Death, it seems, has been a common theme the past few days: the media, of course, have fixated more on Kimveer Gill’s blogging habits and clothing color than on his proclivity for guns. Of course, it wasn’t his computer that made him set out to kill people, nor was it his trench coat, or his guns, or video games. Nor was it “evil,” as people like to claim; calling him that is just a feeble attempt to distance ourselves from what happened, so that we can assure ourselves that no human would ever do such a thing. The man was psychotic, unstable, stupid, selfish; calling him evil is just an easy out.
I still feel compelled to say, though, that banning guns might’ve prevented this. Could someone still go on a murderous rampage with a knife or axe? Yes. Could someone still obtain a gun even if it were illegal? Yes. Would it be much, much harder? Absolutely. Would banning guns stop all murder? Of course not, but statistically it would have an effect. Might it have denied Kimveer Gill a gun and robbed him of the artificial courage he felt yesterday? Maybe, maybe not. But statistically, over enough cases, it would make a difference, and I think that difference is worth whatever downsides emerge from banning guns.
One last thought: while I think the idea of banning violent video games is absurd, it doesn’t excuse from karmic hell anyone who creates a video game about Columbine. Or anyone who buys one.
[tags]mr. death, fred leuchter, errol morris, kimveer gill[/tags]