The New York Times published a story about the conviction of Gilberto Valle, a police officer who apparently plotted to kidnap, torture and eat several women. He never actually abducted or killed anyone. It was mostly talk in seedy online chat rooms. Which begs the question: Should a person be tried and jailed for dark thoughts that percolate in the mind?
Valle’s trial highlighted some of the darkest corners of cyberspace, where, as the NYT noted, “fetishists hide behind Web identities like Girlmeat Hunter — the name that Mr. Valle used — and engage in role-playing fantasy about cannibalism and sexual torture.” Prosecutors successfully argued that Valle went beyond the fantasy and started laying the groundwork to carry out his dark fantasies. He kept files on women, illegally obtaining details from a restricted police database. He also researched kidnapping and cooking techniques. (See court documents here.)
My two cents: If you’re keeping detailed plans on your laptop and conducting surveillance, you’re moving past online fantasy and engaging in a real-world conspiracy. Using a restricted police database for the task is worth conviction on its own.
We’ve all had twisted thoughts. In some cases, those thoughts become obsessive-compulsive fantasies. Usually, the fantasy is about killing someone who caused pain and aggravation. Maybe it’s the boss who torments you. Maybe it’s the lady who cut you off on the highway. Then there are the sexual fantasies people have.
I’ve had my fantasies about punching people in the face and dropping them off a cliff. As a recovering compulsive binge eater, I’ve had vivid fantasies about the food I would binge on and how I’d get it. The latter fantasies often became reality. But eating Twinkies and Big Macs is not illegal, and though I’ve had fantasies of violence, I’ve never acted on them. That’s how it is for most of us. We entertain dark thoughts but don’t act on them, because for the most part we are law-abiding citizens with a sense of right and wrong.
If Valle was making blueprints and researching his potential victims, then his sense of right and wrong was impaired, making him a threat to public safety.
The lesson for the rest of us is that we must always work to control our actions. We can’t always stop the bizarre images our minds weave, but we can hold the line between fantasy and reality.
Those who have trouble doing so need to get help before they end up hurting someone.
Below: Former New York City police officer Gilberto Valle (L), dubbed by local media as the “Cannibal Cop”, listens as his wife Kathleen Mangan testifies in this courtroom sketch on the first day of his trial in New York February 25, 2013. REUTERS/Jane Rosenburg