Boy, you go online and engage in a little friendly banter about raping, murdering, and eating your wife and some of her girlfriends, and all of a sudden you're a horrible person! Or at any rate, you're Gilberto Valle. Valle, a New York City policeman (!) is currently on trial, charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping after his conversations on a fetish website were discovered by his wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle. While the graphic conversations are certainly disturbing, to say the least, the case raises legal and ethical questions that are potentially even more disturbing.
Let me say immediately that I am obviously not privy to all the details of the case. I don't know how far Valle's conversations went or to what extent they could be considered active plotting, as opposed to just shared fantasizing. To me, though, the fact that the conversations took place on a fetish site (instead of, say, private one-to-one discussions) suggests they are more likely the latter. Does that make the conversations OK? Debatable. I'll come back to that. But it definitely raises questions about what, exactly, Valle is legally culpable of--if indeed he is legally culpable of anything at all.
As far as I know, a person cannot be prosecuted for conversation. I make a distinction here between conversation and conspiracy. A conspiracy--by definition--is secret. Valle posted his fantasies on a website where men (I'm assuming they're mostly men) post their fantasies and share them with others. It is, in other words, a public forum; anyone with an internet connection and perhaps a credit card can access it. The essentially public nature of the conversations speaks against charges of conspiracy.
(Again, I do not know all the particulars: If Valle engaged in other, more surreptitious conversations that named, say, times and places or that delved into active planning, then a conspiracy case becomes much stronger. I am here, though, more concerned with the implications of the case as I have outlined them here.)
Still, when people hear about a man--particularly a policeman--engaging in graphically violent, horrifically disturbing fantasies involving rape, torture, mutilation, etc., they understandably feel that something should be done, that punishment should be administered. In Valle's case, his wife (potential victim?) has, quite reasonably, left him. Considering that Valle "wept visibly" during his wife's testimony, I will speculate that he is suffering. Regardless of the trial's outcome, he may lose his job and/or be required to undergo extensive psychological counseling. Is this enough? Should the criminal justice system be involved?
What if, instead of visiting a fetish website, Valle had simply committed his violent fantasies to a journal, a journal that was then discovered by his wife? Would he be guilty of a crime if the journal described his desire to commit horrendous acts? What if he had said these things in the privacy of, say, a counseling session? Yes, therapists may be required to report patients to the authorities if they speak of plans to commit violent acts, but would a patient saying something like, "Sometimes I fantasize about raping and killing women" rise to that level?
The truth is that all of us--all of us--engage or have engaged in dark, disturbing fantasies. Perhaps they don't rise to such grand guignol levels as those described in the case of Gilberto Valle. Nevertheless, most people would experience shame unimaginable if even their fantasies of perfectly legal actions--telling off an overbearing boss, spending a steamy weekend with an attractive co-worker--came to light. The potential shame, of course, is what keeps most of our fantasies safely concealed within our mental lockboxes. But is it a matter for the courts if our fantasies, legal or otherwise, are revealed? Personally, I hope not.
(Hm. I guess whimsy will have to wait at least another day.)