The Cop and the King of the Cannibal Isles

Cakobau.jpgCakobau (1815 – 1883). Photo by Francis H. Dufty (1846-1910) (National Library of Australia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Woman pudding and baby sauce, Little boy pie for second course, He’d swallow them all without any remorse, The King of the Cannibal Islands.”

Anon. 19th Century Song

People respond to the utterly alien in various ways. Natives of the south seas, for instance – and their supposed eating habits – have been a stock cartoon theme for generations. ‘The King of the Cannibal Islands’ is a 19th century song – decidedly ‘un-P.C’ – that was taught to New York school children as recently as the 1960s. It’s a very silly piece, as you’ll note from the lyrics above, and from more than one rowdy rendition on YouTube.

What was the source of all this material? In the 18th and 19th centuries Europeans and North Americans came in contact with peoples, including certain Pacific Islanders, who practiced cannibalism: peoples who, for ritual and/or terroristic purposes, sometimes killed and ate other human beings. That children’s song, for instance, might or might not refer (obliquely, per a Popular Science article from 1895) to an actual Fijian paramount chief named ‘Thakombau’ or, more properly, Seru Epenisa Cakobau. Cakobau converted to christianity and worked to end cannibalism in Fiji, and so naturally became known as the ‘cannibal king’.

Clearly, people can find a real cannibal funny, if the cannibal lives far enough away, or is long dead. But the key to feeling comfortable with someone – if that someone might feel comfortable with the idea of eating you – is distance. We don’t necessarily laugh at the utterly alien when we find it next door – and even a theoretical cannibal ‘creeps us right out’, if he might be cruising our streets.

Gilberto Valle has never eaten anyone, as far as we know. There is evidence, though, that he was fantasizing up a storm about killing and eating his own wife; a female friend of his wife; a couple of female friends of his own from college; and another young woman that he doesn’t seem to have known personally. And not only was he fantasizing about it, he was sharing those fantasies with a lot of other guys on a very creepy website.

Because of this, he’s been dubbed the ‘Cannibal Cop’ by the New York Post and other pithy papers. He’s been in detention since October of 2012. He was (and still is) in danger of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Valle’s only crime, it now appears, was that he “accessed, and obtained information from,” a federal database “without authorization and outside the scope of his authority,” in violation of Section 1030 of Title 18 of the US Code. Essentially, he snooped where he had no right to snoop. This, since he had no prior record, is a misdemeanor.

He had, of course, been convicted of a kidnapping conspiracy, as well, and it was the conspiracy charge that was likely to keep him in prison for the foreseeable future.

The prosecution obviously felt that, faced with thoughts that seemed so unspeakably vile, it must shoot first and ask questions later. It was more important to prevent any future crime, in other words, than to figure out whether any crime (beyond snooping) had actually been committed. But it does seem that the government acted precipitously; the Post, the New York Times, and others, have reported that, the jury’s guilty verdict notwithstanding, the court has entered a judgment of acquittal on that supposed ‘kidnapping conspiracy’. Having reviewed the evidence, the court found that Valle’s online discussions with his three ‘co-conspirators’ were indistinguishable from his online discussions with 21 other people that even the government admits were not criminal in nature.

The government found out about Valle’s fantasies, by the way, because Valle’s wife found out about them and brought them to the attention of law enforcement. But this prosecution should also remind us, if any reminder were needed, that anything we do on the web we’re doing right out in front of God, the US Government, and everybody.

The Times has published the federal court’s decision in its entirety, here. It makes interesting reading.