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Homicide violates a serious norm that is sanctioned with prison sentences and under some circumstances, with the death of the assailant. People who kill in a hot-blooded burst of passion can draw some comfort from the law, which provides lighter punishments for killings performed without premeditation or intent. But what about someone who kills repeatedly and intentionally, aware that these acts of homicide are unlawful?

Ken Levi interviewed, over a four-month period, a self-styled “hit man” (referred to as “Pete from Detroit”) who was serving a prison sentence. Being a hit man might seem to be a life without responsibility to society’s norms. But Pete emphasizes that he is strictly governed by a contract, and failure to fulfill it carries severe penalties.

Pete and other hit men insist on big money because they know that less “professional” hired killers (such as drug addicts) who offer to work for low fees often receive a bullet for their pains. It is believed that people who would kill for so little would also require little persuasion to make them talk to the police. Therefore, his and other hit men’s reputation for charging high fees is functional; it helps them to carry out their tasks successfully and, not incidentally, to remain alive.

An important way for “freelance” hit men to view their work as appropriate is to “reframe” a hit. Erving Goffman describes “frames” (or “breaks”) as portions of a given situation. Often, norm violators will dissociate themselves from a frame. A prostitute, for instance, may remain absolutely detached, her mind miles away, when having sex with a client. Even surgeons partially dissociate themselves from their patients by having the patient completely covered except for the part to be operated on. This helps them to work in a more impersonal way. Pete, the hit man interviewed by Levi, goes through a process of reframing his hits. He reveals that afterward he can rarely recall a victim’s personal features. Also, he refers to his victims as “targets,” not people. Even at the time of contract, he specifically requests not to be told why the contract has been “let” because even though the motive might justify the hit, it would make the “target” more of a person.

Homicide is one of society’s norms. Pete knows that, but he accommodates this potentially discrediting feature of his life by emphasizing the new norms he must obey. Therefore he considers himself “law abiding,” even if the laws are not those of the larger society. Similarly, he approaches the hit as “just a job,” and thus goes as far as he can in denying his norm violation.

See Erving Goffman. Frame Analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974. See also Delos H. Kelly (ed.). Deviant Behavior, 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985, pp. 528–529, 692–703.

Discuss your reaction to Pete from Detroit’s statements that it is “just a job” and that he is not violating a social norm with 200 words and respond to two other student’s posts with 100 words each.

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