Punishment and the Balance of Purposes

What to say. As with any great paradox, one must pause before this subject, “Punishment and the Balance of Purposes,” and realize that whatever might be said in a usual and customary context (such a as a blog) will hardly be more than a few impressionless tracings on a monolithic stone gateway. “This blog entry was here” .

At any rate, why not. When confronting what should be done with newly convicted criminals, we see a contradiction that is at once infuriating and heart-breaking, between the passion for vengeance (neatened by the considerations of criminologists into the term “retribution”) and the noble believe in man’s redeemable nature (expressed in theories of “rehabilitation”). From the heart, from the blood, from the root of all passion, each of us knows, before all knowledge, that when we are wronged we must revenge ourselves by inflicting wrong. We suffer a fate worse than death otherwise, wasting away, all sense of power crushed, self-respect evaporated, confidence in the world a hollow dream. We know that two wrongs do make a right, and we are unaware of the long line of suffering that we are now bound to, that we will perpetuate by exacting our revenge. This is the focus of Aeschylus’ trilogy, the Oresteia.

This passion for revenge exists in all of us, it is older than the human race. It is for the sake of this passion that jails and prisons are such terrible places, it is for the sake of this passion that people have been tortured and executed in public spectacles for thousands of years, and why the most hateful criminals are still executed in this country today.

Why do we inflict pain and injury on the ones who make us suffer (and their families, their loved ones)? Because we have suffered, and it relieves us to watch them suffer as we have. “Double-edged sword” is not the right metaphor: this is the practice of dumping poison in the village water supply. It depends on the character of the prisoner, but when society as a whole injures him there is every likelihood in the world that he will feel in his blood that he must injure society in return … or waste away for the rest of his life, crushed by his inability to exact revenge. Are people, criminals even, who have grown up surrounded by poverty, violence and every sort of pain, going to accept that the “retribution” that society is exacting on them for their crimes is some kind of just expiation? What is society to them? My feeling is that we address serious crime in this country in the same way we address terrorism in the world: awkwardly, fearfully, violently, with intentions and methods that breed more angry enemies than fearful subjects.

This is all beginning to sound a bit fanciful. The point can be stated very simply in crisp academic terms. Retribution counteracts rehabilitation. It is up to the legislators and judiciaries to interpret the will of society in shaping and executing the criminal law, but it is up to each of us to decide whether the criminal law should exist as a means of exercising our vengeful passions on “those people,” or as a tool for improving society by rehabilitating criminals into the healthy members of society they could be.

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