Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What is Justice? What is punishment for?

Swiss Toni has provided a very pertinent commentary on how the hell we should react to the grotesque case in Austria currently occupying news headlines.

He makes some powerful points, not least around how we decide and evaluate 'just' punishments for such crimes.

I have to admit that I have felt terribly conflicted over the last two days regarding how, or even whether, to publicly articulate the emotions stirred in me by the horrific uncovered events in Austria. The subject seems so utterly awful, so distressing to even begin to comprehend, that I wondered how - if - it was appropriate to try and do so amidst the frivolity that usually occupies my mind.

But this sort of uncovered event, this history, surely deserves acknowledgement even here. Perhaps precisely because to ignore it is to treat it with the no-questions-asked-acceptance-of-what-is-said mentality that led to a community, a family, being unable to challenge the lies it was fed and turning away from the horror in its midst.

Swiss Toni is certainly right to be firm that any 15 year sentence feels far too short, too inadequate in comparison to the 24 years of grief and suffering already inflicted on his family members. (Plus the rest, since it appears he was brutalising and raping the daughter from around 11). And that's before considering that the family are likely to require intensive support for some time to come, if not the remainder of their lives. Could any sentence be enough for the systematic rape, torture, imprisonment and brutality he inflicted on his family?

Because we surely have to question what is the basis for our sense of 'justice': is it about inflicting some comparable suffering on another human being, dependent on how vile was their crime? Surely it cannot be that, or just that: can there ever be restitution of what was lost? Can there ever be suitable recompense? Should it be about revenge or equivalence of the pain caused?

In this instance one does wonder, even with the confession, how much this man comprehended what he was doing as being 'wrong'... The skewed mindset of the rapist, the manipulator, the exploiter, the controller, the brutaliser is potentially one that does not identify the actions as anything other than reasonable - for them - much as the child abuser, which he also was in this case, sees their actions as understandable and appropriate...

The options available as to how we, how society should respond are inevitably limited: of course they are, and that is probably the most valid marker of a civilised society. In some ways, that is kind of the point because to imagine that there is some way of creating a 'reasonable punishment' is in itself problematic. For where would one draw the line? As much as an individual may want revenge, the ultimate revenge for a life taken, destroyed utterly, would surely always be death - but how can the taking of another life obliterate the hole, the emptiness, created by the original damage done?

Swiss Toni mused that even when society finds its own system of punishments inadequate, if it is to remain civilised "what choice does [it] have but to obey its own laws?" To do otherwise would surely lead to extension after extension into ever-more violent responses and punishments, diminishing our own humanity and civility in the process. But events like those currently dominating the news media do lead to uncomfortable feelings and encounters with the personal - and perhaps instinctive - desire for vengeful action. That is why calls for capital punishment are best overruled by parliament, whatever opinion polls may say because as individuals we probably do need protection from our worst instinctive responses to violence and harm. Maybe all we can do is wring our hands and have the internal debate about what can be done about providing 'justice' for the most heinous of crimes.

Such debates, the ability to pose such questions, are surely the best marker of our efforts to maintain belief in humanity regardless of such aberrant examples of inhumanity as this. We have to keep asking in cases like this: Is prison the best place for this man, this father/grandfather? What would any sentence served in such an environment achieve? Would incarceration at a more suitable institution be more appropriate? Can he be 'treated', or merely 'cared for'? Can he be rehabilitated,; should we even try? What would ever be 'enough' as a punishment?

If we cannot keep asking ourselves these difficult questions, then we shall surely have lost sight of the balance between trust and vigilance necessary to retain our society, however unnerving such debates are -- and however impossible defining answers may be.


SwissToni said...

Well said. It's obviously an absolutely appalling case, but it's really got me thinking about what 'justice' there can possibly be for anyone here. 15 years (even for a 73 year old man) doesn't seem enough somehow, and yet what else can we do? Crucially, what else would you want to do? I looked long and hard at that one, and it's not easy, but the instinct to "punish" is one that we should necessarily resist, I think.

Good post.


Miller 2.0 said...

"What is punishment for?"

Self satisfaction.

In my view, real justice is about restoration and prevention/rehabilitation.

JoeinVegas said...

A well thought out post on a complicated subject. I too wonder about the difference between punishment and rehabilitation. If just to prevent repeat actions, why then punish this man at all, as obviously he will not do it again? Somehow I feel punishment must come into criminal activity, not just rehabilitation. People react to negatives as much as to positives, and for some the threat of what might happen is more of a drive than the desire to be better.
But how could the wife have had no clue over 24 years? What of her?