Friday, August 21, 2009

Who deserves to suffer?

An American woman reacting to the release on compassionate grounds of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for playing a role in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 on Dec. 21, 1988, said “He already got his compassionate release when he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of getting the death penalty.”

The implication of the woman's comment—I should perhaps add that she made a point of saying that she was speaking as a Christian—was that being allowed to remain alive was as much compassion as the man deserved. The fact that he is believed to be dying of prostate cancer was not worth taking into consideration. Apparently also irrelevant to this woman is the fact that al-Megrahi was tried and convicted of murder in the United Kingdom, where capital punishment for the crime of murder was formally abolished in 1969 and abolished for all crimes in 1998. There was no possibility of al-Megrahi's being sentenced to die for any crime in the UK, so his being “allowed” to remain alive was not a question of compassionately releasing him from a punishment that under law he deserved. Rather, it was a question of applying the law of the land.

Megyn Kelly co-host of America's Newsroom on Fox News, may have been unaware of the law of the land in the United Kingdom when she said words to the effect that while the Scottish courts seem to favor compassion, Americans are more interested in the rule of law. In fact, the Scottish court demonstrated that it was quite interested in the rule of law, for the custom in Scotland has been to release terminally ill prisoners so that they can spend their last days with their families. It turns out that in the United Kingdom, the rule of law is not incompatible with compassion. The law itself has provision for the judicious exercise of compassion.

American law, of course, is not entirely devoid of compassion. In contrast to all other industrialized nations, however, there is more a culture of punishment than of rehabilitation. Not only is the duration of imprisonment in the United States longer than in Canada or Europe, but it has increased. It rose by 83% in the 1990s. That trend may be reversed as a result of fiscal difficulties in many states. Already there has been a serious cutback in California in allocations for programs to educate prisoners and teach them trades. These programs, which could reduce the likelihood of recidivism (now more than 70%), are proving too expensive to maintain in the short run. The long-term costs of cutting those programs, along with the pressure to release prisoners from severely overcrowded prisons without their having the benefit of being in facilities that could rehabilitate them, could be very high indeed.

Why are sentences in the United States so long? Why is the prevailing philosophy to throw people in prison and throw the key away? A web site dedicated to the so-called Three Strikes Law explains that the 1994 California law that mandates giving a minimum prison term of 25 years to a person convicted of a third felonious offense grew out of a conviction that some people are simply not responsive to being imprisoned. While it might seem strange to increase the time in prison of people do not benefit from imprisonment, the principal rationale for doing so was that society is made safer by keeping dangerous people in a place where they cannot commit more crimes. Experience has shown that such people often do continue to commit more crimes; it's just that their victims are other prisoners rather than people on the outside. The reasoning seems to be that people already in prison may somehow deserve to be victims of crime more than other people.

That people allow themselves to ask the question of who “deserves” to be a victim of violence or unpleasant treatment is alarming. Once the question is even asked, people can be drawn into thinking that it somehow makes sense to allow other sentient beings to suffer. Animals can be allowed to suffer, some might argue, because they are allegedly not intelligent, and besides they are useful for food and clothing. Poor people can be allowed to suffer, some might argue, because they do not work hard enough to get out of poverty. Jews and gypsies and homosexuals can be allowed to suffer, many Europeans did argue not so long ago, because they make no useful contributions to society. Immigrants can be allowed to suffer, many now argue, because they have not taken the right steps to become citizens, and even if they have, they may not understand our culture.

I do not understand our culture, especially that aspect of our culture that tolerates the suffering of prisoners, illegal immigrants, newly arrived legal immigrants, people living in countries against which we wage declared and undeclared wars. This aspect of American culture–human culture–is repugnant to me.

There is an alternative to the culture of punishment and allowing the suffering of those who allegedly deserve it. For the past several days I have been recalling a speech in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice that my ninth-grade English teacher made the class memorize some fifty years ago. That teacher died about forty years ago, but I hope there are many of her former students who still remember at least the opening lines of the lines we were made to memorize. We need those words.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

In closing I express my heartfelt condolences to all those who lost loved ones on Pan Am flight 103. I also wish the best for the man convicted of their murder. May all the tormented souls connected with that tragic incident find peace of mind before they go the way of all flesh.