Saturday, August 22, 2009

Compassion and its Consequences

I'm struggling with this.

It's been dominating my thoughts since I heard of it, and I can't stop turning it over in my head.

As I said to my friend in the comments to my last post, I think Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill's release on compassionate grounds of the terminally ill Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi was a good act. It's a brazen act of compassion, one that demands attention.

And I do think there's a difference between compassion and forgiveness. Al-Megrahi hasn't been forgiven, and he won't be. He was returned home in spite of his crimes, not because the slate had been washed clean.

But in practical terms, does it matter? 270 people are dead because of him. They didn't get mercy. Soon, Al-Megrahi will be dead of cancer. Scotland has given him shown him mercy as to where he dies, but no one can change when.

I distrust the concept of "victim's rights," as it is normally applied. It seems to me, in a just society, that the people directly hurt by a crime are the very last people who should decide the punishment. Justice doesn't bring catharsis like revenge does.

But eight years in prison for 270 deaths? Is that justice? I don't think there's any stretch of the imagination that could say that it is. But I wonder: What if the cancer claimed him two days ago? What if he spent the same amount of time in prison, but died there? It's still eight years, but no one would be saying justice wasn't served.

And I think that's the nut of it. On the one side is the good act of letting a sick man return home to die. On the other side is justice -- the need to mete out a proper punishment for his horrible crime.

I think that's why I can't stop thinking about this. Life's not fair, of course -- it's so true it's a cliche. But usually, when justice fails, it falls victim to selfishness, greed, or even expediency. It's a rare thing, I think, to see goodness and justice at odds... and even rarer to see goodness win out.

So which is better, justice or goodness? Which should we strive for, fairness or mercy? As it stands, I'm no closer to finding an answer to that than when I started this essay. But two days ago, before this bold act, I wasn't truly aware of the question.



chrisready said...

I think an argument can be made that there is no contradiction in the matter. He was given justice and then shown compassion by his adjudicators. If anything, this demonstrates that the victim (e.g., Western society) can be better than the perpetrator of the crime

Rob S. said...

I dunno, Chris. I'd like to think that; I hope it's true. But I still think there's a tension there.

I remember a writing class I was in a few years ago. One of the guest speakers gave us this advice: "Don't make your hero choose between good and evil. There's no tension there if he's a good person; it's an easy choice to make. Instead, make him choose between good and good."

bastard central said...

i thought about this for a sec and i realized that this reminded me of a discussion on racial politics i was having with another white guy at a wedding when we were prompty dressed down by an african american guest who was incredulous that two white guys were discussing the nature of racism in america without asking him about it.

that said, i decided to google how some of the victim's families may feel about this.

the point is this.

this isn't about good choosing good over good. and this isn't about western society being better than the perpetrator of the crime.

it's about 270 sets of parents losing their children because some maniac or maniacs successfully blew up a plane and the allegeded orchestrator got put away for it. and for a moment, 270 sets of parents felt they had something that resembled justice.

and now they don't have it.

some goofball did the statistics on this and calculated that this man did 11.11 days time for each victim he was responsible for the death of. 13 minutes if you count his incarceration in 1999.

just saying.

bastard central said...

and there's this item too.

scroll past the whole "boycott britain" part and right to the part where good may have chosen britain's business interests.

Rob S. said...

Of course they're outraged. They have every right to be.

But this decision wasn't about them. And I hope it wasn't about proving some sort of moral superiority. And if, as that article suggests, it's about some sort of economic quid pro quo, that's disgusting.

I thought about doing that math myself when I heard. But if he'd lived another three months in prison and then died, he'd have spent something like 11.3 days for each victim. Would that be better?

Obviously, this was a decision that is causing a lot of innocent people pain, and reopening old wounds. I'm amazed that someone felt so strongly for compassion for a mass murderer to act on it, despite all the valid arguments against it. But I remain convinced that mercy and compassion are among the best impulses of human nature. If this act was indeed motivated by those impulses, I believe it was a good one.

If, however, there are truly other forces at work, it taints the gesture. As a practical matter, it hardly matters. But as a moral one, it only works if the motivation is pure; otherwise it is a travesty.

bastard central said...

if he did serve until his death in prison, at least these people wouldn't have to watch him have a heroes welcome on tv. perhaps at the very least, a heroes funeral but he would have died inside and that may be it's own justice. while it isn't much in the grand scheme it would have been better for the victim's families.

the more i read, the more i think the motivaions were indeed economic. and that is disgusting.

but wait, there's more. coming soon to englewood, nj

Rob S. said...

I was talking with Greg about this this morning, and he summed it up nicely, I thought, calling it, "The least considerate act of compassion ever."